The Ellis effect: Dr. Faron Ellis and the Citizen Society research lab

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Formal social science research methods classes don’t typically have students bubbling with excitement. But for those who have sat in Dr. Faron Ellis’ classroom, they say it’s inevitable.

The brain behind the Citizen Society Research Lab and recipient of two teaching excellence awards, Ellis doesn’t give off the impression of a stuffy academic. His gravelly drawl and clear explanations of complex theories are just part of what make him so approachable to the minds he inspires on a daily basis.

For second-year General Studies student Mallory Kristjanson, the “Ellis effect” has been life changing. Being a single mother and starting school when her own mother was diagnosed with cancer was a challenging time to return to her academic pursuits. The honours student says she has completely changed her career path due to a hidden passion for local government and politics, something she says Ellis ignited within her.

“To be excited to go into a social sciences research class with absolutely no statistics background, for me it was empowering,” says Kristjanson. “His enthusiasm for teaching and enthusiasm for research and politics is contagious.”

After graduating from Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, Ellis worked as an apprentice motor mechanic at the family’s automotive business. He then enrolled at the University of Calgary to complete his undergraduate degree in political science before earning a master’s degree at Carleton University in Ottawa and a doctorate from the University of Calgary.

Along the way, he started to make a name for himself in the Alberta political landscape with the Reform Party. Prior to his doctoral studies, a friend approached Ellis about getting some help with a university course and Ellis suggested surveying delegates attending a Reform Party convention in Red Deer. After having shared copies of the questionnaire with some of his old professors in Calgary, the chair of the political science department, Roger Gibbins, called Ellis.

“Gibbins said ‘it’s too bad you’re already in a PhD program because I was going to ask if you’d apply to ours,’ to which I replied ‘I’m not in a PhD program,’” laughs Ellis. “Well, Gibbons said ‘why are doing this survey?’ I said, ‘to help out a buddy and for recreation.’” Gibbins thought anyone conducting political surveys for recreational purposes would make a good PhD student and Ellis returned to the U of C.

In 1995, Ellis headed back to Lethbridge for a temporary teaching position at the University of Lethbridge where he met the love of his life, Leanne, who still works there today. A year later, Ellis’ sister alerted him to a part-time teaching opportunity at Lethbridge College, and he recalls that everyone at his interview, including himself, agreed that this would be another temporary appointment.

But by the next academic year, Ellis had a permanent faculty position and had introduced polling projects in several of his classes. Today, the Citizen Society Research Lab (CSRL) has trained over 2,400 students, engaged 15 faculty members and released over 150 reports of their public opinion analysis.

“The CSRL is a unique program that offers affordable, high-quality market data used by industry and community organizations alike, to make evidence-based decisions,” says Gina Funicelli, Dean of the Centre of Applied Research and Innovation. “In one case, the research provided by the CSRL led directly to an investment of $2 million and the creation of 50 jobs as part of an innovative restaurant venture in Lethbridge.”

Edith Olson, interim co-Dean of Applied Arts and Sciences, adds: “Students participate from all corners of our campus, including justice studies, health and psychology.

Faron’s courses provide unique experiential learning opportunities for students to acquire new skills and apply them immediately in practical ways during the course of their studies at the college.”

The opportunity to be part of the CSRL is an experience that stays with students long after they graduate. As the Chief Administrative Officer for the town of Coaldale, Kalen Hastings (General Studies 2007) has experienced first-hand how local government operates and says the “Ellis effect” has been profound for him and shaped his academic life.

“He taught me to think critically and to write coherently, objectively and succinctly,” says Hastings. “Dr. Ellis’ enthusiasm and encouragement did wonders for my selfconfidence and future scholastic outlook.”

Both Hastings and Kristjanson agree that Ellis’ passion for teaching is contagious, and his animation and his willingness to see his students succeed is almost tangible.

It’s that passion that has helped Ellis win a second Lethbridge College Students’ Association/Faculty Association Teaching Excellence Award in April and the CSRL win a Colleges and Institutes Canada bronze medal in Innovation in Applied Research Excellence Award in May.

“This national award showcases the extraordinary contribution of individuals and programs to our college community – and, by extension, highlights the role of the college in social, cultural and economic development,” says Lethbridge College President and CEO Dr. Paula Burns. “Dr. Ellis and his team have pioneered the college’s pursuit of applied research opportunities and, by extension, have helped promote Lethbridge College to a national platform.”

When considering his accomplishments with Lethbridge College, Ellis says it comes back to the students. “We’re giving students, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity, a chance to discover themselves and the learning that they’re capable of,” he says.

This summer Ellis undertook a new role as research chair at the CSRL. He says that although retirement is still a few years down the road, seeing the work continue after he’s walked the halls of the Instructional building for the last time is a priority.

“The goal is to build a research lab meaningful enough to the college and its future students that they see value in continuing its work,” smiles Ellis. “If you’re going to build something sustainable, it should be sustainable independent of any single person’s efforts. Then maybe we’ve created something.”

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