The Engineering Society would like to extend their congratulations to Prof. David Mather who was selected by the Teaching Excellence Award Committee as the Spring 2020 Recipient of the Friend of Natalie Award.
This award recognized an Engineering faculty or staff member who advocates on behalf of students to decrease factors that have a negative effect on students’ mental health, specifically by showing a long-term commitment and vested interest in the betterment of student mental health.
We would like to congratulate Prof. Mather for taking action to directly improve the mental health of students and thank him for all he has done to help ensure the mental wellness of not only his students, but the university community as a whole!
Why/When did you decide to work at Waterloo?
I attended UW for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering, finishing in 2000. I then worked for about ten years as an engineering consultant and continued living in the KW area. Around 2010 I had the opportunity to teach a few courses at UW, and I gradually transitioned to teaching full-time by about 2016. Currently, in addition to teaching, I’m working on a PhD in Sustainability Management in the UW Faculty of Environment.
What is your favourite part about interacting with students? How does teaching help contribute to that interaction?
It is great when a student who has been struggling throughout the term achieves a good result on a difficult final exam. I try to approach my job as helping students to figure out how they can be successful in their program.
What is your philosophy related to mental health?
I feel that many stresses that we place on ourselves can come from unrealistic or impractical definitions of “success”. We hear constant messages and pressure about “being the best”, or expectations to accumulate “trophies”—such as earning high marks for students. We do not have to limit our definition of success to a small set of metrics imposed because they seemed convenient to someone else. By definition, only a small fraction of students can earn the “highest marks” in their class—but that does not mean that we cannot help the whole class develop capabilities needed to help them become good engineers. Doing a good job in a challenging situation should be viewed as a success.
How does your work with the Wellness Committee help with providing good support to students?
The MME Wellness Committee started in January 2020. This committee is composed of students, staff, and faculty from the MME department. The meetings occur once a month—although it has been disrupted for the last few months as we have been adjusting to work in the physically distant paradigm.
At these meetings, we discuss observations and comments about issues occurring within the department (and university) that may be contributing to mental health concerns. Presently our main objective is to identify, recommend, and help implement small changes intended to reduce contributors to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Sometimes issues which may seem small or insignificant from one person’s perspective can be hugely important to another person—and a small adjustment for one person may provide substantial improvement for another. We are trying to find these situations and work to improve the situation.
Given the opportunity, how would you like others to improve how we deal with mental health?
I would like the UW engineering community—including students—to recognize that we impact those around us, even though we often do not realize it. Students are under a lot of stress, but so are staff and instructors. Our individual actions can unintentionally cause stress on another person, which can contribute to that person acting in a way that stresses another person, continuing from person to person. However, the same can be true of acting with greater awareness of our impacts on others.
How have you been approaching the current and upcoming online terms?
I have been trying to keep my mindset as follows: The job of an engineer is to find a reasonable solution to some problem within a particular set of constraints. In the Spring 2020 term, the constraints are different than what we are accustomed to, but my problem is the same: how to help students develop reasonable understanding of the course material. I am trying to view the situation as an opportunity to try new solutions, and hopefully those will achieve a reasonable outcome. It will not necessarily be an identical outcome to our “normal situation”, but that does not mean it can’t be a good outcome. So I suppose that from the perspective of my own mental health, I am trying to treat the situation as a challenge to be addressed rather than a hardship that has been imposed upon me.
I also frequently think about the situation from a sustainability perspective. We often hear the term “resilience” used. From a sustainability perspective, resilience refers to the ability of a system to tolerate a disruption and eventually restore the basic functioning of the system or adapt to find a new way of functioning. A key aspect of the concept is that resilience is only achieved by experiencing disruptions—that is, disruptions must be experienced in order for a system to develop resilience. If we wish to develop personal resilience, we need to experience disruptions. And in engineering, we learn from failure and disruption. When a system fails, we attempt to learn from that device to improve or adapt that system.
What message would you like to send to students reading this article?
#1: Please allow yourself to let your personal definition of success evolve and adapt over time. I view engineering as finding a way to achieve a good result for some challenge with a set of constraints. Your personal challenges and constraints will vary over time, and your definition of a “good outcome” can vary too.
#2: Resilience is developed by experiencing challenge and disruption—not by avoiding them. We can learn a lot from these experiences, and we may eventually find opportunities to pass along our learning to others who are experiencing their own troubles.