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Top teacher knows his class

by Michèle Nardelli

Education Minister Julia Gillard presents Dr Aziz with his award.It may have been a delightful surprise for Associate Professor Mahfuz Aziz when he was named the Prime Minister's University Teacher of the Year for 2009 in Canberra at the end of November, but it would have been no shock to his students.

Lecturer in engineering, Dr Aziz is well known among engineering students at UniSA as someone who really cares about them.

Third-year Bachelor of Engineering: Computer Systems student, Simon Kupke says what is clear about Dr Aziz is his personal commitment to his students.

"Dr Aziz is our lecturer but it is nothing for him to pop into our tutorials and practical sessions just to see how we are going and make sure we have a full understanding of what we are learning," Kupke says.

"He also is careful to make the relevance of what we are learning a key part of how he teaches, so he'll share his industry experience of the working applications of the theory.

"Everything we study with him is made relevant because he shows us why things are applied in certain ways. He also gives us extra exercises that support our chances of getting good jobs when we graduate. You always know he cares about how you are doing."

The premier university teaching award follows Dr Azis' earlier recognition in the Australian Teaching and Learning Council's Awards for Teaching Excellence the field of physical sciences.

The $50,000 award recognises an academic with an exceptional record of advancing student learning, educational leadership and scholarly contribution to teaching and learning.

Prof Aziz leads first year engineering programs across UniSA's Division of Information Technology, Engineering and the Environment.

His approach to teaching is deeply rooted in his belief that "one size fits all" never applies to people in a learning environment.

"I have to know my students – both their academic and their cultural backgrounds if I am to give them the best learning opportunities," Dr Aziz says.

"Increasingly, diversity is the hallmark of student populations – they are a mix of mature age and school leavers; local and international students; and those who have come to university via TAFE. It is vital to understand how both their educational and cultural experiences impact on how they learn.

"Interacting with students therefore is vital. You have to do more than just deliver lectures – you need to see how they are coping across the spectrum of their learning engagement – in tutes, practicals and all their other activities."

Dr Aziz says the award is a great honour but in no small part reflects UniSA's investment over the past three years in reinvigorating approaches to teaching.

"I'm grateful to be working for a university that is committed to delivering real excellence in teaching.

"The changes made in engineering – such as a common first year, a new specially designed experiential learning space and systems to identify students who are struggling – help to prepare our students to succeed and our graduates to work in multidisciplinary teams.

"At a School level, I am also very grateful for the support and collaboration of my colleagues."

The Prime Minister's Teacher of the Year Award acknowledges Dr Aziz's sustained contributions in teaching and learning, locally and internationally over the past 20 years.

Moving from Bangladesh to Australia in 1999, Dr Aziz has used his experience of teaching in a new context to create programs that help students adapt to the new social and educational environment that university provides.

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Høj said the entire university community is very proud of Dr Aziz's achievement.

"Mahfuz is a wonderful example of what it takes to be an excellent university teacher – he is dedicated to his students and has a real passion to ensure that they have a quality educational experience at university – one that is relevant, informed by the latest research and delivered with genuine enthusiasm and care," Prof Høj said.

"We have made a significant investment at UniSA in reshaping the student learning environment so that all students can benefit from the elements of good teaching that Mahfuz so clearly has brought to his students. This approach is invaluable because it helps us deliver the best graduates for the workforce."