In Conversation with Dr. Rahman Shah Zaib Saleem, Awardee Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2021-22
Dr. Rahman Shah Zaib Saleem at the Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering (SBASSE), is one of the five awardees for the Vice Chancellor’s Awards for Teaching Excellence 2021-22. The Award celebrates exceptional and inspirational teachers at LUMS.
An outstanding Chemistry and Chemical Engineering teacher who uses “innovative pedagogical approaches to keep students excited” about learning the subject, Dr. Saleem is no ordinary faculty.
The best part about him is that he gives a lot of importance to student mentorship and partnership. His dedication to helping students become the next generation of scientists who can make a difference in Pakistan and beyond is unparalleled. Dr. Saleem makes “complex theoretical content meaningful to students by encouraging multi-dimensional, out-of-the-box thinking through a variety of assessments and engaging learning activities. From tracing the historical evolution of concepts to highlighting cutting-edge research and dominant unanswered questions, he transforms theory into applicable, real-world problems for his students to solve.
Talking about his teaching style, one of his students commented, Dr. Saleem, “…was one of those few instructors who focused on understanding rather than covering the course content” and has been a kind and caring mentor whose “…one-to-one interaction did not stumble even in quarantine as he was always one message away…”
We sat down with Dr. Saleem to learn more about his teaching, his inspiration and what he thinks about the awards. Here is what he had to say.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
Chemistry is among the most important areas of science that provides solutions for various challenges being faced by mankind, whether it is related to discovering novel drugs to improve human health, developing novel pesticides and fertilizers to improve agriculture, understanding and mitigating environmental challenges, or overcoming energy crisis through novel battery materials or solar energy harvesting dyes. Nonetheless, it is perceived as a dry subject. During my studies, telling someone that I was a student of organic chemistry never proved an icebreaker, rather, it led to stories of how others find it difficult or the perceived complexity of this subject or the way it was taught led them to avoid it in their studies. Becoming a teacher of Chemistry carried a sense of purpose for two reasons. First, teaching, for me, is a profession that transforms lives through education thus positively impacting the lives of my students. Second, it was a way for me to make an effort in conveying complicated chemistry topics in a simplified yet effective manner and making the subject interesting for my students, something that I had experienced through my teachers, but I feel many had missed.
Amongst your various achievements, what is one thing as a teacher that you are really proud of?
There are various moments that I can recall. During the lecture, looking at the students actively participating and discussing is very pleasing. Mentoring students to overcome their challenges, academic or personal, has been gratifying.
However, being a strong proponent of spending all efforts to build the future of this country through educating the next generation, seeing my students performing well and securing graduate placements in the top universities in the world makes me really proud. Interacting with alumni, and listening to their accomplishments and success stories is a sheer pleasure and I look forward to them contributing to the betterment of science and society.
What value does the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence hold for you?
It is surreal. I’m grateful for the nomination and recognition. It is a blessing to have a galaxy of great mentors and teachers around me who are dedicated to doing their best and imparting quality education. Being nominated for the award from this galaxy was huge and becoming a recipient of this award is an absolute honour for me. It gives me a vibe like winning an Oscar but instead of a theatrical performance, mine was a classroom performance.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank the VC and LLI team for initiating this excellent initiative to celebrate the efforts that our faculty puts into teaching and student mentoring.
Your students speak very highly of you giving so much importance to student mentorship and partnership? How have these interactions with your students informed your teaching throughout your career?
Overall, I feel that my teaching has been greatly and positively impacted by my students. When I first started teaching, I was fresh out of grad school and had a passion to teach my students everything that I knew in the assigned course.
Over the years, my interaction with students has impacted my teaching. I developed an understanding of designing course learning outcomes according to the course needs for the effective learning of a diverse set of students. I have experimented with various assessment tools to optimize student evaluation of different courses. Nowadays, while introducing the course outline to my class during the first lecture, I do not hesitate in saying to the students that I am also a student, and we will learn something new from this course. So, while I teach the topics of the syllabus and mentor them during the semester, they make me think about the course contents and method of delivery and at times pose really interesting questions.
Students have also made an impact on my teaching through informal feedback that I get from them or at the time of contestation of graded components. Over these years, I have also learned about understanding each student as an individual that may need social-emotional learning and support. This has led to my evolution in terms of helping students make connections between what they are learning and how this learning can help them create their future.
What ‘innovative pedagogical approaches’ do you practice to keep students excited about learning Chemistry?
Well, I think there is no single magical potion, and the exact ingredients vary based on the course as well as the batch being taught. Over the years, I have learned that there are quite a few things that excite students and increase their interest in the topic being taught. In some instances, introducing students to the historic perspectives works well, while in others, relating the topic to its application in the industry excites them. At times, giving students a free hand to design a synthesis of a molecule and discussing various possible routes lights up their eyes, and for some other topics giving students an instrument demo of how a technique, being taught in the class works and excites students. For some topics, I find student learning through practice assignments more effective, and for others, I engage students through graded assignments.
I have also learned that taking regular quizzes keeps students engaged with the course. Similarly, the opportunity to prepare and present a topic as a presentation enhances their involvement in the course. Then, there are times, when I engage students by talking about the wider perspective and putting a question in front of them about why they are in this university, in this subject, and in this course and how performing well in this class can impact their career and life goals.