It’s so easy – welcome to a new kind of (blackboard) jungle. Ditch the textbooks for an unconventional classroom. There are plenty of unique and interactive classes that could be paradise city for would-be students, without the need for prerequisites or endless cups of caffeine to get you through.
Photography by Curtis Trent
Sheena Haug is running at full speed towards the middle of the room, vying for a small knife that several of her classmates, ranging in age from eight years old to forty-eight, are also trying to grab. At the back of the room, class members stretch as though it’s a hatha yoga session. But then they unzip their bags and reveal several long swords, heavy gloves and shields – as if setting up a scene straight out of Game of Thrones.
The Academy of European Swordsmanship holds classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings along with workshops, tournaments and other events throughout the year. Students learn to use techniques and weapons that date back to the 14th century. But instructor Johanus Haidner is adamant that he doesn’t teach stage fighting that simply depicts how things were done centuries before; his academy focuses on the modern day applications for self-defence.
“Stage fighting looks really cool and it’s flashy, but it’s not practical … because you want to entertain an audience. This is just ‘I want to protect myself without getting hurt,'” says Haidner.
For Haug, there is also an intellectual appeal to the class as the academy has a curriculum system with four levels. Students can write essays or complete other scholarly projects at some levels on topics of their choosing related to the sport. She’s looking forward to researching the role of women in western martial arts as she advances with the classes.
Over the last few months, Lynn Wannop has spent countless hours in her restaurant’s kitchen baking 20 loaves of bread every two days for sandwiches and toast. Wannop owns Coco’s Cafe in Jasper, and this year she took NAIT’s BAKG 205 class which focuses on making artisan breads. Over one 12-hour period she learned from seasoned professional Alan Dumonceaux about how to make bread with an understanding of the formulations and chemistry behind baking.
Dumonceaux says that restaurant owners will take his class, but there are always beginners as well. “On the first day, I sort of throw a caveat out to students that some of the language I’m going to use might seem overwhelming. But I just keep repeating many of the same messages to allow it to sink in.”
Dumonceaux has been teaching for 16 years at NAIT and has competed in the World Cup of Baking in Paris, which is basically the Olympics of the art. He’s travelled extensively through France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium learning his trade. And after a visit to the Sourdough Museum in Belgium, he secured a spot for NAIT’s sourdough at the museum – the first time any Canadian bread has been featured.
One of Dumonceaux’s goals is to train student’s palates so that they can identify real artisan bread through taste, colour and texture. He also invites students to bring in a home recipe, and he can determine through baker’s percentages if the amount of any of the ingredients could be adjusted. Then, students can dive in and learn the art of crafting sourdough, a fougasse bread, a loaf of ciabatta, among others, while learning the science behind fermentation and gluten.
Shawn Cunningham can relate to the idea of following an ancient profession into the modern day. As a blacksmith, people have been telling Cunningham his profession is dying ever since 1992 when he started Front Step Forge. But Cunningham’s seen nothing but growth and interest in his work,
Hammers, tongs and other specialized tools hang from the walls of his workshop while intricate chandeliers swing from the ceiling. Cunningham sells his work across Canada, the northern United States, Australia and Asia. He crafted a pair of keys that Queen Elizabeth II presented at the Royal Alberta Museum’s rededication ceremony in 2005 and created a longsword commissioned by BioWare as the real life incarnation of the one featured in their video game Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Cunningham likes sharing his knowledge, and does so through workshops offered at NAIT. For beginners, Iron 101 is a class that jam-packs a dizzying array of information into 18 hours, including hands-on time for making three blacksmith tools. “Each step is progressive, each builds on the last using the same set of skills in addition to new skills. And the tools they create are used to make the next tool.” Every year the classes sell out with students from ages 16 to 88 signing up.
Marc Gauvin took the course at the beginning of 2017 and is already thinking about how he can pass on the skills he learned to the students he teaches at Breton High School. His goal is to eventually host an after-school blacksmithing workshop. “I really want them to get the idea that they can make whatever they want – that they are not limited by anything. There are times when you’re working and the tools you have aren’t quite right, and now, you can make it,” says Gauvin.
People are instinctively curious about dinosaurs, says paleontologist Scott Persons, which is why he wasn’t surprised when the online courses he helped create at the University of Alberta were wildly successful, with over 30,000 students logging in from all over the world.
Four of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) include a beginner’s introduction to dinosaurs and courses about ancient marine reptiles, early vertebrate evolution and the origin of birds. The free non-credit versions of the online classes incorporate quizzes and other interactive activities with lectures by Persons and renowned paleontologist Philip Currie.
“The U of A is a major hotbed of paleontological research. If you want to learn about dinosaurs and the fossil record and the big evolutionary transition, we are the place to go,” Parsons says.
Over 85 per cent of learners are not full-time students of the U of A, and at least 11 per cent of the MOOC learners enrolled in the science courses are over 65. But many young people are also showing interest – last year, Finn McKeller, a 12-year-old Scottish boy was in the media for finishing Dino 101 by himself.
People learn far more from the classes than just obscure details. Persons believes paleontology is a gateway science that propels learners to want to explore more in other scientific areas.
“We cover natural selection, we cover continental drift, we cover climate change, we cover major evolutionary transitions, we talked about ecological interactions, we talk about geology and the age of the earth – all of that in the context of talking about dinosaurs,” says Persons.
This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.