Soil scientist Dr. Tom Yates (PhD) of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources has earned this spring’s Master Teacher Award at the University of Saskatchewan. (Photo: Laura Zink)

Yates masters the art of teaching soil science

For Dr. Tom Yates (PhD), experiential learning and learning from mistakes are important parts of his teaching method.

“Students doing real things and learning from mistakes made in authentic experiences,” said Yates. “I want to give them that opportunity. That’s what excites me as a teacher.”

For his masterful approach to teaching, Yates, a professor of soil science in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, has been selected as the recipient of the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Spring 2020 Master Teacher Award.

Yates teaches courses in the Renewable Resource Management program in the college, all which have a strong experiential learning component.

“Experiential learning under-pins my philosophy, and I find ways for students to reflect on what they did wrong and give them the opportunity to come up with a successful strategy for which they get credit,” he said. “Learning comes best from making mistakes.”

Yates’ relationship with the university began in 1982 as an undergraduate student, going on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and his PhD at USask.

“I have left only to come back in a different capacity several times,” he said. “The university just could not get rid of me.”

A faculty member since 2008, Yates has found learning how to teach to be “a personal exploration and the methods we develop are a unique expression of who we are, how we were taught, and the nature of the area we teach in.”

“I consider my role to be the ‘guide on the side.’ However, I take the ‘sage on the stage’ role when necessary—and it is usually necessary at some point in a course. I am trying to incorporate into my teaching more mulligans or do-overs and use these opportunities as teaching moments.”

“Some students do not go out of their way to interact, others only interact when they want help answering a question, and there are those students who want to discuss course material in ways that goes farther than the current assignment. Students usually have insightful comments, but sometimes need help finding the right way to express them. I try to act as a medium for reflection on the course material.”

While the award came as a surprise for Yates, it would not have to his colleagues and students.

“Tom cares about his students on a personal level as well as about their learning,” said Dr. Ken Van Rees (PhD), head of the Department of Soil Science. “The investment he makes in their lives has made the Renewable Resource Management program a huge success.”

“USask has many excellent teachers, and any one of them is worthy of this award,” said Yates. “Having the support of an amazing department and mentorship from high-performing teachers like Dr. Ken Van Rees (PhD), Dr. Fran Walley (PhD) and Dr. Jay Wilson (EdD), did make me think that if I kept working hard I might see such a recognition.

“For me, the best moments are when I am standing in a classroom or at a field-course site, surrounded by students. They are not listening to or looking at me. They are talking and listening to each other, discussing a soil characteristic, or the landscape around them. They have forgotten that I am even there.”

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