For Wei Zhao, standing in front of a roomful of fresh-faced, first-year engineering students and convincing them to learn to love physics is just part of his job. But he admits it's still nice to know the students think he's inspiring, too.
A few years ago, the instructor at Red Deer College in Red Deer, Alta., received a feedback form from one student who wrote, "Wei made me want to come to school for the first time ever."
It's a comment that Dr. Zhao says he'll never forget.
"That's the highest compliment you can ever obtain from a student. It was a very moving moment for me," he says.
Now the accolades are coming in from another source. Earlier this year the Association of Canadian Community Colleges awarded him the Teaching Excellence Gold Award. The national award honours college instructors who exhibit excellence in teaching and are judged to have had a significant impact on students' personal and academic lives. According to the ACCC, Dr. Zhao's knowledge, enthusiasm, real-life experience and sense of humour helped push him into the winner's circle to claim top prize.
Bryan Rowsell, chair of Red Deer's science department and chemistry instructor, says throwing his colleague's name into the competition's hat just made sense.
"We wanted to highlight the hard work Wei does to prepare our students for transfer to the University of Alberta. It seemed logical to nominate him," says Dr. Rowsell.
Indeed, Dr. Zhao's goal at Red Deer is different than most engineering professors in Canada. Rather than doing what they can to ensure students not only stick with the program, but remain at the university for their full undergraduate career, Dr. Zhao knows he's done his job well if his engineering students clear out of Red Deer after first year. The college's Bachelor of Engineering University transfer program offers university-level classes, which, if successfully completed, mean students then move on to the University of Alberta in Edmonton to complete their degree.
It's a system that works in a province that has only a handful of universities, says Dr. Rowsell.
"In Ontario you can't throw a stick without hitting a university, but in Alberta it's a different story," he says, mentioning that the school has transfer agreements with institutions in Saskatchewan and British Columbia for other programs, too.
Working only with first-year students has its rewards, says Dr. Zhao, who has been teaching for 12 years in Canada and was a trained mechanical engineer in China before that. For starters, he's able to introduce students to hands-on learning projects. His commitment to a learn-by-doing style of teaching has overflowed into other areas of the school.
In fact, what started out as a simple design project in one of his courses, has turned into a college-wide student design competition that pulls science and engineering students together. Student teams design, create and market inventions and then present them to a panel of judges. Last year's winner was a fermenter that turns grass clippings into ethanol for fuel.
Dr. Zhao has also played a central role in developing engineering technology programs that were new to the college, as well as the school's Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing, which houses some of province's most state-of-the-art equipment for rapid prototyping.
Yet it's his approachable teaching style and sense of humour that stands out for students, such as Jonathan Stolz, who studied with him this past school year. Mr. Stolz is now a co-op civil engineering student at the University of Alberta.
"What really set Wei apart was his endless enthusiasm for the subject matter. We would be going through long, arduous examples in class, but his high energy kept the lecture engaging," he says. "Wei was able to make complex concepts simple."
The married father of two boys says he enjoys meeting prospective students at local high schools and stays in touch with alumni once they leave.
"Student success is at the core, the centre, of what I do. I'll help my students any way I can," he says.
Other ACCC winners:
Silver: Kyleen Myrah at Okanagan College was the driving force behind the college's involvement in Students in Free Enterprise, a non-profit group that pairs the business skills of students with the needs of small business.
Bronze: Jef Petrossi's enthusiasm and passion for his work as advertising professor at Mohawk College is evident in the number of prestigious awards that students have won since he joined the program.