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Canada’s 3M National Teaching Fellowships turn 25

What started as one man’s musings about the impact of teachers in his life has turned into the country’s most prestigious award for university teaching.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 03 2010

For three days in early November, 10 of Canada’s top university teachers will get together at the magnificent Chateau Montebello northeast of Ottawa to discuss their favourite topic: university teaching. They’re this year’s 3M National Teaching Fellows and they are the 25th cohort to gather at the resort since the inception of the prizes in 1986.

The annual awarding of the 3M fellowships is always cause for celebration, but even more so on this 25th anniversary of the program, says Joy Mighty, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

“We don’t do enough celebration of teaching excellence,” says Dr. Mighty. “It is important that we send a message that this is an important part of higher education. These people [the 3M winners] have made a real difference in the lives of students.”

This year’s 10 winners join 238 past recipients representing nearly all disciplines. As the numbers grow, so has the profile and prestige of the awards. Recipients are now feted annually with profiles in Maclean’s magazine and many universities trumpet when one of their professors is named.

Chris Knapper, professor emeritus at Queen’s and a former president of the STLHE, is one of Canada’s foremost experts on educational development. He frequently travels abroad to meet with educators and says Canada’s 3M fellowship program is noticed and “viewed with some envy” for its success and longevity.

The 3M fellows are recognized both for their teaching skills and leadership. As a 3M fellow, says Dr. Knapper, the expectation is that “you are part of a community of people … who try to raise the profile of teaching, spread new ideas about teaching, and help colleagues who are interested about teaching to get better. And I think that’s been successful.”

There is no cash value to the prizes, but the winners are invited to an all-expenses-paid retreat at Montebello, a resort hotel built of massive cedar logs in a wooded setting on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. There is no set agenda, but the winners invariably spend their time discussing their passions: teaching and learning.

Alex Fancy, a professor of French and director of drama at Mount Allison University, was named a 3M fellow in 1988. He still remembers fondly his time at Montebello. “It was absolutely the most energizing professional weekend I’ve ever spent in my life.”

There is no obligation on 3M winners beyond attending the Montebello retreat, but many say they feel a responsibility to continue “to make a difference,” says Dr. Fancy. To that end, he says, several dozen 3M alumni met in Toronto in 2003 to discuss how they could “operationalize this incredible resource that all the 3M fellows represent.”

They decided to form the Council of 3M Teaching Fellows, which now meets regularly at all STLHE meetings; Dr. Fancy served as the council’s inaugural chair. While not all fellows choose to actively participate, a “reasonable percentage do,” he says.

The council has published two books: Making a Difference, a collection of essays and testimonials timed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the awards; and Silences in Teaching and Learning, launched in 2008 to much acclaim. The council has also given workshops at STLHE meetings and held readings and other events across Canada and abroad.

Jean Nicolas, a professor of mechanical engineering at Université de Sherbrooke, is one of this year’s freshman 3M fellows. Although he’s won numerous awards during his career, he says the 3M prize “personally has the most value for me, it’s the one I’m most pleased about.”

He and the other nine winners will be officially recognized at the STLHE annual conference in June in Toronto, and then it’s on to Montebello in November. “This idea of bringing the winners together [at Montebello] to reflect and share ideas about teaching, to discuss challenges and different pedagogical approaches, is extraordinary,” he says. “It’s such a rare opportunity.”

The details of how the 3M fellowships came to be have faded with time but remain almost “folkloric,” says Greg Snow, manager of corporate communications at 3M Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of the large, diversified U.S. manufacturer. The story begins, he says, with the then president of 3M Canada, John Myser.

“One day at a meeting, something had caused John to think about the impact that teachers had had on his life,” recounts Mr. Snow. Energized by that thought, Mr. Myser “encouraged or assigned” a number of people in the executive committee to find a way “to recognize and celebrate university teachers and their contribution to Canadian society.”

The company organized an event in 1985 centred on the health sciences, but it gained little notice. However, around the same time, a fledgling organization called the STLHE was starting up. “I don’t know the exact circumstances, but we found each other,” says Mr. Snow. “You had a company that was interested in recognizing teachers and a very young academic organization that was very eager to do the same.”

According to Dr. Knapper of Queen’s, it was a call by 3M Canada to University of Waterloo President Doug Wright that got the ball rolling. Dr. Knapper, then head of Waterloo’s teaching resource office, was asked by Dr. Wright to meet with the company representatives.

Working with STLHE colleagues, Dr. Knapper put together some proposals, among them the idea of a national fellowship focussing on teaching excellence. 3M Canada agreed. Dr. Knapper coordinated the inaugural event, but the task was then handed to Dale Roy of McMaster University, who helmed the program for the next 15 years. Arshad Ahmad, a 3M winner and business professor at Concordia University, took over as coordinator of the program in 2001.

In some ways, says 3M’s Mr. Snow, the prize has changed little since its inception. But what has changed is that the fellows have become a powerful collective voice and the STLHE “a vibrant, productive organization,” he says. “All the credit for anything that’s happened to strengthen and grow the fellowship awards belongs to the society.”

The praise and admiration is mutual: “They [3M Canada] have been the most wonderful collaborators because they never really sought any kudos or publicity for themselves,” says Dr. Knapper.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the awards, a special one-day conference is being held June 23, just prior to the STLHE annual conference on teaching. Among the speakers are Dr. Knapper and 3M winner Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph.

As part of the celebrations, organizers have contacted past students of 3M winners to ask them what kind of impact the fellows have had on their lives. “We’ve received hundreds of testimonials,” says Concordia’s Dr. Ahmad. That underlines to him the true significance of the awards: “It’s about the students. It’s about learning more than it is about teaching.”

The 2010 3M Teaching Fellows are:

Olenka Bilash, faculty of education, University of Alberta
Kimberley Brooks, faculty of law, McGill University
Anthony Clarke, department of curriculum and pedagogy, University of British Columbia
Clare Hasenkampf, biological sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough
Zopito Marini, faculty of social sciences, Brock University
Alan Morgan, faculty of science, University of Waterloo
Jean Nicolas, department of mechanical engineering, Université de Sherbrooke
Uttandaraman Sundararaj, Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary
Angela Thompson, department of human kinetics, St. Francis Xavier University
Elizabeth Wells, Marjorie Young Bell Conservatory of Music, Mount Allison University

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