Please enable Java in your browser's "Options" (or "Preferance") menu to view this page Concordia's Thursday Report____________October 8, 1998

Engineering and Computer Science gives first teaching awards

Why paper airplanes are flying around the classroom

by Barbara Black

Professors Mary Silas and Peter Grogono made a bit of history in June when they were presented with their Faculty's first annual Teaching Excellence Award at the students' graduation banquet.

Mary Silas teaches technical writing in the Faculty, and her boss, Corinne Jetté, estimates that she has taught approximately 12,000 students over her 30-odd years at Concordia, 20 of those in Engineering.

The Faculty has many students for whom English is a second, third or fourth language, and she uses great resources of energy and ingenuity to teach them the kind of professional writing skills they will need, not only to succeed in their courses, but to work in their first job. "I don't get tired teaching, I get high on it," she confessed.

Her classes are punctuated with bursts of laughter. "Take process description, for example," she said. "When they come into the classroom, I ask them, 'What did you do in the last five minutes?' Big laugh. 'I walked in.' 'Well, where were you before? How did you get there?' and so on."

"Then there's describing a thing," Silas continued. She gets them to describe a screwdriver -- its handle, its business end. "'What is it made of? Why isn't it made of aluminum? OK, it would bend. How about gold? Oh, I'd love a gold screwdriver.' Big laugh again. "Actually, I had a great surprise one day when a parcel was delivered, and it turned out to be a gold screwdriver!"

This is how Silas teaches her students to write instructions: "I hand out sheets of coloured paper and tell them to make paper airplanes and fly them." Looks of incomprehension from the students. "'Do it. Just do it.' Airplanes flying all over the room. Then I ask them to retrieve their plane, and write down how they made it. Then I collect the papers -- and try to make an airplane from their instructions."

Peter Grogono has carefully worked out his own approach to teaching. "I prefer to teach a variety of courses, rather than repeating the same set of courses over and over again," he said in a recent

"My style of teaching tends to be rather conservative: I talk, listen, and use the blackboard. The blackboard helps to pace the lecture, and allows the lecture to evolve in ways that depend on student response.

"I do use slides to present complex or detailed material; when I do so, I always ensure that students have access to the text of the slides, either as handouts or on a Web site. I do not think that Web pages can replace a lecture course, but the Web is a very useful medium for providing access to assignments, solutions, course notes, and links to other relevant Web sites.

He prepares carefully, even if he has taught the course before. "I start a course with various goals and expectations, but I try to match my actual teaching to the level of the students. I believe that it is better to fail to cover the material completely than to fail to teach it properly.

"I spend time in lectures explaining what the relevant problems are and why they are hard to solve. Sometimes I give assignments that require students to solve problems before discussing solutions in class, [but] this is a technique that must be used carefully if students are not to be discouraged.

"Much of the material covered in university courses is intrinsically difficult. Maintaining student morale in the face of difficulties is a very important component of good teaching. The teacher must never make a student feel stupid, especially in a classroom situation. The teacher must always convey the message, 'I understand the material well because I have studied it and prepared the course,' and never the message, 'I am smarter than you are.'"

Grogono has developed much of his own course material, and has written three successful textbooks for the classroom use. Programming in Pascal (Addison-Wesley, 1978, 1980, 1984) was the first book dedicated to Pascal to reach the market, and more than 500,000 English-language copies have been sold. It has been translated into Chinese, French, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish.

Problem Solving and Computer Programming (Addison-Wesley, 1982) has been translated into Japanese, and Programming with Turing and Object Oriented Turing (Springer-Verlag, 1995), his most recent book, is used at the major centres where Turing is taught, including Queen's University, the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo.

Professors Mary Silas and Peter Grogono win the first Engineering and Computer Science Teaching Excellence Award.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.