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David Lynch:

What He Does Works

The teaching credo of chemical engineering professor David Lynch, 82 PhD, might be compared to the message in advertisements for Buckley's Mixture: the taste isn't great, but it works.

Information-packed lectures reinforced by daily homework assignments leave no doubt in students' minds that Lynch's courses require hard work, but students usually end up thanking the 1993 Rutherford Teaching Award winner. Kim Neilson and Warren Mitchell, students who nominated Lynch for the award, say, "The homework is challenging, yet not so difficult that it becomes frustrating. We find this method to be highly conducive to better understanding."

Lynch says, "What I find satisfying is that you can do a rigorous, thorough job of teaching, have high expectations of students, and still have them appreciate it and say it's an effective course and they learned a lot." Tough courses can be good courses, Lynch says: "If I didn't challenge my students I'd feel I hadn't done my job."

After completing his undergraduate engineering degree in New Brunswick and his PhD at the U of A, Lynch says he struggled to find a teaching style he was comfortable with. "I thought about the variety of excellent instructors I'd had and tried to combine all their different styles into one." The result, he says, was a hybrid that didn't feel like his own. What trademark qualities have since evolved? "I probably speak too quickly and write too quickly and try to cover too much in the given time," he laughs. "I'm that stereotypical lecturer who walks in with an armful of 15 or 20 pages of notes."

Evidently, what he does works. Alumni who have taken Lynch's courses tell him that, even after working as engineers for several years, they refer back to their notes from his classes for a comprehensive, organized review of certain topics.

But don't get the wrong idea. Lynch shuns a no-nonsense teaching approach, and humor makes his teaching more effective. "Engineering is an extremely serious area. I have to teach it seriously, but I don't necessarily have to be deadly serious teaching it," says Lynch. Digressions allow an instructor to inject a little bit of personality into lectures, especially during the required courses Lynch often teaches. "In a required course perhaps 85 per cent of the material you have to teach is fixed," he says. "It's what you do with that other 15 percent that makes it unique."

Students and colleagues praise Lynch's successful efforts to connect theoretical course material to practical examples. Chemical Engineering Chair Murray Gray recalls when Lynch returned from a McCalla Research Professorship in the fall of 1991 and began teaching a course in equilibrium stage materials: "He contacted the major manufacturers of equipment for staged processes and obtained example materials for classroom use. He not only taught the theory rigorously, but he also presented a wealth of supporting material."

Despite his busy schedule, which involves serving as associate dean of Engineering and directing a research group in the area of chemical reaction engineering, Lynch remains dedicated to teaching. He finds time to prepare for five to six hours David Lynch for each lecture and also do the work associated with the daily assignments he gives his classes.

Teaching and research are equal priorities for Lynch because, as he sees it, the two are integrally connected. Says the Rutherford Award winner: "There is nothing more satisfying than broadening students' understanding of the material by telling them 'this field is alive and evolving, and I'm a part of that research."'

Published Autumn 1993.

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