Mentorship inspires excellence in teaching award winner

For Jeffrey Atkinson, the award is the icing on the cake.

“To be nominated by my peers is truly wonderful,” said Atkinson, recognized in front of his Faculty of Mathematics and Science colleagues at the Friday, June 8 Spring Convocation ceremony with the Faculty’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The real motivation however, comes from a desire to be part of what he feels is the highest form of learning — passing on knowledge and skills to his students.

With teaching evaluations that routinely refer to him as an “excellent prof” and the “best professor I’ve ever had,” it’s clear he’s a respected teacher in his chemistry and biotechnology courses.

Teaching Excellence Award winner Jeffrey Atkinson, left, seen with Honorary Doctorate recipient Edward Burtynsky on stage during Convocation.

Ejaz Ahmed, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Science, said Atkinson exemplifies the quality of teaching found in the Faculty.

“From research excellence and distinguished teachers like Jeffrey, our Faculty and staff provide students with exceptional learning opportunities. I am exceedingly proud of his work and ongoing commitment to students,” he said.

The award comes as the professor and current departmental chair celebrates 25 years with Brock’s Department of Chemistry.

During his time at Brock, Atkinson has watched the mode of delivery shift from chalkboards to overheads to PowerPoint. Despite the change, one thing has remained constant: the lasting impact his teaching has had on students.

“Often when my past students have returned to say hello, they will speak of those times when the lecture was forgotten, a story was told, and a moment was shared,” said Atkinson. “That they would remember something years later that only took a minute, shows me how deeply personal learning can be and how fun it is to teach smart, engaged people.”

Along with earning a reputation for being an exceptional educator, Atkinson also has a long and successful record of supervising students. He has graduated a total of 59 graduate and fourth-years Honours undergraduate students, with six thesis supervisions currently underway.

Atkinson has also been a dedicated mentor to a host of undergraduate summer students, many funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Undergraduate Student Research Awards (NSERC USRA). Since 1996, he has been involved in the acclaimed high school Science Mentorship Program.

“All of these students have gone on to successful careers in research, teaching or industry,” said nominator and Chair, Centre for Biotechnology, Art van der Est.

Having had excellent teachers at all levels of his schooling, Atkinson understands the importance of mentorship.

“Mentoring can be as simple as pointing out patterns. In the laboratory setting where I get to know my students best, these moments come when the students question the results of an experiment or suggest a new, better way to do something,” he said. “That’s when teaching becomes a partnership and that’s special.”

Quick to credit students in his lab, Atkinson also champions for their success at Brock and beyond.

Students like Biological Sciences graduate Lucas Maddalena, regularly acknowledge the role he played in their studies. Currently working on his PhD at the University of Cambridge after accepting a prestigious $300,000 scholarship, Maddalena credited the support of his MSc supervisors, including Atkinson.

Atkinson’s love of teaching extends to the community. For a number of years, he offered a course entitled “Introduction to the Science of Biotechnology for Non-Scientists” through BioTalent Canada, a non-profit organization whose mandate is to provide human resources information and skills development tools to the biotechnology industry in Canada.

More recently, he has been working with Partners in Research Canada as a Virtual Researcher on Call (VROC), speaking to teachers and their Grades 4 to 12 classes about science, chemistry, biochemistry and what life at university is like for both students and teachers. The participating schools have been local to Niagara, wider ranging in Ontario and as far away as Iqaluit.

“It is very rewarding to watch young scientists develop and feel the spark of discovery, the pride of problem-solving,” said Atkinson. “I think that helping students learn how to learn is maybe as important as the course content.”

His work has been a reflection of a simple, but effective learning model: learn it, do it, teach it.

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