In Conversation with Dr. Imran Cheema, Awardee Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2021-22
One of the winners of this year’s Vice Chancellor’s Awards for Teaching Excellence is Dr. Imran Cheema, Assistant Professor, Electrical Engineering at the Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering (SBASSE). Dr. Cheema’s teaching philosophy is grounded in his overarching aim to ‘stimulate joy in his students’ learning experiences’ and cultivate ‘ah ha’ moments where their learning becomes visible. As one of his students proudly shared, “He inculcated this sense of intellectual and scientific curiosity which was highly infectious; he would encourage me to cross boundaries in my intellectual journey and expand my knowledge.”
Dr. Cheema’s excellence in teaching electrical engineering has been recognised by students and colleagues for its academic rigour and how he engages students to help them learn complex mathematical and scientific concepts. Whether he is using real-life examples, visualisations and demonstrations or metaphors, he aims to reach all his students to help them learn. Dr. Cheema’s incorporation of varied assessment techniques and his responsiveness to regular student feedback on his teaching and course design help to ensure that student learning is at the heart of his teaching. He is without a doubt one of LUMS most highly effective instructors, and a caring mentor who enthusiastically inspires students to love complex subjects of engineering and science.
During a conversation with Dr. Cheema, we learnt more about his thoughts on winning this award, and his diverse experiences in the classroom.
How would you describe your teaching style? What ‘innovative pedagogical approaches' do you practice to keep students excited about learning electrical engineering?
My classes are generally mathematically rigorous. For the students to make physical sense of math, I always provide related intuitions coupled with metaphors or analogies, which are well-established ways of enhancing students' learning experiences. I show animations in almost every class to illustrate concepts and do in-class experimental demonstrations or take students to my research labs to improve their understanding of concepts. To keep students engaged, I utilise demonstrations and initiate interactive discussions towards learning concepts. I regularly use technology in my classes in the form of Microsoft Surface Pro, on which I show animations and then do scribbling on those for elucidating concepts thoroughly. I motivate my students by giving practical and research-based applications of discussed concepts in almost every class. I often ask my students to unlock their imaginations and think of the unthinkable, whether they are doing a project or solving open-ended problems in their exams or assignments.
For many years, I have been a firm believer in the Feynman Technique to develop lifelong learning of a subject. The technique involves learning a concept and explaining it to a friend in simple words to refine your understanding. I teach and encourage my research mentees and students to apply the Feynman Technique in their learning journey. I also ask my students to make sure that they explain their research to their family and friends.
How much do your research and past industrial experience aid you in your teaching?
Very much. My industrial experience helps me paint a picture for students of how their learned concepts can be utilised in existing or possible future practical applications. I firmly believe that research and effective teaching go hand in hand. I am a sample of the SBASSE galaxy, which is full of great researchers and outstanding teachers. The research and teaching at SBASSE are not only creating extraordinary science but also immensely impacting our society in various areas, including energy, water, and health sectors.
Amongst your various achievements, what is one thing as a teacher that you are really proud of?
I become the happiest when I receive messages from my former students saying that their training at our department and school has made a massive difference in their professional lives.
Your students speak very highly of your teaching style. How have your interactions with your students informed your teaching throughout your career?
My interactions mostly boil down to the following fundamental questions; Are students enjoying their learning while receiving quality scholarship? Can they connect dots by understanding practical and research applications of learned concepts and tools? Am I considering student feedback to improve various components of the courses?
What are your goals for your teaching career?
My teaching goals involve inspiring my students to gain knowledge with excellence so that they can develop engineering companies, particularly in Pakistan. I also want to see my students as professors at national and international universities where they develop cutting-edge research technologies to impact the world and humanity. My wish for my students is to pursue their careers with empathy, discipline, and most importantly, honesty, and remember the following verse by Iqbal:
محبت مجھۓ ان جوانوں سے ہے ستاروں پہ جو ڈالتے ہیں کمند
Are there any teachers in your life who have inspired you?
Yes, many people have inspired me in various teaching aspects. Chronologically, I learned the art of students' engagement and interaction from Prof. Nauman Zaffar, who was then at UET Lahore, now is at LUMS, and his extraordinary classes. Prof. Shahid Bokhari, who was also at UET Lahore and is now an independent researcher, showed me great teaching methods and emphasised discipline and integrity. Prof. Frank Barnes, from University of Colorado Boulder, taught me not only basic optics but also inculcated brilliant strategies for learning and teaching concepts. Also from University of Colorado Boulder, Prof. Robert McLeod's mesmerising classes exposed me to the skill of creating intelligent connections between learned concepts and industrial and innovative research applications. From McGill University, Prof. Andrew Kirk's mentorship demonstrated to me the importance of giving independence to students optimally in their learning journey and the use of technology in running effective classrooms. Prof. Andrea Armani from the University of Southern California, showed me how to induce lifelong learning in students and to always be connected and available to mentor former students. From the University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Asad Abidi's Teaching the Teachers workshops at LUMS trained me to teach rigorous mathematical concepts to students intuitively and effectively.
What value does the Vice Chancellor's Award for Teaching Excellence hold for you?
I am profoundly honoured and humbled to receive this award. I believe that this award is a team effort and is possible only due to the contributions of many people over the last many years. These include my family, mentors, the SBASSE family, and my students. I do not have words to thank them for their continuous impact on my ever-evolving teaching journey.