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Class acts take the prizes
When the Governor General, the Supreme Court justice, the former chancellor and the famous organist all received honorary degrees at fall convocation last week, they shared the spotlight with four pedagogues who consistently manage to win over the most jaded of students with their verve and dedication.
The quartet in question -- David Harpp, Gordon Roberts, Andrew Kirk and Carolyn Pittenger -- are the newest winners of the Principal's Prizes for Excellence in Teaching, McGill's most prestigious teaching prizes, as they are not restricted to any one faculty. Teachers from across the University, in a wide range of disciplines, are considered for the prizes.
The awards are in their second year of existence and they recognize teaching excellence at four different levels: professor, associate professor, assistant professor and faculty lecturer.
Some might argue that the Principal's Prizes for Excellence in Teaching had to recognize Harpp's accomplishments at the full professor level if they wanted to be taken seriously. As a headline, "Harpp wins teaching prize" is about as predictable as "Dog bites postman" or "Chrétien mangles grammar."
In the words of Professor Masad Damha, Harpp's colleague in the Department of Chemistry, "Any award entitled 'Prize for Excellence in Teaching' has Professor Harpp's name written all over it."
Harpp has already won enough teaching awards to fill a Volkswagen Beetle -- the Faculty of Science's Leo Yaffe Award, McGill's David Thomson Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision and Teaching, the Canadian government's Michael Smith Award for the Promotion of Science, and the Society for Teaching and Learning's 3M Teaching Award, to name a few.
People who took courses with Harpp decades ago recall the experience vividly.
Today, Leonard Pinchuk is the chief scientist for the U.S.-based Syntheon and has over 60 patents to his credit, including the modern-day angioplasty balloon catheter. By his own admission, Pinchuk was far from a chemistry whiz when he first encountered Harpp as an undergraduate in the 1970s.
"Although I knew that I wanted to major in the sciences, chemistry as a major was at the bottom of my list."
Then he took Harpp's organic chemistry class. Harpp's approach stressed the use of logic while downplaying dull memorization. He handed out lecture notes so students could put down their pens and absorb the classroom presentations more thoughtfully. His use of slide projectors and superimpositions gave vivid substance to complex concepts, often in a playful way.
To Pinchuk's own amazement, he decided to major in chemistry. He has gone on to enjoy enviable success as a top biomaterials expert in the private sector. Sometimes Pinchuk ponders a career shift. "I often dream of leaving the industrial world and teaching a class in organic chemistry. One day I would like to inspire other fledgling students, much as Dr. Harpp inspired me..."
A much more recent student, Margaret Antler, marvels at Harpp's dedication. "[His] teaching style seems effortless, which belies the amount of time that must be spent organizing and updating his lectures. Preparing 39 hours' worth of slides, for each of four courses, in addition to several hundred pages of course notes, is unfathomable."
Another former student, Kosta Steliou, now a chemistry and pharmacology professor at Boston University, still catches Harpp in action from time to time when he visits Montreal.
"His lectures often attract students who are not even registered for the course," notes Steliou. "As a consequence, being late to his lectures means you sit in the aisle as every seat has already been taken long before the start of class!"
Both Steliou and Damha stress that Harpp's teaching accomplishments haven't come at the expense of his research program -- Harpp has close to 200 refereed scientific publications to his credit. He has also demonstrated a powerful commitment to bringing science-phobes up to speed on how chemistry works. With colleagues Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster, Harpp devised the popular "World of Chemistry" courses for this audience and established the Office for Chemistry and Society.
Electrical and computer engineering students often wonder why associate professor Gordon Roberts, a leading expert in the area of mixed signal microelectronics chip design and testing, isn't using his inventive mind and wealth of industrial contacts to make a quick million and retire to a yacht somewhere warm.
They wonder, but they're grateful that he seems to prefer the life of a professor.
"He creates a very dynamic atmosphere in the classroom, which stimulates interest and a desire to know more," relates former student Benoit Dufort, now a researcher at Philips. "He has the rare ability to inspire his students with enthusiasm for what would otherwise be dry material," adds Robert Wodnicki, a researcher at General Electric and another former student.
Xavier Haurie, an engineer at Analog Devices, says Roberts "turned us on to electronics by giving us the right tools for the task: an intuitive way of quickly making sense of most circuits, a thorough explanation of the theory, and strong insight into the relationship between the two." On a more practical level, Roberts also offers much-appreciated insights into the hiring practices of several firms and creates opportunities for top students to present their work to company representatives.
One course developed by Roberts on the testing of micro-electronics circuits is regarded as unique in North America -- 10 universities in the U.S. have implemented their own versions of his class, using Roberts's course text as their foundation.
Joseph Ayas, president of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Student Society, describes Roberts as a teacher who can break down highly complex subject matter into easy-to-absorb nuggets.
At the assistant professor level, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering supplied another winner -- photonics expert Andrew Kirk.
Like Harpp and Roberts, Kirk maintains a thriving and highly regarded research program. The subjects Kirk teaches about, electromagnetic fields and waves, aren't simple notions to get across, but he has earned a reputation in his department for being an innovator in how he uses the Web and computer animation techniques to bolster his approach to teaching.
He has also been an innovator on the curricular front, helping to develop a graduate curriculum in optical communications and working with department colleague David Plant to create a photonics concentration for undergraduates -- a project that has garnered $500,000 from the Quebec government towards the development of an undergraduate optical communications lab.
"He always answered questions in a way that boosted student confidence and motivated them to ask more questions later," notes former student Mitchell Salzberg. "He kept up the most innovative, informative and interactive course web sites I have ever seen." Kirk's site "enabled students to not only download class notes and other useful information, [it] also provided an interactive graphics display program to explain course theory in an enjoyable way."
Student Rhys Adams agrees that Kirk's use of interactive graphics to make theoretical concepts concrete was "key for me to understand the class material fully." Adams took a summer class with Kirk and says the professor "treated me as one of his graduate students," sending Adams to two conferences. Kirk was the determining factor in Adams's decision to pursue photonics work at the graduate level.
Faculty lecturer Carolyn Pittenger has been making fans among students for over 20 years. Recent course evaluations from graduate students included comments like "I wish I could take the course again. The instructor is phenomenal" and "Excellent course, excellent instructor -- one of the best I have come across."
Professor Anthony Paré, chair of the Department of Educational Studies, says all of Pittenger's course evaluations are filled with similar appraisals.
The director of the Faculty of Education's highly regarded Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing, Pittenger "has been the pedagogical heart and soul of the centre for the past two decades," says Paré, the centre's founding director. "I suspect that no single class is taught in the centre that doesn't bear Carolyn's stamp in one way or another."
Each year Pittenger teaches up to 12 courses while overseeing a staff of between 10 and 15 instructors. The centre's courses help hone the writing abilities of students in engineering, management, education, continuing education and social work. She also regularly teaches two graduate-level courses.
Pittenger is one of the centre's founders, an accomplishment that has earned her the admiration of Samia Costandi, a PhD candidate and a sessional lecturer in the Faculty of Education.
Pittenger helped construct the centre with "very little financial support for a project of that magnitude, using frugal means, but great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness." She credits Pittenger with playing a leading role in establishing "a dynamic, vibrant, wonderful learning space that thousands of students have benefited from."