So, You Think You Can Teach?

It’s a challenging road ahead, but some of today’s engineering students hope to make a difference by becoming tomorrow’s teachers.

For engineering students interested in pursuing their studies beyond an undergrad degree, snagging a job within their university isn’t so far-fetched. The career path for non-tenure track professors is teaching assistant, adjunct professor then lecturer. For tenure-track, the route is assistant, associate and full professor.

Sound like a lot? That’s because teaching engineering is no small feat. Should you pursue this route, you’ll work hard – but could reap the rewards in the end.

Getting there

Toni Angoni, an electrical engineering student at McGill University and its Engineering Undergraduate Society’s vice-president of external affairs, says he has considered a future in academia, though he believes outside experience would be necessary and notes that the transition “won’t be anytime soon.” He’s right, of course, about both the need for experience and the fact that it takes a while to even qualify for a professorial post.

“Teaching engineering at the university level requires a strong academic background and research record,” says Cléa Desjardins, the communication advisor of Concordia University’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science. She adds that industrial and practical experience can also be taken into account, but mainly, professors must have a PhD or be a candidate for one, and be a licensed engineer. Possessing a teaching record is a must, and Desjardins states that the experience gained through teaching assistantships during PhD studies should provide the necessary preparation.

“The demand on engineering professors is to research and teach, with emphasis on the former,” says Dr. Chandra Asthana, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. In contrast, for part-timers who aren’t involved in research, “the only demand is teaching well.”

This really shows in class, says Athena Fotiou, a third-year civil engineering student at Concordia and its Engineering and Computer Science Association’s vice-president of external affairs. From what she has seen, instructors who are mid-career engineers and who teach part-time seem to be the most concerned with training their students properly. Good to remember when it comes time to step in front of a class for the first time.

Practical versus theoretical

Asthana, who has worked for over 30 years in the lucrative aerospace industries of India and Canada, says that there’s a host of reasons why a working engineer would want to take on the challenging – and usually lower-paying – role of a teacher, whether it’s as a tenured academic or a part-time lecturer. These reasons include satisfying one’s intellectual interest, getting acquainted with researchers in their area of interest (which would benefit them at work) and, for those nearing retirement, “giving back” the knowledge they have collected over the years.

“[A teacher’s] excitement is closely connected to the excitement of the students,” says Dr. Luis Rodrigues, an associate professor in the same department as Dr. Asthana who spent several years working in the industry before entering academics. “Students usually get quite motivated to do projects and see machines moving around in a laboratory or see a product being manufactured in a machine shop.”

Rodrigues believes that being a field professional, rather than having a mostly academic background, is an asset when teaching more practical, project-based courses. “That sort of experience cannot be found in textbooks and can only be conveyed by a person in a class,” he says.

Of course, the opportunity for working engineers, especially those in mid- career, to get into part-time teaching is somewhat limited. This is due to the seniority- and experience-based selection method, according to Dr. John Cheung, a retired engineer who also teaches mechanical and industrial engineering at Concordia. “Engineers who have never taught at a university before have the lowest chance of obtaining a teaching post,” he says, though the rules are more lenient for teaching assistants.

Communication is the key

Working engineers who know how to explain concepts clearly can make great teachers, adds Fotiou. “The best [professors] I’ve had were good because they worked in the industry, usually as project managers. They know the practical side of engineering, how to lead a team, and how to communicate effectively,” she says, emphasizing the importance of this last point.

Naturally, an engineering degree doesn’t automatically make someone a teacher. Course offerings are constrained by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, which has traditionally emphasized technical engineering content in order for programs to become accredited. “However, this has changed in recent years with the growing requirements by CEAB for instruction in communication skills, impact of technology, ethics and professionalism, as well as sustainability,” says Desjardins.

Grads interested in learning more about how to transfer their knowledge efficiently can always take extra education or communications classes. Some universities have even put in place structures to help with teacher development. For example, Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services offers workshops to help faculty and teaching assistants improve their skills, not only to rectify existing problems, but also to provide guidance on how to further innovate.