What can I expect in a science class at St. Mary’s?

St. Mary’s professors are dedicated to providing students with the most dynamic, engaging, and fulfilling educational experience possible.  We’re here because we love to teach, and the small class sizes at St. Mary’s allow us to teach in ways that just aren’t possible in larger environments.  We love it and know you will too, but to give you an idea of what we mean we’ve described below how we teach some of our classes.

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Sample Courses


In the introductory biology courses, students at St. Mary’s University learn the fundamental concepts in a wide spectrum of biological disciplines, ranging from biomolecules to the biosphere. In these classes, students are inspired and engaged with learner-centred and feedback loop (just-in-time) teaching and learning strategies. At the end of the learning period, students have opportunities to present/teach their knowledge to groups of junior/senior high students in creative manners. As shown in the accompanying photo, St. Mary’s students presented their diversity projects to a group of Rundle College grade 9 students in the Fall of 2016. The topics presented included genetic disorders and environmental/climate issues, among others. As a result, the first-year biology students at St. Mary’s University are able to enhance their retention and application of the biological concepts learned in class through interacting with interested secondary school students.


Ecology is about the world around us. With Fish Creek Provincial Park just down the hill from campus, students spend several labs outside doing real-world ecology. Among other labs, we gather human demographic data in a large local cemetery, we sample engineered wetlands in Fish Creek Park to understand the chemical, microbial and invertebrate changes as storm water is cleaned before it enters Fish Creek, and we conduct a feeding experiment to determine whether seed type or location of feeder is more important to songbirds. Come outside with us!

Learn more about Dr. Mary Ann McLean – Associate Professor, Biology


There’s just no substitute for being there! In Calgary we are 1000 km from the nearest ocean but that’s no reason why we can’t study marine biology. Every 2 years (alternating with a trip to Belize) Marine Biology is offered and we spend most of spring break at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island. We spend January and the beginning of February familiarizing ourselves with the environments and organisms that we’ll be seeing on the coast. While at Bamfield, we do workshops on identification of algae and invertebrates in preparation for conducting a study of the physical, chemical and biodiversity of two different beaches. A challenging aspect of this is to wrestle with a very large dataset, see the patterns in it and explain connections between the physical and biological data.

Learn more about Dr. Mary Ann McLean – Associate Professor, Biology


One of the great things about our biology courses is that in many labs, you get a chance to do open-ended, “real” experiments. These are the kinds of experiments scientists actually do – experiments where you explore something unknown that you don’t know the answer to. For example, in mycology we have conducted experiments to find out how fast & how well different fungi decompose various types of organic materials. Some of the results were: the stinkiest were decomposing cheese & processed meat, and paper cups didn’t decompose nearly as well as various coffee companies would have you believe, and there was no significant difference between those from different companies. Face it, fungi are pretty cool!

Learn more about Dr. Mary Ann McLean – Associate Professor, Biology

img_2678-2 Ecology is primarily a science involving observing a pattern in nature, then figuring out which process (es) most accurately explain that pattern. In Advanced Ecology, students read the primary literature to see examples of classic ecological studies but also to take the ideas in these papers and apply them to the world around them. Obviously, there is a limited number of patterns and processes observable in the classroom or even in a laboratory setting. That is why a majority of the student’s time in the course is spent outdoors, where these patterns and processes are readily observed. Students in this course use Fish Creek Provincial Park almost every week to collect real data that can then be analyzed. In the Fall 2015, students measured the biodiversity of insects within the park, measured lichen diversity and abundance to determine if pollution was a problem in the park, and kept a journal noting observations in natural areas, and what processes we had discussed in class could explain them. However, what the students seemed to enjoy the most, and likely got the most of, was a weekend field trip to Kananaskis Country in mid-October. During the two days excursion, we discussed and observed major ecological ideas such as: Are beavers good or bad for an ecosystem?; Why are the golden eagles migrating from their breeding grounds in Alberta to the middle of the U.S.?; Why does the pika (a small mammal, related to a rabbit) not need to hibernate and what impact is climate change likely to have on these small mountain dwelling creatures? Additionally, students learned how to identify common animals and plants we encountered over the weekend, and learned how to trap small mammals.

Learn more about Dr. Scott Lovell – Assistant Professor, Biology

In conservation we discuss local, national & global conservation issues while our students get a chance to work with a local conservation organization. These service learning opportunities are a great chance to get to know what fascinating things are being done in conservation, but also allow students to develop networking, computer, interpersonal & experimental protocol skills. Each week, students reflect on their service learning experience to increase their awareness of themselves as learners. Some of the projects this year include developing an ad campaign to interest generation Y & Z in conservation, designing an experiment to determine whether painting or wrapping trees in wire mesh deters beavers better, analysing a large data set on riparian health of ranches, developing a way to reduce observer bias in assessing native fescue abundance, and summarizing & synthesizing information to improve regulations on ATVs.

lisa-granttree-friends-1-2 Zoee Fenelon & Danika Schramm have been working with CPAWS to develop teaching materials for elementary school teachers. “We have really enjoyed being creative and coming up with fun activities for elementary school kids to learn about trees.”

Lisa Grant is working in Weaselhead, comparing plots of native fescue grass and recording the size and health of individual fescue clumps. The purpose of this project is to find a better data collection method which helps to reduce the amount of research bias in the data.

Learn more about Dr. Mary Ann McLean – Associate Professor, Biology

science1 Introductory organic chemistry is one of the most difficult courses for undergraduate science students. In a typical lecture theatre environment students learn the basics of organic chemistry, but are then required to undertake the far more difficult task of applying those concepts to various problems on their own. At St. Mary’s we do the opposite: students are provided with ample resources to learn the relatively easy facts and concepts of organic chemistry on their own, then spend valuable class time working in small groups on the difficult applications. Not only is this a far more dynamic, interesting, and effective way of learning organic chemistry, it also allows the instructor to identify and correct common problems and misconceptions that would normally have gone unnoticed until exam time. Most importantly, students love this format and enjoy being challenged and actively engaged in their learning. It is just one example of what we mean when we talk about the advantages of small class sizes at St. Mary’s.

Learn more about Dr. Matthew Clay – Chair, Natural and Mathematical Sciences.