Engineer earns Canada’s highest teaching honour

Engineering Prof. Adrian Chan has earned the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the equivalent of an Academy Award for teaching in Canada. (Chris King Photo)

When Adrian Chan first started out at Carleton, he was, admittedly, a little more engineer than teacher. Maybe a lot more.

But, like any good engineer, Chan studied the design of his lectures, tested his approach, got feedback, modified his technique and repeated.

“As engineers, we are good at practical problem-solving and as teachers we’re often faced with many problems to solve,” says Chan. A perfect combination.

At this point, he might want to patent his design. The engineer has just earned the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the equivalent of an Academy Award for teaching in Canada.

“Often people talk about what people teach and how people teach … I think the most important (question) is why,” says Chan, who will be honoured for his commitment to the improvement of university teaching at the annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in June. “That’s really what makes the teacher.”

While his biomedical engineering lectures might be littered with concepts like electromagnetic waves, signal processing and quantitative analysis, Chan has a unique ability to convey these concepts through family stories and personal anecdotes.

He might tell students about growing up in Waterloo with his five scientifically-minded siblings. Or about his son’s gymnastics lessons.

It’s all part of an effort to build an environment of “respect, responsibility and trust” in the classroom, he says.

“Students often think it’s a battle between students and teachers,” says Chan. “If learning is a struggle, students and teachers are struggling together for a common goal.”


Many students report that Chan’s biomedical engineering course is the most difficult they’ve ever taken. This has more to do with expectations than course material, he says.

“I don’t think it’s the subject matter that makes it hard,” he says, explaining that stress is an important motivator to help students live up to their potential.

Not enough stress and a student won’t learn to stand, he says. Too much and a student is likely to fall over.

“I’m not trying to be difficult or trying to be hard. I’m trying to challenge them.”

When Chan pushes students to what feels like the limit of their ability and they succeed, it builds their confidence and they grow as individuals, he says.

“I’m confident that they can do it,” he says. “These are doable things.”

Chan knows what it’s like to be pushed to the limit. As a professor, who is still very much involved on the research side of things, it’s a reality he faces every day.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve found the balance quite yet,” he says. “If a person works themselves to death, there’s (nothing left for them to share). I’m trying to show there’s a way to balance everything.”

On top of his research—he’s helped develop methods to allow doctors and health inspectors detect bacteria using an electronic nose device — Chan is also heavily involved in Shad Valley, a high school summer enrichment program for high-achieving students, and Engineers Without Borders.

“I think our actions speak louder than our words,” he says. “I want my students to be the leaders of tomorrow … I try to lead by example.”

The 3M award is a rare ‘thank you,’ in a field riddled with criticism and negative feedback.

“(As a teacher) you don’t often get a ‘thank you,’” says Chan.

“This award, it means a lot because it’s a huge recognition,” he says.

But with praise comes responsibility. “For me, it’s a kick in the pants to … bring things to the next level.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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