Educator Tips from Canada’s Top Professors

By 3M National Teaching Fellows 

We recently asked Canada’s top professors “What would you want high school teachers and guidance counselors to tell students who are considering your discipline?”  Here are their educator tips:


I would advise teachers and guidance counselors to tell students that to really understand biology you need a solid understanding of basic chemistry, some aspects of physics and a willingness to look at phenomena analytically and quantitatively.  Therefore, even if the long term goal is to attain expert knowledge in biology, in the short run students need to master chemistry, math, and some physics.

Basic chemistry, math, and physics are challenging for students because they don’t have a strong enough math background.  So I advise students to make an honest assessment of their mathematical ability and do what it takes to catch up. Tutor, night class, self-study—whatever. Most university-bound students have more than enough intelligence to do the required math, but somewhere along the way they fell down in math and did not ‘get up’.  They should do what it takes to get back on track for the career they want.  

Clare Hasenkampf, Director, Centre for Teaching & Learning, University of Toronto, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Remember that a majority, perhaps a large majority, of students who enter biology as undergrads think they will get into medicine.  They cannot see anything beyond that. This is perhaps because of their own views, or the pressures exerted by parents. All of them should have an alternate plan … in fact, medicine should be the alternate plan.

The irony is that building a career in science means recognizing that many questions have not been answered. So it is the lure of what is not known that attracts people to science. Not the lists of things you think you know.  Being able to say “I do not know” …. “but I know where to look it up” is perhaps the most important trait. 

Therefore, curiosity, enthusiasm, and self-motivation are key characteristics. Being organized, being able to read and follow directions, being able to work with data … to write about your analysis of the data or to speak about your findings, are all talents that should be practiced and enriched by the undergraduate experience. 

If the best you can do is ask “is this testable?”  “will it be on the exam” … then you should find another avenue.

Additionally, Biology is based on the study of diversity.  Whether you are interested in biopharmaceuticals or biodiversity and conservation, you need to know about the diversity of life.  An undergraduate degree in Biology can be a gate opener for work in biology (teaching, research, government, private sector), or it can lead you into interpreting science and biology for others (e.g., people who work in science reporting, whatever the medium – radio, TV, print). 

Experience in writing, in examining and analyzing data, can lead one into entirely different areas such as working with data in a bank.  There are many small (and large) businesses that depend upon biology. In addition to those associated directly or indirectly with medicine are those involved with agriculture, or horticulture (as examples).

Brock Fenton, Professor and Chair, Department of Biology, The University of Western Ontario, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Success in biology does not come from memorizing facts.  It comes from rigorous thinking about complex systems, and from clearly written and spoken communication.  Success in high school physics is a better predictor of success in biology than success in high school biology. (Which unfortunately often does come from memorizing facts).

Lee Gass, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


I would urge high school counselors or teachers to not forget about plants in science/biology curricula.  I have the feeling that this happens, probably less often in provinces like Saskatchewan. But it does happen.  The reason I am saying this is that I accept many, many invitations to visit grade or high school biology/science classes to talk about plants in the most fundamental way.  Sometimes the teacher is unable to tell me what to talk about other than something about plants. I do my best to accept as many of these invitations as I can. Once I brought microscopes to a kindergarten class who wished, believe it or not, to learn something about xylem (water-conducting tissue in vascular plants).  Well, I showed them xylem and they were dazzled.


To successfully talk about plants at any level requires more effort than to talk about animals.  I always put in that effort, both in my invited appearances and in my university courses.  


I hope that grade school and high school teachers know something about plants and are able to present plants with sufficient enthusiasm that the audience may come to realize that plants are fascinating. (Despite their somewhat less than dramatic behaviour.) And they are extremely important to animals, including higher primates like us.


In the end, I know that some students who come to the U of A are not interested in plants, but in some cases have decided that they do not like plants or learning about plants.  I accept that reality and do my best to convince my students otherwise. 

Dave Cass, Professor Emeritus, Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


I think most students tend to choose a broad area (e.g. business) rather than a specific discipline (e.g. Finance). For these students, I counsel them to ask themselves (a) whether they like being very busy with homework, problem-solving (mostly textbook), working in groups, presenting cases, and being part of fairly large classes in the first year; and (b) whether they like being part of competitions, clubs, co-op programs and lots of extracurricular activities.

If the answer is a resounding yes, then business school is a good place for them. Why? Because most of the learning will happen when they are active, doing tasks irrespective of how good their teachers and their lectures are.

As for applicants who are confident about selecting a discipline (say finance). The ones who are successful are those who maintain a high academic standing and spend most of their time being engaged with discipline-related activities. The latter include joining the Finance Co-op Program, the Portfolio management program, Case competitions, Investment Club, and/or Student Council.

Arshad Ahmad, Department of Finance, Concordia University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


There are numerous jobs and careers in chemistry.  For instance, my past students work in the pharmaceutical industry, oil industry, for Heath Canada and Environment Canada, for national research labs, do forensics at the RCMP, perform medical research, and teach—to mention only a few possible careers. 

Students who are fascinated by the world around them are well suited to chemistry and other sciences.  Students who are not satisfied by the “what” of memorization, but rather those who need the “why” of understanding. What does it take to succeed in the pursuit of a degree in chemistry?  Curiosity and a love of learning. It is a field that will continue to change and evolve.

A useful link on careers in chemistry

Regardless of the field, students should seek out career experience early in their studies.  It is one thing to enjoy a class in a subject. However, working in the field gives much richer understanding and appreciation. Both of the subject and whether it is right for the student.  Many BSc programs include explicit work experiences either through co-op ( or internship programs.  National funding agencies such as NSERC also fund undergraduate student research positions (

Charles Lucy, Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Chemistry is the science of materials and the science of life. It is a very exciting field of work with lots of opportunities. Of course, you must love the sciences. You will also do math and should not be afraid (it’s not physics). You will need to work and study hard, but you will have great rewards.

Sylvain Robert, Chemistry-Biology Department, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Most high school students now apply for a post-baccalaureate degree in education. Though a few concurrent programs are offered across Canada. Teaching is a profession that enables people to work in many parts of the world, including in Canada, with the availability of positions affected by declining enrolments or the numbers of qualified teachers in various disciplines. Teaching offers children, young people and adults opportunities to learn. This enables them to change and improve their lives.

High levels of literacy and the ability to critically analyze texts provide access to knowledge and information across many fields in the sciences and humanities. Digital literacies are now changing the way people communicate. However, teaching can refine and build communication skills so that writing is more effective and messages are clear and compelling.

Teachers also act as role models and agents of change by inspiring their students and providing encouragement, hope, and support.

Teachers engage learners and they need to enjoy interpersonal interactions so that enthusiasm and energy enliven teaching, but listening well is also a key element in the communication process. Lastly, teachers are often creative and innovative people who bring ideas into their classrooms in ways that bring learning to life. They need to be responsible, reliable and balanced which helps them to identify and respond to learners’ needs.

Completing a degree in teaching often calls for organizational and planning abilities. Many lessons and courses are designed, developed and delivered. Completing a teaching degree takes patience and a willingness to change because you are constantly striving to improve your own teaching. Learners often need to be motivated because their lives may be difficult. Or learning is very hard because of special needs or lack of understanding.

Fiona Walton, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Engineering is an exciting profession that has many misperceptions. The National Academy of Engineering in the U.S. reported that many teenagers believe “engineering work is sedentary, performed mostly on computers, and involves little contact with other people”. Other research has reported that people describe engineers as being “loners”, having “poor social skills”, and “not engaged with their communities”. As perceptions, these are incorrect!

Engineering is a service profession focused on solving problems for the betterment of society. Increasingly, the profession has been broadening, becoming more interdisciplinary. It also involves work in a variety of fields such as policy, the environment, and medicine (I’m a biomedical engineer). With the large issues facing today’s society (e.g. climate change, rising health care costs, extreme poverty), engineers are uniquely positioned to have a significant impact in our world because of their technical competence, creative problem-solving abilities, and systems thinking.

Engineers are very skilled technically. A good background and ability in mathematics, sciences, and critical thinking are helpful. However, I would say the key to success in any discipline is intrinsic motivation. When students are genuinely interested in what they are doing and driven to put forth the appropriate time and effort in learning, they can succeed!

Adrian Chan, Department of Systems and Computer Engineering, Carleton University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


Engineering is more than Applied Science.  While the subject matter in an Engineering program leans heavily on Math and Science as tools, Engineering is about finding the “best” answer, not the “correct” answer.  Engineers must be creative and interested in solving problems, not just answering questions. Students will, in the course of their undergraduate programs, spend a great deal of time solving constrained problems that have “correct” answers.  This is a learning process that provides a skill base and a theoretical understanding of “how things work”. As their programs progress, they are faced with open-ended problems that require an understanding of how things work. But equally important, how and why various options are accepted or rejected.  Finally, they need to accept that communication in both oral and written formats is critical.  


Engineering students work hard and play hard.  The programs require “good” students but they are not restricted to “super” students.  Some suggest that engineering students are “solitary” academic nerds. Few, if any, successful Engineers fit that mold.  Engineering is done in teams so successful engineers are team players. Nerdy, quite often, but still very socially aware.  The items engineers design shape the physical society in which we live, so being socially aware is critical.

Ron Britton, Faculty of Engineering, University of Manitoba, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


I teach English literature, and the first thing I would ask of high school guidance counselors is that they stop telling smart students to avoid the Arts.  It was a habit when I was in high school, and my own students tell me it persists. The idea that smart students should take sciences, with the unpleasant (and untrue) corollary that the not-so-smart should settle for the Arts.   For those students who truly want to go to university, I’d hope guidance counselors would tell them that the specific discipline they choose matters less than the passion with which they pursue it. And if that passion happened to be literature, I’d encourage those students to read promiscuously (John Milton’s word) and to challenge themselves with a variety of forms and periods and authors.

Shannon Murray, Department of English, University of Prince Edward Island, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


English Literature programs are not creative writing programs. They’re not composition programs. They’re not journalism programs. They can, of course, be excellent training for all three. But the primary subject of an English Literature program is English literature: its history, its methods, its subjects, its importance within and outside the field. These days, it’s more accurately called “literature in English” than “English literature.” But students in any good English program (i.e. pretty much any Canadian university) should still expect to spend more time where its history is longest, on the British Isles, before moving onward and outward into colonial and postcolonial literatures, such as our own.

Nick Mount, English Department, University of Toronto, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


I would tell them that any student who has the ability to think in or handle spatial concepts or patterns would do well to consider Geography.  It doesn’t make any difference whether they are interested in the social sciences or physical sciences, there are specialties within the discipline that focus on looking at and analyzing spatial patterns.

Clarke Thomson, Professor (Retired), Department of Geography, Brock University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


By studying languages, students acquire the tools to communicate efficiently in different languages and also embark on a journey of discovery. People from different cultures possess diverse traits and customs. While uncovering these qualities, students will get to know themselves better.

We may think we are very different culturally from other countries, but finding the similarities already existent on the cultural spectrum, sometimes make us aware of the fact that as much as we tend to believe that we may be different from others, we have many comparable traits. And those are the ones that are going to raise awareness about who we are, how we should live and what we need to make the world a better place.

Studying languages is like obtaining the key to open the door to the world!

Go in!

The world awaits you!

Mercedes Rowinsky-Geurts, Department of Languages and Literatures, Wilfrid Laurier University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


French/Francophone studies offer opportunities for learning, which opens up national and international situations.  The ideal background in this context is immersion, up to and including a certificate usually offered in Grade 12. However, it sometimes happens that students have different priorities in high school. They may choose a general program in French. They may even drop French Studies after the obligatory requirement. Most universities offer the chance to continue after Grade 12. And even to catch up.  In Canada, we have the opportunity of the Explore program, a 5-week immersion program funded by the Federal government and offered in the summer at several Québec universities (and for which credit can be given at home universities).  Explore is not only a highly motivating program, but it is also a way of intensifying skills acquired … or catching up with them.

Students will succeed in French Studies at the university level if their interest and motivation are good. If they are willing to undertake activities and plunge into learning over and beyond basic course requirements. Second language learning is—like many other disciplines—a question of commitment to the discipline of learning, and outreach for the enrichment of learning.

Dana Paramskas, Department of French Studies, University of Guelph, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.

Library and Information Studies

A Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) graduate degree is wonderfully flexible with respect to future career plans. A student can apply to the MLIS program with an undergraduate degree in any subject. So, a student can pursue his/her undergraduate education in any area (e.g. women’s studies, math, engineering, health sciences, history, religious studies, education, political science, etc.). And then target and tailor that curiosity-driven experience to a professional career path in the cultural sector.

The kind of student who fits this bill is one who values his/her education and experience and continues to learn from them in light of new and emergent contexts (legal, cultural, social, political-economic). Strong MLIS students typically make an inherent connection between library and information policy concerns and the relevance of these to everyday life as a citizen in the digital age and information society of the 21st century (e.g. copyright reform, privacy laws, access to government information, right to freedom of expression in a democracy). This connection-making fuels a natural passion for the field and its value to society.

Toni Samek, School of Library and Information Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


A strong sense of altruism remains a key requirement for anyone considering Medicine as a career. But that is not enough. Physicians in Canada must be comfortable working within highly regulated systems. This is because the Ministries of Health demand more and more accountability and are constantly looking for ways to get physicians to embrace the concept of working in groups with other health care workers. So if you get rewards out of looking after the needs of others without losing your patience, and identify yourself as a good team player this might be a wise career choice for you.

You will succeed in Medicine if you have a strong sense of curiosity and love to pursue clues to determine root causes.  There is a strong element of the “detective” in every doc. Increasingly, the tools necessary for such pursuits are technical, no matter what area you practice in.  Consequently, comfort with all things technical is a great asset. Although they are fundamental to medical success, a keen mind and “good hands” are no longer enough. 

You need to be adept at extending these talents with all that the current electronic wizards continue to make available to you.

Finally, doctors must wear many “hats” if they want to succeed.  First, whether it be to patients or true students, much of what doctors do every day is teach.  If you like to stay current in a rapidly changing discipline and can explain things clearly to others who don’t fully understand, you have a distinct leg up on being a good doctor.   Second, if you can organize groups of people and lead, then you have the traits necessary to be a good administrator. A role that is often overlooked when doctors feel fully qualified in every other way.  Many doctors become businessmen out of necessity whether they want to be or not.

Jim Silcox, Professor Emeritus, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Western Ontario, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


High school teachers should understand that there are many avenues for career development within Music.  Although most students end up teaching in some capacity (whether in the school system or in private studios), there are career opportunities in arts administration, librarianship, performance, post-secondary education, and industry. The best training overall comes from programs with a comprehensive classical music focus. Although there are schools that specialize in popular musical styles, jazz, musical theatre, and music technology.  Students who want to go into music programs should have private instruction for several years before auditioning. Additionally, they should make sure they get instruction in music theory. They should have a dedicated approach to their instrument, willing to put in hours each day in practice.

Those interested in public school teaching would do well to take part in community or volunteer activities that involve instructing children. Characteristics and traits include a committed work ethic, attention to detail, ability to relate to others, a spirit of collaboration and inclusivity, and a love of music.  Most students succeed in the discipline when they accept that music study includes the study of music history, theory, analysis, and composition. It is not just “playing an instrument”. The intellectual curiosity about music also needs to be present.

Elizabeth Wells, Marjorie Young Bell Conservatory of Music, Mount Allison University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.


I will be forever grateful that I chose Nursing as my first university degree.  Through all my positions as a practicing nurse, university administrator, and educator, the skills and insights I acquired as a result of taking the nursing program set me up for success in my career. Nursing teaches a student what it means to care for many levels of patients. Whether it is one-on-one with individuals, families, or communities. A person suited for nursing is hardworking, flexible, enjoys people, can make critical decisions, is organized and embraces life-long learning. 

Nursing is an applied art and science so prerequisites include English, Biology, and Mathematics. The nursing programs build on these high school subjects. Students take courses in physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, psychology and other electives in the arts. In the area of nursing, students take courses in nursing theory, skills and research. In first year, they have rotations in clinical areas. So, they are given the opportunity to continuously apply the knowledge to real situations. The nursing program is extremely well organized and demanding.

Olive Yonge, Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.

The 3M National Teaching Fellowship recognizes exceptional contributions to teaching and educational leadership at Canadian Universities.

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