Engineering professor brings energy and heart to program

No one who knows Alex Czekanski, the NSERC/Quanser Chair in Design Engineering for Innovation at York University, would be surprised to learn that he was awarded the President’s University-Wide Teaching Award for his work in experiential education.

Alex Czekanski

Czekanski, an associate professor, helped create York University’s fledgling mechanical engineering program from the ground up and he works hard to ensure that classes meet the required learning outcomes, as well as the career needs of his students. He has also introduced design engineering to the curriculum, backed by government and industry sponsorship.

“It is an opportunity to build a program, to provide ideas and implement them,” Czekanski said. “We had to deliver.”

And deliver he does. He believes in providing his students with an understanding of how their classes relate to the working world. He also offers them opportunities to try their hand at real engineering tasks, whether in the classroom, the lab or extra-curricular clubs. Czekanski has established a design club, a motorsport club and a mechanical engineering club for the students. He also oversaw the outfitting of the school’s machine shop and materials lab.

“I am preparing students for careers, not jobs, and experiential learning is key,” Czekanski said.

He has had a big impact on the Lassonde School of Engineering since he arrived in 2014 after spending nine years working in industry. In Czekanski’s eyes, industry experience adds another layer to his teaching, because he can provide his students with real-world examples to illustrate engineering concepts.

“He loves to relate things back to industrial applications and make those connections,” said Farouk Wahsh, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student.

Czekanski also ensures that his students have firsthand exposure to the perspectives of working engineers. He brings practising engineers to all of his classes as guest speakers, and each semester, he arranges a visit to industry, complete with a tour and face-to-face interactions with engineers. However, the students don’t go to these visits without preparation.

“We work with the Career Centre and the Student Centre so they learn to write resumes and learn about professional ethics and conduct,” Czekanski said. “These trips allow the students to get an idea of where they might like to work after graduation: in research and development, quality control or legal issues, for example. They begin to see subspecialties.”

In addition to overseeing curriculum development, teaching classes, organizing extracurricular clubs and equipping labs, this man-in-motion supervises graduate students and employs undergraduate students in his labs.

Minha Ha, one of the first two female PhD students in mechanical engineering, is one of his graduate students.

“Alex is resourceful and supportive,” she said. “He’s always creating opportunities to connect with people; he’s a good example of a mentor.

“We butt heads, but he’s right there with me. He knows the importance of presence, but he doesn’t micromanage. He makes a long-term investment in his students: He teaches them initiative and they eventually start contributing ideas.”

Diego Moraes, a master’s degree student in mechanical engineering is pleased with the freedom he has to conduct his research as he sees fit.

“Alex lets you take control of your research, but he’s there when you need help, either referring you to specialists or himself,” Moraes said. “He lets us guide our own path, but makes suggestions.”

Wahsh is enthusiastic about Czekanski’s support. “He’s one of the few professors who goes out of his way, especially with undergraduates.”

Given his passion for both his students and his chosen field, Czekanski will undoubtedly continue to surprise and delight classes with his out-of-the-box thinking.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus