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President's Teaching Award: Don Boyes

Senior lecturer is one of two recipients of U of T's highest teaching honour this year

Don Boyes, winner of the 2014 President’s Teaching Award and instructor of most of the geographic information systems (GIS) courses on U of T’s downtown campus, didn’t always plan on being a teacher.

Before joining U of T in 2001, he spent several years as a freelance consultant helping organizations in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to better map and analyze their land to improve resource management.

“It was a great learning experience, as I got to interact with a wide variety of people — I taught them about the potential of digital mapping and analysis, and they taught me about their region and living in the North. I gained a real appreciation for the area in a way that I don’t think would have been possible as an occasional visitor.”

Boyes discovered his love of teaching by accident during his graduate studies at the University of Western Ontario.

Like most grad students, he had worked as a teaching assistant, but it was the chance to teach a ‘breadth’ course for non-geographers “from scratch” that changed everything.

“It was called ‘The Natural Environment’,” said Boyes. “I threw myself into it and was genuinely surprised to discover how much I loved teaching — I spent many hours each week preparing my lectures and I couldn’t wait to get to class.”

That was 20 years ago. Today, he’s every bit as anxious to share his excitement and enthusiasm for his field.

“I relish the challenge of finding a new way to explain a complex topic that makes it clear, understandable and relevant,” said Boyes. “Part of my job is to motivate students to want to learn — and not just download information. If they see the value of what I’m talking about, they will want to learn even more.”

A senior lecturer in the Department of Geography and Program in Planning, Boyes is one of two winners — along with UTM’s Shafique Virani — of a President’s Teaching Award this year. (Read about Virani.)

The awards recognize sustained excellence in teaching, research on teaching and the integration of teaching and research. Winners join the University’s Teaching Academy for a five-year period and receive an annual professional development allowance of $10,000 for five years.

Former student Anna Labetski — who plans to pursue a master’s degree in geospatial analysis at University College, London after a year-long GIS contract with the World Wildlife Fund — credits Boyes for helping her not only to find her passion, but to make a career out of it.

“He’s the reason I love GIS!,” says Labetski. “Despite his extremely busy schedule, he always makes time to be a mentor and supervisor for his students. He is available during and outside of office hours, by email and through the multiple resources he developed for students, ranging from websites to instructional videos.”

Boyes is also a pioneer in online teaching, which he sees as a way to reach more students in new and more effective ways.

“I’m a big believer in giving students lots of options as to how, where and when they learn,” says Boyes. Some students prefer being in class, others want to participate live online, and some prefer to set aside time on their own schedule and watch a recording. Ideally, in any given week, they can choose any of these options. I try to avoid using technology for its own sake, but I’m not afraid to experiment and see what works.”

Boyes is “humbled, honoured and thrilled — all at the same time” to receive the University’s highest honour for teaching. He credits his students who “taught me how to be a better teacher.”

“I hope that they have learned to not be intimidated by something just because it may seem complicated — they are far more capable than they may have imagined.”

Christine Elias is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.