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During her 10-week faculty exchange at Zhejiang University, computing science professor Stella Atkins helped her Chinese students engage with material they would normally learn by rote.

During her 10-week faculty exchange at Zhejiang University, computing science professor Stella Atkins helped her Chinese students engage with material they would normally learn by rote.

China proved fascinating for faculty exchange professor

March 21, 2007

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By Barry Shell

As the first faculty exchange professor to teach at Zhejiang University, SFU computing science professor Stella Atkins was impressed by the beauty of Hangzhou with its many canals, lakes, and verdant limestone hills.

The standard of living was surprisingly good, but she was amazed to be the oldest teacher there. With mandatory retirement set at 60, Atkins (60) says, "Anyone my age had been through a really rough life, like a famine or two."

China was fascinating for Atkins. "You are very much aware of a sleeping dragon waking up from a rocky past into a new future," she says. Yet it was the best 10 weeks of her teaching life because she managed to get students to completely change the way they learn.

According to Atkins, students in China know that millions are vying for relatively few good jobs, so they are desperate to differentiate themselves. SFU's dual-degree program is a marvelous opportunity. "That Canadian degree is like a ticket to success," says Atkins. Not surprisingly, the program has 41 Chinese students compared to only 14 Canadians.

"I got the Chinese students to become engaged with what they were learning instead of just learning by rote," says Atkins. In her course on human/computer interaction she had students form groups and review the usability of each other's cellphones. "It freaked them out to start with," she says. But in the end she taught them to answer the question "How can I solve this?" It was something they were not used to doing.

Besides teaching, Atkins enjoyed hiking in the many beautiful hills around Hangzhou. She also made new friends. For future dual-degree programs, she recommends improving the Chinese language instruction for Canadian participants. "Chinese students start learning English in kindergarten," she says, "so language is not as big a barrier as it is for the Canadians."

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