Excellence in Teaching Awards

February 05, 2004, vol. 29, no. 3
By Carol Thorbes

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Heeson Bai
Heesoon Bai's description of teaching makes it easy to understand why she loves her chosen career, and why she inspires her students with her enthusiasm for it.
“My general approach to teaching is invitational and communal,” says Bai, an associate professor of educational philosophy.

“I spread before them a feast of knowledge and discourse, and invite them to partake in it in each other's convivial and thought-provoking company.”

Bai's students say they eagerly dig into even the hardest to digest course material on her smorgasbord of knowledge because of her caring and insightful approach to guiding their learning.

They agree that her gift for inspiring them to not only succeed academically, but also to become better human beings, makes her a deserving recipient of a 2004 excellence in teaching award.

“Bai has a unique ability to invite her students to critically reflect upon issues while inviting them to bring themselves into the discussion at hand,” says one of her former graduate students.

A doctoral graduate of Bai's courses, now an assistant professor at a U.S. university, praises his former teacher for having high, but sensitively set, expectations of students.

He says, “I learned from Heesoon how to better lead a discussion, how to select challenging, educative readings, how to foster a caring, fertile learning environment, and how to set high, achievable expectations.”

Bai, a diminutive woman from Korea, believes that good teaching is about respecting the student as a teacher and making education reflective.
“In the content-rich courses we teach at the university level,” says Bai, “it is rather easy to lose sight of the fundamental and overall aims of liberal education: to improve the person and cultivate a citizen.”

The Environmental Educators' provincial specialist association also recently awarded Bai its Roger Hammill award for making environmental ethics central to her courses.

Zamir Punja
Zamir Punja's ability to convey how complex biological principles impact everyday life in simple terms has made him as popular with students as he is with the media.
This darling of the media, often quoted in controversial stories about cloning and genetically modified foods, is a recipient of SFU's 2004 excellence in teaching award.

Faculty and students cannot say enough about the plant pathologists' numerous attributes as a gifted teacher.

The East African born scientist's desire to see his students succeed academically drives his lectures, labs and open office door policy.
Among the many comments submitted by students in support of Punja's nomination for an award are: “He is a true leader by example. He instills confidence. He is extremely passionate about his field, as well as his students, and Punja inspires his pupils to appreciate biological sciences. He is not only a teacher but a mentor.”

Whether he is teaching introductory biology to 300 undergraduates in a large lecture hall or advising a handful of graduate students in a research lab, Punja motivates his students to problem solve biological problems.
Punja achieves this by developing highly organized lectures peppered with humour, and lab experiments that help students connect textbook material to real life biological research, such as his own.

Often viewed by media and industry as a plant genetics guru, Punja captures the attention and imagination of undergrads with his trademark props, such as corncobs dotted with different coloured kernels of corn.
Punja uses them to visually demonstrate how genetic diversity leaves varied imprints on common foods.

Says Punja, “Learning by students is best achieved through stimulating interest, establishing relevance of the topic, and by displaying organization, enthusiasm, and some humour while teaching complex information.”

Cyril Thong
Senior biological sciences lecturer Cyril Thong says the secrets to his success as a teacher are patience and organization.

“Lots of patience,” he contends, is the key to teaching his first year course, biological sciences 101. “Most of my students are straight out of high school. Basically it's breaking them into the university way of doing things. I find the biggest problem is that high school students have always had someone looking over their shoulders. They come here and suddenly they are given so much freedom and choice they don't know what to do with it.”

That freedom of choice includes Thong's course where the laboratory is open nine hours a day four days a week. “Students come and go at their own convenience, so the onus is on them to come in and do the work,” says the winner of a 2004 excellence in teaching award.

But Thong takes a personal interest in making sure they get their work done. As his nomination letter says, “Cyril manages to learn the names of many of his students, even in classes of 400 or more.”

One of Thong's former students notes, “He has always been genuinely concerned about his students' learning. Moreover, he is a remarkably patient teacher. He was always available and never too busy to provide extra help.”

Thong, who primarily teaches in the lab, says being well organized is the key to providing a personal touch in a course with an average enrolment of 376 students in the fall and spring semesters.

“A lot of students have been through my course and the one comment they've all had is it's probably the most organized course they've had in the sciences,” says Thong. “That's the only secret in being able to handle that number of students. You have to be very organized.”

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