Innovations in teaching: Greg Evans

Adding teamwork to curriculum in chemical engineering course

Convocation is a time to celebrate U of T's students. Although they may make it look easy, graduating from one of the top-ranked universities in the world is a remarkable achievement.

When the 18,000 members of the Class of 2016 cross the stage at Convocation Hall – including an estimated 13,500 grads this spring – they'll be looking back at years of exams, essays, lab and field work, experiential learning, volunteer stints, creativity and hard work. And almost zero snow days. 
On the stage with them – or following via live streams and Instagram feeds – will be some of the professors and instructors who also invested countless hours in their students’ success.

Who are the teachers who helped make this day possible? You can learn about some of them in our Inside Con Hall series from student writer Krisha Ravikantharaja.

And you’ll meet a few more in this series on Innovations in Teaching.

In this second instalment, U of T News writer Arthur Kaptainis profiles Professor Greg Evans of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. 

Wallberg International is a formidable enterprise.

“It’s a huge company,” Greg Evans, one of three winners of the 2015 President’s Teaching Awards at the University of Toronto, said with a wry smile. “They have vested interests everywhere.”

Wallberg’s only weakness is that it does not, in fact, exist – except in the minds of the students enrolled in CHE 230, Environmental Chemistry, a course given by the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, where Evans, a professor and U of T alumnus, has taught since 1990.

Twenty-five per cent of the final mark is based on how students respond to a simulated request for proposals from this fictional company headquartered, not coincidentally, in the Wallberg Memorial Building on the downtown Toronto campus.

One such call for tenders concerned a hypothetical housing development south of Ontario Highway 407. What will the air quality be like?

Another request was to assess the surroundings of an ecotourism resort Wallberg International wanted to build outside Yellowknife. Does an abandoned gold mine in the area pose a risk to the water supply?

“Students create their own environmental consultant companies,” Evans explained. “And these teams will bid on the proposal.”

There are five students per team. Simulation is not merely a matter of assembling statistics and preparing spreadsheets. There is a formal meeting in a boardroom. Proper attire is required, with handshakes and business cards all around.

Receiving the pitch are the president of Wallberg, typically played by someone from the faculty’s Engineering Communications Program, and the technical vice-president, a role sometimes taken by Evans himself. The president knows what is good for the company but does not necessarily have a grip on the technical particulars. 

Since enrolment in this mandatory course is around 160, the bidding by more than 30 teams is competitive. Preliminary work includes preparing a budget.

Not that hard science is neglected. 

“We want students to go through a simulation of how they would go about doing the sampling,” Evans said. “How do you make measurements, and interpret them in terms of the relevant regulations?

“And how do you explain them to a client or the public? There is a big communications part to this.”

Of course the “president” and “vice-president” eventually step out of their roles and provide feedback. Students also evaluate each other “semi-anonymously” (a student is not told which member of the team is making which observation).

Bidding simulation is just one of the innovations Evans has brought to the classroom. Even in first-year classes he uses the Team-effectiveness Learning System (TELS), a knowledge-sharing program developed by the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead). Evans is associate director of this institute. 

Much class time in CHW 230 is occupied by problem solving. Students are divided into groups and get busy, while Evans and his teaching assistants walk the floor assessing progress and answering questions.  Collaboration is the key concept. 

photo of Professor Evans at chalkboard with students

“Certainly over the last 15 years the idea that engineers work in teams has become much more prevalent,” Evans said. “We are still working at learning how to teach ‘success skills’ like teamwork, communication and professionalism.”

But do young engineers thirst after this knowledge? 

“The energy level is high. They seem to enjoy it.”

Nikola Andric, a fourth-year student, is one who did.

“Professor Evans is a model of an excellent professor and educator,” said Andric, who is the undergraduate chemical engineering council chair for 2015-2016. “He has the ability to take theoretical concepts and apply them to real-world problems.”

Stephanie Tzanis, a third-year student, said she appreciates the professor's personal touch.

“Professor Evans truly cares about the wellbeing, success and future of every one of his students,” she said. “He takes the time to get to know you, and continues to push you to do your best.”

Evans has earned many honours for his teaching – including the 2010 Engineers Canada Medal, the 2014 Allan Blizzard Award and, from U of T, the Northrop Frye Award for linking teaching and research and the Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award. He has also been named the inaugural director of the new Collaborative Program in Engineering Education.

This graduate program, operated jointly by Engineering and U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), has acquired 13 masters and doctorial students after only 18 months of existence.

Is there still room for old-fashioned classroom teaching in the era of Wallberg International?

“I still do lectures,” Evans said. “Maybe in a few years I won’t.”

photo of Evans with students

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