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Dr. Nora Znotinas wins Teaching Excellence Award
Dr. Nora Znotinas, an associate professor in Laurier’s Department of Physics and Computer science and associate dean: priorities and planning for the Faculty of Science, has been awarded the 2007 WLU Award for Teaching Excellence.
Znotinas, who received her PhD in systems design engineering from the University of Waterloo in 1984, joined Laurier the same year as an assistant professor in the department of physics and computing. She left teaching in 1993 to become Laurier’s director of computing and communication services, a position she held until 2000, when she returned to the classroom. She was promoted to associate professor in 2003.
Znotinas teaches “a whole stable of courses, primarily in the computer electronics area.”
“I’m not a super-dynamic lecturer,” she says. “I don’t do the performance thing. But I’m hyper-organized, and I think the material, in and of itself, is fascinating if taught properly.”
In her teaching dossier, Znotinas describes her teaching philosophy:
“I strongly believe that one learns by doing, and that belief is the foundation of my teaching philosophy. I’m sure this view is a result of my training as a design engineer, where I did design projects every term during my undergraduate years.
“The projects were challenging, interesting, frustrating, and rewarding. I learned how to find and integrate knowledge from various sources, I gained confidence in my abilities, I learned how to work in teams (and how to select teams that work) and I succeeded.
“My goal in teaching a course is to give this same experience to my students. I want to change how students perceive and view technology. I’m actively seeking that indescribable moment when you look at a student and you ‘see’ the light bulb go on; that moment is my reward.”
And that moment does occur.
“I like being able to present students with a problem at the beginning of the term that blows their minds,” Znotinas says, “and a lot of them are amazed at what they’ve accomplished by the end of the year.”
Her courses, particularly in third and fourth year, tend to project-based.
“I like to do cool stuff,” she says, and that often involves robotics, which the students design and program to do certain things like follow a course around a room. She never has to worry about plagiarism, she adds, because each project is unique.
Fun and games? Maybe, but that’s just one component of learning.
“You’re going to work for my course,” she tells students at the beginning, adding that they’ll probably have to spend 10 hours a week on this course.
“I run a very interactive class. I don’t supply all the answers. I make them tell me what the next step will be, and if they choose a wrong answer that’s not necessarily bad. I like to get two or three answers so we can discuss why others aren’t correct.
“By the end of lectures, there should be nothing to study for the final exam, which is always open book. Life is (an) open book. The book is for reference. Questions require either short answers or I put design questions on the final, things they’ve never seen before. If they can take what they’ve learned and apply it to a new context, then they know the stuff.”
“Dr. Znotinas’ exams are the most difficult exams I have ever written,” a fifth-year student wrote in support of Znotinas’ nomination for the teaching award. “They are always open-book exams, yet she always includes a question at the end of the exam that allows her to determine who has a good grasp of the concepts taught in the course and who doesn’t. This makes the exams much more time-consuming to mark, but it truly allows her to differentiate the A students from the B students from the C students, etc.”
And a recent graduate wrote: “Each course Dr. Znotinas teaches requires a lot of work and perhaps some lost sleep. All this hard work pays off in the end, especially in the field of computer science. Call it a boot camp that prepares you for reality…. The knowledge gained from taking her courses is currently driving my career towards success.”
The teaching award will be presented to Znotinas at the Spring convocation.