What Makes our Educators Outstanding?
At U of T Engineering, we value teaching excellence and have a long history of it. The Engineering Newsletter
conducted a Q&A with four outstanding educators to learn more about the lessons they try to instil and how they measure success.
Professor Jim WallaceProfessor Jim Wallace
(MIE) was the recent recipient of the President’s Teaching Award, U of
T’s highest honour for teaching. Professor Wallace was also honoured
with the Faculty Teaching Award in 2011. He has enjoyed a stellar
reputation for teaching among students and colleagues, having
spearheaded innovative courses and programs as Chair of the Department
of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering from 1998-2003.
You've been honoured with the Faculty Teaching Award, as well as the President's Teaching Award. What do these awards mean to you?
It was great to receive these awards. Each is a very tangible recognition of the time and effort invested in teaching. Moreover, the very existence of these awards is a wonderful affirmation that teaching is important at the University of Toronto.
How do you measure the success of your teaching? What lessons do you try to instil in your students?
I want them to be able to think for themselves. In the engineering profession, it isn’t just a question of simply solving problems set out for you; in many cases, you don’t even know what the questions are at the beginning of a project. So, I tried to provide lots of context in questions and assignments so that the students have to make decisions about how to proceed and what information is needed.What is the secret to great teaching?
Organization and preparation each play a role, but a key aspect is that the students know that you are fully engaged in helping them learn.How would you describe your teaching experience so far? What have been the highlights of your teaching career?
For the most part, it has been quite enjoyable. Moving [the course] MIE 515 to online delivery is a highlight, although it is still very much a work in progress. I like the challenge of trying a new approach.
Professor Jonathan RoseProfessor Jonathan Rose
(ECE) is the recipient of this year’s Faculty Teaching Award. For
almost 25 years, Professor Rose has been one of U of T Engineering's most
dedicated and effective teachers. He’s particularly known for his
emphasis on the teaching of design and his long record of innovation in
labs and design courses. He is extremely popular with students and is
highly-sought after as a supervisor and mentor. Professor Rose has
received the departmental teaching award four times and continually
receives some of the highest student evaluation scores in the Faculty.How do you measure the success of your teaching? What lessons do you try to instil in your students?
Asking how to go about measuring success is a great question – I always asked it of junior faculty when I was Chair of ECE. For me, during a lecture, the most immediate feedback is in the eyes of the students. If they are taking it in, you can see it in their eyes, because they're looking at you and listening.
If there is a dull sheen on their eyes, then attention has been lost, and it is time to shake things up. After that, my most favourite way is to see if students have been inspired to work with the material by using it in projects – in the lab and hopefully in a project of their own devising.
One key lesson I like to instil is to seek the courage to ask questions – it is always scary to risk embarrassment asking questions in front of a big group of peers, and it does take courage to ask. Conquering that fear, which begins with admitting to yourself that you don't understand something, is a key lifelong lesson.
The other key lesson is that engineers learn by doing – that's why labs are so important.How would you describe your teaching experience so far? What have been the highlights of your teaching career?
Three highlights came to mind right away.
Watching people over the years using the LEGO-based labs that I spearheaded back in the early 90s, with the help of Fred Aulich
, a lab tech in ECE. With LEGO, people can build anything, and they do and have – a scanner, a Rubik-cube solver, a balancing robot, lots of things! Here is a really cool lab
that Professor Andreas Moshovos
(ECE) made with the LEGO.
Somewhat related is the structure and success of the project in ECE 241 (Digital Systems), a course I taught until 2008. In that course, we try to convince students that they can do a really neat project by showing them videos of last year's student projects. It is convincing for many; even those who try and don't get too far learn what engineering is about.
And, when I was ECE Chair, the first time I held a 'good teachers' lunch,' in which each of the top teachers in my department described what 'special sauce' they brought to their class. Hearing about what people did was inspiring, and having the conversation felt like one of the most right things I ever did as Chair.You've helped shape the entrepreneurship culture at U of T Engineering. Tell us about the benefits of educating future engineers about entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is the engine of the economy, and so it is important. In Canada/Ontario/Toronto, we have everything needed for successful entrepreneurs – great education, great people from the world, stability and funding. We just need to have more people trying. The Entrepreneurship Lecture Series brings people in to tell the stories of their companies, and through that storytelling and interaction, I think others will come to believe that a company is possible.
In some years, I have also given a mini-entrepreneurship discussion in the five minutes before the class begins, with the same goal – to have students believe that it is possible, by asking questions about ideas for companies, funding, working with people and strategies. The new Engineering Business minor has full courses in these subjects, and they give students the language and concepts of business so that they can participate in all major decisions in a company's life, not simply the technical side. As Professor Doug Reeve
(ChemE) says, well-educated engineers, in leadership and business, can be good at running things – companies and countries.What difference do you hope to make in the next few years at U of T Engineering, in terms of teaching and initiatives?
One thing that I'm finding very exciting is my graduate course, Creative Applications for Mobile Devices
, which is open to all graduate students. We've had some very exciting apps over the two years I've taught it – from physiotherapy apps, nursing, surgery, to walking measurement, driving measurement to carpooling. The mobile phone/computer is a place where the creativity from many disciplines can meet, and my hope is to develop new methods of interaction between the disciplines through this medium in the next few years.
Professor Susan McCahanProfessor Susan McCahan
(MIE), Vice-Dean, Undergraduate, has worked extensively in faculty
development and student learning. Over the years, Professor McCahan has
received several honours and awards for her dedication to teaching and
engineering excellence. In 2009, she was honoured with the Engineers
Canada Medal of Distinction in Engineering Education for her
contributions to the engineering profession and Canadian society. In
2007, Professor McCahan was the recipient of a 3M National Fellowship
Teaching Award as well as U of T’s President’s Teaching Award.How do you measure the success of your teaching?
I believe my teaching is successful when my students are able to demonstrate learning as a result of the experience they have had in my course. To demonstrate learning is to demonstrate a change in capability; for example, what a person is capable of doing, in an authentic context. It includes the demonstrated ability to explain one’s own understanding and thought processes utilized to justify an action, problem, solution or conclusion. And it includes a demonstrated valuing of the new capability and understanding of the value it holds in the student’s work in the future. You've taught courses and led workshops on the topic of teaching. What fundamental lessons are you sharing with your fellow faculty members?
My courses and workshops tend to focus on practical strategies for effective teaching. Fundamentally, underlying this practical approach is the belief that we need to re-orient our thinking, from what we teach, to what our students learn. Knowledge base is important, but learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge. Increasingly, the value of learning is in what a person can do with knowledge; the creative and critical thinking processes that turn knowledge into effective solutions to problems. How will the Faculty's new course evaluation system provide informative feedback to improve teaching?
The new course evaluation system is a valid and reliable instrument for evaluating the effectiveness of a learning experience from the students' perspective. The questions are designed to provide formative feedback to the instructor for the purpose of improving the design and delivery of the learning experience. The system will be under development this year, and we expect to have it implemented in the Faculty next year. What is the status of our Faculty aligning with the CEAB Graduate Attributes? How will it benefit our students and our teaching?
Our Faculty began working on the development of a robust and sustainable process in 2010
under the leadership of [former Vice-Dean, Undergraduate] Professor Grant Allen
(ChemE). The Graduate Attribute system, as specified by CEAB, requires that we develop an evidence-based approach to continuous curriculum improvement. This means gathering information on the learning outcomes our students demonstrate and using this data to inform changes in our curriculum.
To date, the Faculty Graduate Attribute Committee has developed a set of learning outcomes and indicators that align with the CEAB Graduate Attributes. The departments have already begun to deploy these tools to evaluate student learning and gather data. In the coming years, this will become a regular annual activity. How would you describe your teaching experience so far? What have been the highlights of your teaching career?
I enjoy interacting with the people I teach and the people I teach with. I currently teach a large first-year course (with about 40 other people), a grad course and a course on teaching for professors; the participants in my courses range from [ages] 16 to 60. The perspectives they bring to the classroom, and the conversations we have, are often wonderful and add continuously to my own learning. It is also always gratifying to hear from a former student (or professor who took my teaching course) that they have very successfully put what they learned into practice.
Lecturer Micah StickelDr. Micah Stickel (ECE)
was recognized at the Celebrating Engineering Excellence reception with
the Early Career Teaching Award. Stickel is also the recipient of three
departmental teaching awards – an especially impressive feat as he
joined the Faculty in only 2007. He is known as an innovator in the
classroom, incorporating tablets into his lectures and creating online
assignments and quizzes. In addition, he is also engaged in scholarly
work to quantify the impact of new technologies in teaching, publishing
three papers on the subject.
How do you measure the success of your teaching? What lessons do you try to instil in your students?
I consider my teaching successful if my students become strongly engaged with the course material and interested in how it is relevant to their program and the world around them. I am, of course, also hopeful that they develop a degree of mastery with the essential objectives of the course.
In addition to the technical lessons, I try to help my students experience some larger lessons along the way. I try to highlight how they can be of tremendous benefit to society as a whole through the process of engineering and design. What is the secret to great teaching?
I think there are a couple of very key aspects to all great teaching. First and foremost, the students must know that you genuinely care about their success and that you will do all that you can to help them.
This, coupled with a vibrant enthusiasm for the course material, can provide the encouragement needed for students to put the necessary work into their learning. Another extremely important aspect of great teaching is thorough preparation, both at the course and lecture levels. If the course is well organized, then all the individual components can be carefully integrated into the overall objectives for the course. As well, being well-prepared for one’s lectures enables the fluidity of the classroom environment which is so important for strong student engagement.How would you describe your teaching experience so far? What have been the highlights of your teaching career?
I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my teaching career thus far. The opportunity to be creative in the teaching process and course design has been extremely rewarding. The challenges, while perhaps somewhat disconcerting at times, has given me a chance to pause, reflect and assess how things could go more smoothly in the future.
There have been many highlights, but a few notable experiences are the times in which students who struggled, make big breakthroughs or all of a sudden see how things fit together and end up becoming really interested in those concepts or ideas.
As well, seeing the progression of some of the fourth-year design projects that I have supervised over the years from the conception of an idea, to the final working product, has been very exciting.
Finally, I have had a number of opportunities through workshops, meetings, lunches and conferences to meet with colleagues and discuss engineering education. Hearing about their successes, failures and ideas of future innovations has been most inspiring.Have there been teachers (from when you were a student to now) that have inspired your teaching? How?
As an undergraduate student, I had the privilege to be taught by the late Professor Doug Lavers
(ECE). He had the ability to make a very challenging course clear, as he was very precise with his presentation. You could tell that he put great effort into his lectures and had carefully thought out all aspects of the words he spoke and what he wrote on the board. He was also very approachable, down to earth, and he helped me on a number of occasions. I am now teaching the course that he taught me – and to this day, I attempt to live up to his brevity and clarity in how I teach this material.
As a developing teacher I have also been greatly influenced by Professor Susan McCahan. Through her course, "The Fundamentals of University Teaching," which I highly recommend, she opened my eyes to the grand world of educational thought and research-based practice. As a graduate student I had very little exposure to these fundamentals, so I was very appreciative of her efforts to highlight some of the most important aspects of high-quality teaching.What difference do you hope to make in the next few years at U of T Engineering?
Over the next few years, I hope to continue to improve how I use my time with students and how I manage and create the learning experiences within my courses.
Next year, I’ll be piloting a new approach to teaching based on the "inverted classroom" model. In this model, what would normally be done in class, such as lecturing, is done outside of class through short lecture videos. Then, what is normally done outside of class, such as active engagement with the material through problem solving, will be done in class, thus, the "inverted classroom."
The hope is that by moving some of the basic introductory talk out of the classroom, we will have more time to work with, reflect upon, and process the new material.