Telling the story of knowledge brings learning to life

Edmonton—Mining engineering professor Derek Apel is not only one of this year’s recipients of the Faculty of Engineering’s Faculty Teaching Awards, but also a good story teller—a trait that helps him be more effective as a teacher.

When he was a student himself, Apel was frustrated at times by professors whose lessons focused wholly on theory, sometimes finding it difficult to remember the lessons.  He is fuelled by the belief that professors—particularly in engineering, and even more so in the mining discipline—need to associate and convey the theory as based in reality.  

While he does not shy away from some hard-nosed lessons to try to teach students to teach themselves, Apel is a fervent believer in translating his own experience into something his students can use: stories from his previous work, from the mining engineers he’s met in his work and research, and other tales of wisdom from his travels.  “Teaching is the easy part,” said Apel, “if you have a lot of stories to tell.”

His own chronicles involve his experience in his home country of Poland, his time in the United States, and recent experience in mines in Saskatchewan, around Alberta, and with the Government of British Columbia.  To explain the need for a mining engineer to be flexible and adaptable, he refers to his time in the McArthur River Mine. He was required to develop the mine, but was also called upon to design and build a landing strip and hotel-style camp for 1,000 people in a part of Saskatchewan rife with swamps and lakes.

Some of his own professors were storytellers too, regaling students with their memories of “alternative” methods used in the field, or adventures resulting from having direct contact with nature as mining engineers sometimes do (such as the perils of installing steel cladding in -55 C, or encountering bears and wolves).

“As a mining engineer, you’ll never get bored.  It constantly changes.  There are new projects, you’re teaching yourself new skills,” said Apel.

With his respected research in rock mechanics, drilling and blasting, and his own awareness and adaptability infused into his lessons, Apel is making a significant contribution to the unparalleled strength of the Faculty of Engineering’s mining engineering program.

“Times are really good for mining engineers,” said Apel.  “There are a lot of places to go.  We just provide the framework for students to work on mining projects.  But a mining engineer needs to be a jack of all trades.  They’ll never get bored.  The work constantly changes.  There are new projects that allow you to teach yourself new skills.”

Surprised by the enthusiastic student-fuelled nomination for the teaching award, Apel recognizes and respects his fellow mining engineering professors who are under a similarly heavy load, given the need for capable engineers in the growing mining industry.

“I try to make my students realize that this is not a nine-to-five job.  Sometimes you’re on site, sometimes the operation is fly in-fly out.  It can be tough on young families, but it offers some of the most interesting projects.  Mining engineering has allowed me to travel to places I never thought I’d go to.”