Creative approaches to teaching and a sympathetic ear are the hallmarks of Ayodeji Jeje, P.Eng., a chemical and petroleum engineering professor at the Schulich School of Engineering. If you expect strong values from students, he says, you’d better demonstrate them yourself
BY GAIL HELGASON
THREE DECADES LATER
Did it ever occur to you that drilling home a lesson in chemical engineering might involve buying yogurt for your students? It did to Ayodeji Jeje, P.Eng.
That’s just the kind of creative approach to teaching that makes him an inspiring and effective educator.
The point of the yogurt lesson was to demonstrate how red dye can be extracted from solid matter. A substance from the cochineal insect of Mexico has been used for red textile dye for centuries, most famously for tunics for the British Army’s Redcoats. Today industry uses the dye in food products.
“We did all the calculations,” recalls Dr. Jeje, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering who’s been with the University of Calgary since 1980. “Then I gave the students yogurt, and I got some reaction, because the dye is from an insect. They couldn’t believe it.”
Dr. Jeje’s passionate, creative approach to teaching earned him the 2008 APEGGA Excellence in Education Award, through the Summit Awards program.
New Year, New Problems
As an educator, the Nigeria-born Dr. Jeje aims to make learning challenging and interesting. He informs students at the beginning of each term, for example, that examinations will present new problems, not last year’s dusted-off ones.
“Once that’s clear, students rise to the challenge. I stress that it’s not the problem that matters, it’s how you think about the problem.”
Dr. Jeje believes in the parental model. “If you want to teach values and morals at any level, you give encouragement, you provide challenge, and you show that you care and notice the effort. That is very important to me.”
And engineering is very important to improving living standards. As a child in a Third World country, young Ayodeji looked around him to see its effects. “I could see that most of the changes in society were affected by engineering — the roads, the buildings, the water system, the packaged food, the paint, the paper, your vehicle.”
Teaching also beckoned early for Dr. Jeje. In fact his father’s first career was teaching, although he went on to become a diplomat in the civil service in London.
America and Back
Following high school and a scholarship to an American university, Dr. Jeje chose Purdue University in Indiana — after his father pointed out that three of the first seven astronauts studied there. He completed his undergraduate degree in two years, then obtained his master’s and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Industrial experience followed, including a stint at the Polaroid Corporation where he was one of the engineers working on the revolutionary SX-70 film.
Returning to Nigeria for an academic appointment, Dr. Jeje found himself helping to build a chemical engineering department at the University of Lagos. “We put up the building, we staffed it and we taught at the same time,” he says. “Trying to put in modern, first-rate equipment in a developing country was not easy.”
Dr. Jeje accepted his position at the University of Calgary in 1980, following a visiting professorship at Harvard. He expected to stay a year.
“Now it’s 29 years later,” he says with a laugh. Early on, he and his wife had two young children. They realized their supposedly temporary home in Canada “would be just a great place to bring up kids.”
For the last eight years, Dr. Jeje has also served as associate head of undergraduate studies for the department. If someone’s grades are falling for no apparent reason, Dr. Jeje makes a point of asking if the student wants to talk. Many problems can be resolved quite easily. “It’s mostly listening, and not judging.”
As the associate dean of teaching and learning since 2003, Dr. Jeje has put his infectious love for his job to good work. He inspires teaching assistants and other faculty members through sprightly, well-attended workshops.
Not Right is Not Always Wrong
The focus is again on the parental model, providing encouragement, challenge, emotional support and recognition of effort. That may mean showing teaching assistants, for example, to reward more than the right answer when they mark papers.
“Sometimes a student may approach a problem correctly but not in the way that was expected. I have to tell the assistants that this may also be a perfectly valid way.”
Dr. Jeje’s contributions at the U of C also include chairing the Academic Programs Committee of the General Faculty Council. His wide-ranging volunteer work extends into the larger community, and includes mentoring in the Rotary Club of Calgary’s Stay-in-School Program.
As an engineer, he believes it is important to contribute to society in ways that go beyond the technical. Critical life skills like listening, communicating and experiencing the joy of learning are meant to be shared and passed along. “If you can be part of that, it’s great.”