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#UofTBTS16: New Engineering prof eases the transition

“Engineering is about more than just math and science — it’s about problem-solving, it’s being passionate about what you do, and communicating that effectively to others,” says Chirag Variawa

Starting university is a big adjustment for any student. For Engineering students, they’re dealing with finding new classes and moving into residence, alongside learning new physics equations and technical terms.

Thankfully, new U of T Engineering faculty member Chirag Variawa is there to help first-year students get it, presenting unfamiliar engineering concepts in accessible ways.

“Engineering is about more than just math and science — it’s about problem-solving, it’s being passionate about what you do, and communicating that effectively to others,” he says. “I feel that having students remember how exciting engineering is, and carrying that forward with them is incredibly important.”

Variawa’s research addresses the unseen barriers to learning. As students return to campus for the fall semester, Engineering’s Marit Mitchell sat down with Variawa to hear more about his unique approach to teaching and what brought him back to Toronto.
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You are rejoining U of T Engineering after several years in Boston, teaching at Northeastern University — welcome back! Tell us about your background.

I completed my undergrad here in Materials Science & Engineering mentored by the late Professor Torstein Utigard as my thesis supervisor, then my PhD here with Professor Susan McCahan, now Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education. After my graduate program was complete, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts, as an assistant teaching-stream professor of engineering and taught there for two and a half years. 

I'm a first-generation Canadian, the first in my family to go through university, and it’s certainly a pleasure and privilege to give back to the institution that gave me so much. As a student here, I volunteered on the committees that designed and approved the new engineering building, the Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CEIE). Today, returning full-circle as a professor, I hope to stand in the rooms of that building and give back all that I can to fully support the development of each and every student. It’s a very powerful statement to stand in a CEIE room and say, yes, I helped design this as a U of T engineering student. Now, having had the pleasure and privilege to see the design become reality, I want to see to it that each of our students has the facility to do even greater things, and continue to be relentlessly curious.

Tell us more about your research.

My work looks at accessibility in engineering education. My past research has been to use algorithms and AI (artificial intelligence) to make the language of engineering education more accessible.

For example, if you’re taking a Materials Engineering class, and on the final exam one of the questions is “Calculate the stiffness on the bonnet of a vehicle.” You’re expected to know what “stiffness” is because it’s a materials term. But the word “bonnet” might throw you off. So you’re now being assessed on your cultural proficiency, rather than your mastery of course concepts. It’s language that’s used to create a more authentic learning environment, but it might alienate some students. We want to encourage the development of authentic contexts and rigorous learning material, but we also want to be aware of and mitigate learning barriers.

I designed an algorithm that looks at all of the language that is currently available on all of the exams that U of T has created in Engineering. I have a whole repository of U of T Engineering exams with millions of words, and the algorithm went through many of those exams and came up with word lists. 

For example, for MSE101 I can say, “These are 25 words that are specific to your course and are appearing in your discipline.” I can then give out this list of 25 words at the beginning of class and say, ‘You’re expected to know what these words mean. On a final exam, they’re going to show up. But if you hear other words like ‘bonnet,’ ‘kettle,’ or culturally specific words, ask for clarification because we’re not expecting you to be knowledgeable in the cultural aspects of this.”

How is teaching first-year students different, and what will you bring to your new role as a professor?

First-year students are acutely aware of their surroundings — however, they might not be able to detect the barriers between themselves and the learning material. There are blind spots that students have as they come from being at the top of the world’s best high schools to first-year engineering. They might think that they can get through absolutely anything, and they can, but I want to make sure that they are aware of the barriers that exist and how to overcome them systematically.

First-years also bring with them a lot of excitement. I want to make sure that excitement persists, and they don’t forget about the magic of engineering. Some students are inspired by the events that brought them here. Others don’t necessarily know what engineering is all about, but they’re here anyway to try it out. Some are great at problem solving and they know that. But others are here to find out more about themselves. What I want to do is facilitate learning, rather than tell them exactly what they ought to be doing. My hope is that they can become educated, contributing, passionate members of their community.

How are you going to take advantage of the new teaching facilities that will be available in the Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship?

Active learning — having students engaged with their learning material, rather than absorbing things — is an excellent educational approach. I do not have a cellphone policy in my classroom, and that might be different than what students are used to. I actually encourage students to use them as a tool for communication and learning. I use cellphones as a polling strategy. At the end of every week, I have this online poll in my class. I ask a number of questions, and students use their phones to enter an alias, and answer back. We all look at the results in real time. They really get into it.

I’ve always been about technology, not just for technology’s sake, but using it usefully. I use my smartwatch to see questions come in — I walk around class, holding a tablet. I look forward to how this new landscape of higher education can be shaped by putting students first — each and every one of them!