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June 7, 2001 Teaching Awards for inspiring Engineering professors



Dr. Venkatanarayana Ramachandran

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by James Martin

The Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science will present its annual Teaching Excellence Awards at the June 12 convocation.

Dr. Venkatanarayana Ramachandran, the recipient of the full-time award, began teaching at the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) in 1958, and has been a Professor at Concordia since 1971. Although he has supervised students at the Master’s and PhD levels, his teaching focuses on “very fresh” first- and second-year students enrolled in Engineering 273 (Basic Circuit Analysis) and 370 (Modeling & Analysis of Physical Systems), and Engineering Mathematics 252 (Complex Variables).

Ramachandran finds that his research (in circuits and systems) has become intertwined with his teaching to the point where it’s “very difficult to distinguish one from the other.”

“Research defines my way of thinking,” he said, “and then getting into students’ projects makes me rethink how to convey ideas to them.” This “rethinking” takes many forms, including videotaped tutorial sessions (available for students to review at their own pace), as well as spending three or four weekends per term on Q&A sessions.

In addition to addressing questions brought in by students, Ramachandran uses the weekends to go over commonly made errors. With a course like ENGR 273, which can see half of its 350 students taking up Ramachandran’s offer, the weekend sessions represent a sizable time commitment.

“It does take quite a bit of my time,” Ramachandran admitted, “but their success rate improves considerably when the students no longer make those same common mistakes.”

Students have offered to pay Ramachandran for his extracurricular help, but he steadfastly refuses. When asked what he gets out of his efforts, he responds simply, “Satisfaction, that’s all.”

This year’s part-time award goes to Professor Tadeusz (Ted) Obuchowicz, who also holds a full-time position as Concordia’s Very Large Scale Integration Engineer (overseeing the operations of the VLSI research lab) and Computer-Aided Design Specialist (maintaining CAD design tools and generally “making sure everything’s running smoothly”).

Obuchowicz teaches Computer Engineering 416 (Computer Architecture and Design), COEN 312 and 414 (Digital Systems Design I & II, respectively), as well as COMP 520 (Computer Organization & Assembly Language) for the Computer Science diploma program. He says his two jobs “blend well,” helping him keep the class curriculum relevant to the everchanging industry.

“The COEN 414 course content, for example, was slightly outdated,” Obuchowicz recalled in a recent interview. “I found out that other universities were exposing their undergraduate students to the same kind of material we were using in our research lab, and felt we should do the same—otherwise the students would be at a disadvantage when they go out into the industry. So we updated the curriculum to introduce Hardware Description Languages. It’s a hot field right now, and these are important skills for students to have.”

Obuchowicz is a firm believer in intellectual independence, and in keeping the classroom interesting.

“I try to motivate students to dig deeper and go beyond just attending the lecture and doing the assignments,” he said.

“When someone asks, ‘Well, sir, what would happen if...?’ I reply, ‘That’s a very good question. Why don’t you try it yourself and get back to us next week with the results of your experiment?’

“Some have actually gone ahead and done just that; I brought them up to the front of the class, and they were the teacher for 15 minutes,” Obuchowicz said. “The student response is quite positive, and it adds a bit of liveliness and spontaneity to the lecture, which I feel is important, because sometimes engineering material can be a bit dry. I try to liven it up.

“And there’s always a picture of Keith Richards on the front page of my final exam—it’s become somewhat of a tradition, and it adds a bit of levity to the exam situation.”