At U of T Engineering, you’ll quickly discover that your professors are passionate about their subject and passionate about teaching it.
Engineering is one of the smallest and most open learning environments within U of T. The result is the best of both worlds for you – a small college atmosphere within a large, globally oriented university. Beyond the classroom and the lab, students and professors share ideas at events like UnERD, a one-day symposium where undergraduates showcase their summer research and professors judge the results. In the common rooms of each U of T Engineering department, professors and students mingle informally and talk about their projects. The focus here is on collaborative education.
To encourage excellence in teaching, we offer many teaching awards and honours. You can expect to learn from global leaders who are helping shape their disciplines. Working together, students and professors regularly produce big ideas and cutting-edge discoveries that grab worldwide attention. A great teacher can inspire a student for a lifetime.
An interview with Professor Grant Allen
For Professor Grant Allen, teaching is a top priority. A distinguished researcher with an international profile in bioprocess engineering, he’s also Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, and has won his department’s prestigious Professor of the Year Award.
How does Engineering engage first-year students?
We do design right from the start, in year one. We pioneered a first-year design course, Engineering Strategies & Practice, that’s won awards. In that course, we introduce basic concepts of design even before students know much about the engineering discipline. But the elements of engineering design can apply to things that are relatively simple. The focus is on active problem-solving. In every program in the final year students do a capstone design project, that’s the culmination. Design is throughout the curriculum.
How does U of T Engineering create an open learning environment?
We make every effort to draw students into discussion. We emphasize approachability in class. I bring props into class to demonstrate how a baseball curves, for example; we use interactive learning and try to use humour. There’s a real desire among faculty to show students they care. Most professors are passionate about their material and passionate about teaching it. To become a professor, you need to have that drive to be very interested in your subject matter, and want to advance it through research. You also have to want to train the next generation. Professors care a great deal about the importance of their discipline and engaging other people in that. They’re very proud of their students’ accomplishments.
U of T Engineering students always say they are a close-knit group. How does the classroom experience contribute to that?
If you’re in a science or arts program where there are lots of different classes, you don’t always see the same people. Whereas here, our students tend to march through their classes together. That makes a real difference in terms of cohesion both of the class itself and your relationship to your professors. It generates more of a community. Each class tends to develop a personality. I’m the chair of Chemical Engineering and I teach all of our students, every single one of them. I get to know them all.
Does class size impact learning?
It’s important to realize that classes of 500 or 700 students exist in every university. Most universities do that in their big courses, like first-year math, where tons of students have to take it. In Engineering, for our first-year calculus course the class size is about a hundred students. We don’t teach it to 800 students; we teach it to eight sections of 100 students. Engineering is different in that it does have smaller class sizes in general. In first year, the typical class size is 100.
Why is the Engineering Strategies & Practice course taught in a large class?
It’s about trade-offs. We have certain professors with the right expertise -– in design, for example. Professor Mark Kortschot, who teaches that class, has designed a really cool skateboard that’s being sold in the market. We can’t have Professor Kortschot speak to eight different sections — that’s all he’d have time to do. Then he wouldn’t actually be involved in designing the next cool thing. The alternative to that would be to find seven other people to speak in different sections. These people would likely not have the same kind of expertise as Professor Kortschot; teaching design is a much rarer expertise level than calculus. You want someone who can speak with authority on design, who knows and lives the subject, not just someone who’s reading from a textbook. And so the class is large so everyone can benefit from Professor Kortschot’s expertise. Then, after that large class, the students break into groups of six with a seminar leader. Each team works on a design project that solves actual problems for community groups.
It’s natural for first-year students to feel somewhat intimidated by their professors. How do you overcome that?
We make a strong effort to break that barrier down, particularly through activities outside of class. It takes effort to get to know the professors, and for some students, it’s harder. We have events outside class where professors are interacting with their students. When we go to conferences, a number of students will come along. We have office hours after class. Many of our clubs have a professor advisor. During Frosh Week each year, we have a faculty fun day where we play video games with the students; I’ve run a Beatles rock band video game and Dance Dance Revolution. Some other professors play soccer with the students. We have a huge number of students who work over the summer with their professors and get paid. We also have lots of social events. For instance, once a year, we have a massive departmental dinner where we invite alumni, students and professors. So there’s a lot of opportunity for students to get to know professors.
Are U of T Engineering programs tough?
You want people to say to you when you graduate: “U of T. That’s a good degree.” It means you’ve come through a good process. You want to be a graduate from a university that’s known for high expectations and helping you achieve them. We admit students who we’re very confident can graduate. I’ve heard our Dean, Professor Cristina Amon, say many times to first-year classes: “Yes, you’re going to have to work hard. We’re going to push you. But you deserve to be here and you can make it through.” For the most part, the students who don’t make it are the ones who decide that engineering isn’t right for them. Over the whole four years, less than 20 per cent leave. I think that statistic tells you there is no massive weeding out. In the end, what matters is that our professors care about the students and the students know that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.