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Siva Nadarajah

Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

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

My main strategy is to include as much of my research as possible and to talk about the motivations behind it, in order to give students a wider perspective on what they’re learning and why. For instance, at the beginning of my course on the Navier-Stokes equation, I talk about how this course fits in with other classes in their program. I also give students snapshots of what they are going to see and learn to grapple with during the semester.

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

I use three short quizzes, two midterms, and a final exam. The students get feedback on their answers for both the quizzes and the midterms. Students like the quizzes because they are good practice for the midterm. Instead of using Teaching Assistants, I teach my own tutorials to maintain consistency (in Engineering, we go through the theory in the lectures, and use the tutorials to do examples). Teaching Assistants are available to answer questions during office hours.

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

In the undergraduate class, I only get students from within the discipline, and the objective is to learn to derive, explain, and solve simple engineering problems in fluid mechanics. But more importantly, it’s an exercise program that pushes students’ brains to the limits. Sometimes I even tell them that a lot of the stuff that they study in this class, they may never use, and that the real purpose of it all is to learn to think technically, and to practice that skill to the point where using them becomes not just rapid, but intuitive.

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

I talk about the research in my lectures, and then we solve a problem together. Once we solve the problem, I show what happens if we don’t use certain assumptions. I also bring examples to class of past research that is now textbook material and of current research that is contributing to practical applications. Traditionally, it was mostly just the aircraft industry that used the Navier-Stokes equations. But in the last few years, these equations have been applied in other industries as well—to compute blood flow for heart valves, design new wet suits, predict weather and pollution dispersion, and so on.

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

Spend time developing notes not just for what you’re going to teach, but for how you’re going to deliver it. Think about what the best way is to get somebody interested who hasn’t been exposed to the field. My teaching method is traditional in that it’s lecture-based, but for the most part students do get engaged, and a lot of them ask me questions after the lecture, which is a consequence of how I deliver. There is still place for the traditional lecture—a very good lecture can be delivered just using the chalk board.

I know it’s not easy, but I also think that faculty should take the time to learn as many of students’ names as possible. I ask students to say their names when they ask questions, and then I try to acknowledge them by their name. It makes them more comfortable, which helps us build a relationship. And I tell them that if they build a relationship with a professor, it’s easier for the professor to write a personalized recommendation letter later on—rather than a standard one based on the student’s curriculum vitae.

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

I tell students that the textbook may not have all the answers. They have to clearly and truly understand the basic foundation and principles, and apply them to the problem. If this is done without violating any principles, then it will automatically take them down the path that will eventually lead them to the answer.

But for students to do really well in the class and be truly comfortable with the material, they have to go after the lectures and question every single step. Why are things done in a particular way? Why not use this assumption during this derivation instead of using it at another stage? If I ask them to rederive something without a certain assumption and if they get completely lost, it’s because they’ve memorized the derivation, taken it at face value instead of really understanding it. So my advice to students is to question me, to question the assumptions. Ask why I do things the way I do them, and not just how to do them.

Why do you teach?

I love it. I love what I do in terms of research, and teaching allows me to tell others about it. That’s one aspect. The other is that education is about more than just acquiring knowledge—it’s about building character, and teaching allows me to be a part of that process.

Email Address: 
siva.nadarajah@mcgill.ca