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This issue of CDTL Brief is the second of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2005/2006 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.
September 2007, Vol. 10 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Joining the Dots
Associate Professor Jeff Obbard
Division of Environmental Science & Engineering

Being recognised for my teaching at NUS in the form of the Annual Teaching Excellence Award was exciting news for me. However, my sense of pride was soon replaced by a mood of reflection as I looked back to 25 years ago when I first became a university undergraduate. A quarter of a century has flown by! I began thinking about the university professors who had taught and inspired me. There were many professors in my department; some were aloof and intimidating, some had limited time for their students and others were great in their research but made lousy lecturers. The ones who inspired me (even to this day) were those who nurtured my quest for knowledge and gave their time to me freely.

As a young, ambitious undergraduate with a raging thirst for my subject, I was keen to impress when I first arrived as a cocky teenager at the university. After all, I was there for a reason-I had chosen my subject (ecology and environmental science) with certainty and I knew I would like to pursue a career in this field. The transition from high school to university was not as smooth as I expected though. It was my fi rst time away from home with new surroundings, new friends, new classes and so on. I felt the culture shock acutely and I was surrounded by professors who had almost god-like status in their reputation. When I received a low grade for my first assignment, I remembered it felt like a slap on the face! I had made the mistake of giving a textbook answer to the question with little thought or research. Although my initial tendency was to blame my poor grade on the excesses at the freshman's ball the night before the assignment was due, it was still a humbling experience and a reality check for me. I realised that giving straight answers to questions will not get me decent grades; I had to be creative, original, organised, structured and precise in my answers.

Looking back, my university experience was like learning to drive a car. Initially I got stuck in first gear as I jerked the accelerator and fumbled for the clutch. Slowly as I became more confi dent, I learnt to multi-task-changing gears smoothly, looking out for dangers and accelerating ahead. After my initial setback, I started to get the hang of writing assignments. I soon learnt how to do my research well, how to give precise and creative answers, how to show independence of thought in my answers and let my passion shine through, giving the professor a little more than he expected. In the midst of all the knowledge I was absorbing through countless lectures, tutorials, laboratory classes and assignments, I recalled having what I can only call 'eureka' moments-brief periods of revelation when I could suddenly see all the complex interconnections in my subject. By the second and third year at university, my mind felt more like a Ferrari engine and there was nothing that could stop me from learning, achieving and becoming a master of the road! Looking back now, the professors who had helped me achieve this, and who still resonate with me today, were the few who imparted knowledge with genuine passion and without reservation. They willingly gave their time to me, encouraged me and nurtured my passion for the subject, and put themselves on the same level as me. They were my 'driving instructors' who forgave my 'faults' and guided me towards my goal.

During my teaching career at NUS, I draw plenty of inspiration from my favourite professors of yesteryear. I make myself freely available to students and always try to break down the barrier of 'them-and-us' that so often exists between teaching staff and students. I believe that a student will strive to perform better when he or she knows that their professor is an ally. On the technical side, I strive to use real life examples of projects in the classroom. I am fortunate to have spent a few years in the private sector as an environmental scientist for an international consultancy company. I strive to make remote and abstract concepts relevant to the working world which students will enter upon graduation. My lectures are enhanced with animation and videos wherever possible, and I make use of the wonderful materials available at the NUS libraries. I also provide all my lecture notes and supporting information online via the university's excellent Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE) in advance of classes, but I provide only the basic information. I stress to my students that full class attendance together with reading of additional recommended materials is necessary if they want to add on to the lecture notes. Thus, lecture notes are provided in a format that encourages students to take additional notes in class. I also strive to use contemporary textbooks that include CD-ROM and online learning materials.

I have also organised career seminars for final year undergraduates by inviting working professionals to talk to students about possible career paths, and I enjoy taking students on field excursions for an 'out of the classroom' teaching experience. I always find it surprising that many environment students from Singapore have not visited their own natural treasures-Bukit Timah, Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa! I also teach a cross-faculty module GEK1522, "Global Environmental Issues" where I often use thought provoking material to create an impact and draw students' attention to the topic. Such techniques help students understand better and facilitate in-depth learning. As an ecologist and environmental engineer who is fascinated with the workings of natural ecosystems and greatly concerned about the accelerating pace of climate change, I try to inspire students from all disciplines and make the subject relevant to them.

I am a firm believer in what William Butler Yates (1865-1939) said: "Education is not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire." The most rewarding part of teaching for me comes through student evaluation feedback. Off-beat comments such as the following are always amusing: "He must have been better looking when he was a lot younger". Other comments like "He should buy himself a new laptop and join the 21st century", are nicely counterbalanced by those along the lines of "Dr Obbard is like one of us. He helped me to join the dots, now I understand." This makes it worthwhile and makes me think of my own favourite professors many years ago.

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Inside this issue
Teaching the Weightier Matters of the Law
Plus est en vous
Joining the Dots
Teaching: A Learning Process for Both the Teacher and Student Alike
My Contributions to the International Mission for Pharmacy Education
The First Few Moments