March 05, 2019

For someone whose childhood career aspiration veered between medicine and acting as a martial arts stunt double, Kevin Lam’s SFU Excellence in Teaching Award stands as testimony that following one’s passion is key to making a great career choice.

During high school and throughout his undergrad and graduate studies at SFU, Lam has always enjoyed tutoring and teaching.

“At every major fork in the road of my life, I chose the path that included teaching as a career. In my heart, I've always loved teaching more than anything,” he says.

Since his appointment as a senior lecturer in SFU’s department of biological sciences in 2012, Lam has quickly acquired a reputation as an outstanding educator.

His nominator, teaching professor Joan Sharp says, “Kevin is simply the finest instructor that I have encountered in my 38 years at SFU.” She adds, “I have worked with many exemplary instructors and I have developed great respect for Kevin as an inspiring teacher and a trusted mentor to students.”

The foundational courses that Lam teaches can be difficult as they are often a student’s first introduction to the rigors of scientific research. While he recognizes the critical content that he is imparting, Lam knows that passing along knowledge steeped within the passion of learning is even better.

Many of the 22 students who contributed comments to Lam’s nomination mention his passion and ability to motivate and guide students to discover solutions on their own. They also singled out his willingness to spend time getting to know his students and providing strategies to deal with workload stress and burn-out.

Ever mindful of the need to improve, Lam isn’t shy about trying new teaching methods such as the “flipped classroom” strategy.

“With a flipped classroom,” Lam says, “students read or watch videos to learn the basics at home before coming to class, so that they are prepared to learn difficult concepts, and practise increasingly challenging problem-solving, in the classroom where they have instructors to aid them.”

The method has been so rewarding that Lam and a colleague are combining their own “flipped classroom” videos with other open educational resources to replace expensive textbooks with more focused, free materials.

Another of Lam’s signature strategies is to learn all of his student’s names – past and present.

“At the beginning of the semester, I collect photos of my students holding name cards,” he says, explaining his method. “Throughout the term, I use them as flash cards and try to guess their names. If I get it wrong, I stare at the face and repeat the name a few times, then keep on going.”

Lam was surprised and thrilled to receive the coveted award and calls it a dream come true.

 “Winning this award has been a truly surreal experience and I'm so grateful to my nominator and to all my colleagues and students who've been so supportive and generous to me.”

Resting on this accolade isn’t in the cards for Lam though, he’s continually learning himself.

“I'm starting to see that the biggest impact I can make, for my students, is in providing the emotional support and mentorship that they may need to grow stronger and more resilient”. He adds, “Students are going through a very challenging and rapid stage of growth in their lives, and having someone who believes in them and cares about them as whole people can make a huge difference.”