Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto e-Distillations

Professor Andy Dicks named 3M National Teaching Fellow

At the start of each new academic year, hundreds of first-year undergraduate chemistry students eagerly launch their university studies, often with both excitement and trepidation. Students quickly learn though, that when the person at the helm of the class is Professor Andy Dicks, they have a champion in their corner.

Dicks, who has been teaching at the university since 1999, and a member of Chemistry’s teaching-stream faculty since 2001, ensures from day one that his students know that despite the large class sizes common to first-year undergraduate courses, there is as much individual help available to them as they want. This comes as a surprise to many, but to Dicks, it’s an essential element of teaching first-year students.

“I feel it’s important to be kind and fair,” says Dicks of his approach to undergraduate education. “I try very hard to put myself in the shoes of each student.” The transition from high school to university is a difficult one for many students, and Dicks is proud of the efforts made in Chemistry to support them - both in terms of teaching the nuts and bolts of chemistry, and in being available to help with issues beyond the classroom.

The practice is mutually beneficial: as an educator, Dicks’ practice is also enhanced by understanding how students have been studying and what mistakes they may have been making, and students are positively impacted in many ways. Reflecting on her time in Dicks’ classroom, Alexandra Morrissey recalls that she “was inspired by his ability to build confidence, motivate and empower his students to not ask questions but seek their own answers.”

In recognition of this commitment to education, Dicks was named one of ten 3M National Teaching Fellows for 2016. Sponsored jointly by 3M Canada and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE), the 3M National Teaching Fellowship is the only pan-Canadian, cross-disciplinary recognition of educational leadership and excellence in university teaching.

In November, Dicks and the other 2016 3M Teaching Fellows will attend a teaching and learning retreat in Banff, Alberta. In Dicks’ view, the Fellowship is a great opportunity, more than anything else, to meet a diverse group of faculty from across the country, and to learn the perspectives and pedagogical methods employed by other departments and disciplines. This year’s cohort includes educators from departments in science and medicine, social science, humanities and visual arts.

The 3M National Teaching Fellowship follows an already impressive list of university recognitions for his teaching which include the University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Award (2009), the Faculty of Arts & Science Student Union Rini Ghosh Excellence in Teaching Award (2007), the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students/Students’ Administrative Council Teaching Award (2004) and the Faculty of Arts & Science Outstanding Teaching Award (2003).

Among his achievements in the 17 years that he has been teaching, Dicks also counts his contributions to developing green chemistry in the department. In the early 2000s, he worked with students to integrate green chemistry experiments into their undergraduate labs. Today the department has a thriving student-run organization, the Green Chemistry Initiative, and recently became the first Canadian department to sign the Green Chemistry Commitment, an agreement to integrate green chemistry and sustainability instruction as a core teaching mandate.

Dicks has also been heavily involved with the Canadian Chemistry Olympiad program, a competition for elite high school students that operates at the provincial, national, and international levels. He has organized many provincial and national camps at the university for a number of years and has mentored students at five international events. A sports fan with a competitive spirit at heart, Dicks says that he finds the program personally enriching. Next summer is the last year that the National Olympiad Camp will be held at the University of Toronto, and Dicks is hoping to bring a stellar team to the 2017 International Chemistry Olympiad in Bangkok, Thailand.

First though, comes the current academic year. One of Dicks’ courses this semester is CHM 136H, Introduction to Organic Chemistry I. The class kicked off at 9:00 a.m. Monday, on the first day of the new academic year. Dicks welcomed the students in typical fashion. “This is probably your first class at university, and I sincerely mean it when I say it's a privilege to teach you,” he told his class, signaling once again a great start to university studies for hundreds of new undergraduates.

By Mandy Koroniak
Posted November 8, 2016