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Richard Chromik

Department of Mining and Materials Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I’ll often play movies and tell bad jokes--well, some are good too. I’ll ask students questions. Sometimes I’ll stop the lecture and bring up a webpage, either as part of the lecture or spontaneously in response to a student question. I’ll also do demos where I bring in a short experiment on a material. Basically, I try to give them something cool to look at that is related to the subject, hoping to engage them in discussion that way.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

For lower-level undergraduate classes, I mainly use quizzes and exams. I also try to reserve around 20% of the total mark for something like a small project, paper or presentation. For the exams, I ask students to perform typical engineering calculations, but I always try to include a related, concept-based question. I do that because I feel it is important to know the fundamentals. When I get on an airplane, I don’t like to think that the engineer who designed it only knew how to punch buttons on a calculator, so I try to get the students to think about what an answer means. This is why a lot of the quiz and exam questions are open-ended, and the final has some significant essay questions on it.

For upper-level courses, I give students the opportunity to discover what research is being done through a research project. I challenge them to make connections between scholarly articles, to consider the current state of the field and to reflect on the future. While I encourage them to do this, it is hard to assess. So in terms of assessment, I look at whether they get the basic concepts right and can interpret the articles correctly. I provide them with a breakdown of how the papers will be assessed.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

On the first day of class, in every course I teach, I always show my concept map. This map demonstrates the connections between a material’s structure and its properties. The map helps students start to think about the reasons for using certain materials for certain applications. I want students to understand these fundamental concepts of Materials Engineering. No matter where they are in the program, this is the goal.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

For projects, I have the liaison librarian come in and teach students how to get research information. I also present research findings in class, review recent articles and talk about the state of the field in the areas the articles cover. For the lower-level courses, because students are generally learning the basics and not doing research, I show them what the discipline is about by giving them background on the materials they would find in the industry and some background on how they are made and how they are used.

One example is a project the undergraduate electrical engineering class just did looking at how structure property relationships can be important. The task was to define a research area, and the students interviewed a campus researcher in the process. The project, while a lot of work for us and for the students, was very rewarding. The students discovered what we, that is the professors and teaching assistants, do when we are not teaching, and they were introduced to twelve different areas of multi-disciplinary research, each with some materials engineering component.

For their projects, I also stress to students that the more they read and cite the literature in their reports, the more knowledge is going to progress. Plagiarism aside, if an article’s sources aren’t cited, those who read the document won’t learn as much, and more time will have to be spent recuperating that lost knowledge.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

First, I suggest that they talk to their colleagues, that they take the Teaching & Learning Services workshop on course design and teaching, even if they’ve taught already, and that they try new techniques as they become more comfortable. Second, they should try to see things from the students’ perspectives, the anxiety over grades for example. I didn’t anticipate sometimes being “badgered” over marks. In response to that, I now try to let students know I’m on their side by taking some time to listen and by being respectful and sympathetic. I also have a procedure to request a review of a mark by using a form on myCourses. Last, I suggest that they try to incorporate the useful feedback from the course evaluations and, as I have done, create their own surveys to find things out that weren’t covered by the course evaluations.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

The number one thing I recommend is for students to be curious and to ask questions. Beyond that, I’d recommend they pay special attention to the questions I ask when we have a demo, a movie or the like, because this is usually when I’m pinpointing one of the key learning objectives of the course that will be tested on the final exam.

I’d also suggest that they come to my office hours and attend the lectures. But especially, they should realize early on that what they’re learning is not just about crunching numbers. I expect students to understand the concepts first and foremost, and then be able to calculate something related to the cores of those concepts.

Why do you teach?

Well, I always knew that I wanted to teach. It’s probably one of the best jobs in the world, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. It’s so much fun to get students engaged in the conversation of learning, to get them to a stage where they’re asking questions about the knowledge rather than just accepting it at face value. It’s also so rewarding to see that they have actually learned something, that when they go out into the world they’re going to be better engineers for having taken my course.

Email Address: 
richard.chromik@mcgill.ca