It’s a philosophy born of personal experience says Victoria’s Dean of Engineering and a recent recipient of both a Victoria University Teaching Excellence and an Ako Aotearoa Tertiary Teaching Excellence award.
“Teaching can be life changing. Most of us have probably had horror experiences, teachers who have turned us off a subject and forever eliminated any desire to pursue it further. We may have also had those special teachers who took that extra interest, put the time in and motivated us to succeed.”
University study confirmed to Dale that being student-centred is what makes the difference.
“I’ve been lectured by some of the best researchers in the world, but when they didn’t give a toss about the people sitting in front of them the learning didn’t happen.
“Every time I am with a student, I know I have the potential to devalue their efforts and ability, leaving them feeling inadequate. Or I can stop everything else I’m doing, listen, guide and encourage. There is no greater reward than imparting passion, knowledge and skills, so that your students feel they can achieve anything they set their mind to. This is my greatest joy and the reason I teach at a university.”
As a result, Dale’s students are among his biggest fans describing him as “the cool uncle you don’t want to disappoint” who oozes “infectious enthusiasm” and has a style that is “engaging and full on” and “very passionate (slightly nuts)”.
Dale’s comfortable with being seen as a little crazy.
“I don’t stand behind a lectern, I wander round all the time. You can tell if students are bored out of their tree, and if they are that’s my fault—it means I’m boring.
“It’s all about being interactive. My students know that if they yawn, they’ve just volunteered for the next question and that’s the fun part too. Some come back to me years later and say ‘I still can’t yawn without thinking of you’.”
In the three years Dale was Deputy Head of School for Engineering and Computer Science (before he took over as Head of School in 2012 and Dean in 2015), he led a national research programme to better understand what engineering students want. As a result, new papers have been introduced at Victoria and others redesigned.
“For example, our students were clear that they didn’t relate to the first-year core Maths paper we were teaching. With colleagues in Mathematics and Statistics, we’ve since constructed courses that are aimed at engineering students—they have labs and robots are used to introduce mathematical concepts. It’s made all the difference.”
Dale’s pleased at the acknowledgement his awards bring, as much for the Faculty of Engineering as for himself, but he’s also a tad anxious.
“I absolutely love teaching and I do it almost by instinct—but all this attention on my teaching practice has made me a little nervous!”