Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Inspiring students: Dedication trumps high-tech

Concordia's Venkatanarayana Ramachandran helps students succeed

Venkatanarayana Ramachandran decided in the fall of 1979 to step down as the graduate program director in what was then Concordia’s Department of Electrical Engineering, but students rallied for his return. They wrote to the department chair, citing Ramachandran’s humble and unselfish dedication to their welfare as “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Venkatanarayana Ramachandran
Venkatanarayana Ramachandran
Their appeal worked, and Ramachandran spent another four years in the position before deciding once and for all that administration wasn’t where he wanted to put his energies. Instead, the professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science has devoted his career to instructing his students with the same dedication that he demonstrated in his former administrative role.

His numerous teaching and research accolades include most recently the 2009-10 President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, Full-Time Faculty. The award’s accompanying citation notes his “unsurpassed reputation among his students for innovation in teaching methods, clarity in explanation, perseverance with classroom instruction, and availability above and beyond conventional lecture hours.” The citation further recognizes him as “a true educator, in that his success is measured in the success of the thousands of students he has taught.”

Ramachandran’s approximately 20 other awards include the Outstanding Contribution Award from Concordia’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, the Merit Award from the Concordia Council on Student Life, and the 1997 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. The American Society for Engineering Education has recognized him with its Centennial Award. He is also the recipient of a medal from IEEE (Canada) for the Outstanding Educator Award and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers made him a Fellow Member in 1989.

Somewhere along the way, Ramachandran has also found time to write four books, course notes and laboratory manuals on his areas of expertise that can help other professors to teach students about circuits and systems, and modelling techniques.

Ramachandran began his academic career in India on January 17, 1958, two days after his MSc training period ended. His distinguished supervising professor, K. Sreenivasan, “the first person to teach electronics in a university department in an independent India,” pulled out all the stops to get Ramachandran an academic appointment. “We didn’t get along that well; any other administrator would have just thrown me out. But he recognized only one thing: merit. That was a great quality for me to learn, and I never returned from India without visiting him.”

Ramachandran arrived at Sir George Williams University in 1969 after a brief time at the Nova Scotia Technical College (now part of Dalhousie University).

His focus has always been on helping students. “Each year, the student body is different and I have to adapt myself to that,” he says.

Ramachandran reverted to old-fashioned chalk on a board about five years ago when he realized that the information was being conveyed too quickly in PowerPoint and slide presentations for students to follow. He extols his low-tech method for providing students with ample time to copy information.

He regularly pauses to scan the faces in his classroom for signs of comprehension, and to encourage students to ask questions. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” he emphasizes, hoping that will persuade shy people in particular to ask for clarification when they don’t quite grasp a concept.

Another way he combats student reticence is through an open-door policy with “lots of time for consultation, including Saturdays,” hoping this individual time for consultation motivates students to present their concerns. “If I don’t know what they don’t know, it’s very hard to figure out what to do,” he emphasizes.

Related links:
•    Concordia Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science:
•    Concordia Council on Student Life
•    American Society for Engineering Education
•    Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Originally published on Concordia NOW.

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