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Strong teaching by design

Strong teaching by design

Meet the 2010 winner of the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Prof. David Strong, a 1981 Queen's grad, is the
2010 winner of the Alumni Award for Excellence in
Teaching. (Bernard Clark photo)

A few years after graduation, David Strong, Sc’81, told a friend that he hoped to spend the first half of his career becoming the best engineer he could. He then wanted to spend the second half using his work experience to teach others.

After 22 years as a successful design engineer, Strong returned to Queen’s in 2003 to become its first NSERC Chair in Design Engineering. His innovation as a teacher has earned him the 2010 Alumni Award for ­Excellence in Teaching. 

Nominated for the award by his students, Strong wins high praise from his colleagues, ­students, and industry clients for his role in turning students into well-rounded engineers. One ­employer has said that graduates from Strong’s multidisciplinary design stream courses are effectively a year ahead of other new employees in their “apprenticeship of engineering”.

Strong’s approach to pedagogy is a reaction to the “content-driven” model of engineering education that was predominant for years, and which he experienced in university. “In four years as an undergrad,” he says, “no one ever taught me how to run an engineering project. I was technically competent, but I did not understand how to apply the techniques I’d learned. I lacked critical thinking and creativity.”  

Strong learned both skills thanks to mentors at his first job at Alcan R&D. He asked them a lot of questions and learned how to put his training into practice.

Moving from Alcan to a start-up biomedical company, and later to a large consumer products company, Strong refined his ­engineering and problem-solving skills to meet the needs of different industries. He also learned that ­creative design, marketing, and business skills are all components of being a good engineer, and so he continued to seek input from everyone with whom he worked.

Students will always have to learn more after graduation. We need to provide them with sound engineering fundamentals and encourage them to become innovative designers, problem-solvers and life-long learners.

After working in private industry, Strong was excited at the ­opportunity to return to Queen’s and create an innovative, multidisciplinary design stream for engineering students. With rapid technological progress, many engineering programs have become filled with discipline-specific content courses, but the real world of engineering is a multidisciplinary environment. “Students will always have to learn more after graduation. We need to provide them with sound engineering fundamentals and encourage them to become innovative designers, problem-solvers and life-long learners,” says Strong. His goal as a teacher is to incite his students to learn broadly and deeply. “I give them a process to follow, some tools to use, and the opportunity to apply those tools.”

For some fourth-year students, this opportunity comes in the form of a real-world design project for a business client.

In APSC 480 “Multidisciplinary Design Project”, students collaborate to find an innovative solution to a client-based engineering problem, along the way picking up skills in design, communication, project management, economics, ethics, and safety. Each student is also exposed to the skill-sets of students from other disciplines of engineering. This project is often their first experience building something from their own designs. “And that’s when they really take off,” says Strong. “The greatest learning is when the students try to implement their design. Paper designs rarely work the first time. You test and you iterate and you learn.”

Strong notes that he often has to rein in his APSC 480 students, to ensure that they are not spending all their time refining their designs to the detriment of their other classes.

One of his graduate students wrote in a letter of support for his award nomination, “Professor Strong is equally as proud as a parent seeing a student’s achievements, and equally as concerned with helping them overcome challenges in order to succeed.”

Strong is also passionate about ­refining his teaching methods, and in furthering education research in ­engineering. Of his own teaching, he says, “It can’t be stagnant; I seek feedback from past students and clients.”

Two of his graduate students have completed research Master’s degrees focusing on engineering education, and this year, he will supervise two more students in this burgeoning field.

Strong hopes that soon the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science can formally offer graduate degrees in Engineering Education ­Research. He has also brought together his peers from across Canada to share information and ideas at the newly formed ­Canadian Engineering Education Association, which held its inaugural conference at Queen’s in June.

“Teaching is a bit of an awkward word for me,” he says. “It suggests I’m just teaching my students what I know. I truly believe that my best way of teaching is to motivate and guide students to help them learn.”

David Strong will receive the Award for Excellence in Teaching on October 23 at the QUAA Alumni Awards gala on campus.

To learn more about the gala and the Teaching Award, go to www.queensu.ca/alumni.

To learn more about Professor David Strong’s work, go to appsci.queensu.ca/ilc/people/strong.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-3 cover]