My Life is Average (Part 4): Who Am I Today?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the fourth and final post in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, concluding with why he chose to combine two different majors, and what he has learned from his first two years at UofT.

I have a friend in Winnipeg who’s also in electrical engineering at the University of Manitoba and is an insane connoisseur of music. One thing he told me challenged me and led me to make the decision to take a music minor and it was “taking a music minor is too difficult”. During the summer, I took a look at U of T’s Faculty of Music website and found that the music minor here wasn’t all that difficult to achieve – only four courses? So, at the beginning of the school year, I auditioned for the Vocal Jazz Ensemble full year course and got in! And in the beginning of this semester, I took a history of western music course. It has so far been an interesting ride, that’s for sure to say the least.

The thing is this, many may comment on how artistic I am as a person, but fundamentally they don’t realize that I’m actually a person who adores practicality. As much as I can preach it on the mountaintops as to how wonderful music can be, its spiritually, emotionally and even physiologically healing properties, as well as the fact that it’s a great way to release, relieve and relax, I can’t pursue a career in music. The practicality in pursing such a degree as a major is very low, for if you want to succeed and make it big, you’d have to be that %1 of individuals and I know I’m not one of them.

So, while taking this music minor, the Vocal Jazz Ensemble course is the one where I’ve not only found the most joy, but usefulness. I was able to transfer what I’ve learned to my choir even – Tales of Harmonia, such as conducting techniques, singing styles, and song selections. During the second semester, we sang a lot of Georgian music and for our choir, we performed one called Adiloi! But, the Western Music Survey course I’m currently taking has given me only one thing, a better understanding of the development of music to this day. By taking this course, I can firmly say that it will benefit my compositional and arranging skills, which is something that I worked on for Tales of Harmonia with great dedication.

Some day I think there should be an Audio Engineering minor, or something to that effect. The world of entertainment is incredibly expansive and yet there are many engineers who can’t find a safe haven where they can merge the best of both those worlds of music and engineering. If it’s possible to create a Global Engineering Certificate as advocated by students, why not this?  An observation that many of us have made is there seems to be a huge community of not only music lovers, but proficient players of the craft in engineering. Why not try to provide them a practical platform to realize their talents, knowledge and skills?


As you can probably tell, I’m still more-or-less the man I used to be when I started at UofT, but there are subtle differences. I began university as a lost sheep and hope to come out a shepherd seeking for its lost sheep. Where am I now? Nowhere close, but getting there. My life like yours is a work-in-progress, but it’s one where I’ve still chosen to be diverse. I can’t tell you what ideal I’m going to settle with, but what I can tell you is “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift, therefore we call it the present”. Therefore, what I’ve chosen to do today is to gather all my gifts, as diverse as they may be and attempt to unify them before those hallowed doors of university close behind me. I can never relinquish my love for music and the arts, at the same time appreciate how science has led to such progress and development in today’s ever-changing world. I can never let go all that I am today because as much as sacrifices have to be made; I know I can do it.

Now, who am I today? Well, instead of MLIA, My Life is the following:

  1. Chinese-Canadian
  2. Christian
  3. “Tales of…” RPG Series Lover/Fanatic
  4. Music and the Arts
  5. STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  7. Tales of Harmonia
  8. Balanced
  9. Passionate
  10.  ____

That last one exists because I’ve yet to fill it up with something that I so deem fit. So, as lofty as this may sound, I hope to be one of the first to pioneer something and fill that number 10 with something worthy. I read somewhere that many of us Generation Y folks would have to create jobs instead of find them and hopefully one day I’ll create that dream job that satisfies both the spectrum of my passions. As arrogant as this may sound, I don’t want to just be another number in the crowd, because considering what I was given at birth, it would be too much of a shame.

I’ve already been able to come up with an idea that has both the idealism and realism that could lead me to that ultimate goal. It involves integrating my loves for music and technology by utilizing tablets for the sake of musical innovation and social connectivity. But the thing is, it’s still a faraway land that at least what I can say now is “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and I believe I’ve already taken that single step and inching ever closer.

I look back at these past two years with much regret and sorrow, but I know that tomorrow will be a better day, for I now have something more concrete than yesterday. I can now look at tomorrow with much thanks, hope and optimism. I know everything happens for a reason and 2012 is not the end of the world, but the end of an old world, at least for me and will be the beginning of a brand new one!

Visual Oompf!

Post 3: Video Killed the Faculty Star

You remember the feeling from your elementary school days. That all to perfect moment when, the teacher stepped away from the chalk board, rolled out the a/v cart, hit the play button (or, gasp, fed in the film reel to the dusty projector) and retreated to the back of the class for…. a movie.

However, the longer we are in school, those precious opportunities to spend whole periods engrossed in Bill Nye episodes obviously dwindles. In higher education especially the impetus of knowledge transfer, critical thinking and philosophical pondering often takes priority over entertainment. Is there something to be considered when a six-minute Funny or Die “Drunk History” clip   can not only explain the history behind father of western technology, but also make it memorable?

My Visual Ooompf! dribble today aims to reposition our beloved “video” as a useful lecture and learning tool.

Videos have a place in the university classroom

This past winter, I attended an engineering lecture on the titillating topic of pumps. As I sat in Convocation Hall, amongst the 300 + young and occasionally distracted undergrads, I witnessed first hand the power a College Humor video had on re-engaging a group. During the traditional lecture part of the lesson, some students tuned in an out, impressively talking to their friends, playing games on their phones, and eating breakfast, all the while jotting down the odd lecture note. About a quarter into the lecture the lecturer switched gears, clicked on a pre-loaded video link and suddenly things changed.  More students looked to the front of the class and some actually laughed. While many still talked to their friends, I heard a couple people actually talking about the video!

I’m not saying that videos are better than live humans for engaging a group.  I only mean to illustrate that the act of breaking up the lecture with a visual tool, using a wildly different tone, is an awesome way to re energize and draw more of the class’s attention to the topic.

The example I witnessed in the engineering lecture was also a good illustration of general video showing best practices:

  •  the faculty member set up the video asking a question to help guide the viewers while they watch (showing videos does not mean people get a brain break)
  • this is an obvious one, but the video was related to the lesson topic
  • the video was relatively short in length
  • at the end of the clip, the faculty member asked a question and invited student reactions (this could even be done in groups as a collaborative exercise or dare I say, “Think-Pair-Share?)


Moving from thinking about using video clips to actually using them in your class requires a necessary (and, I admit, somewhat cumbersome) discussion on Copyright. If you are going to show a clip in class you are automatically entering the realm of Canadian Copyright Act.

The surest way to navigate this area is to use Media Commons to access your video clips. The Media Commons online record’s details tells you plainly the terms of use for each item. In some cases, you may be required to contact the copyright holder to obtain permission. For clips you find outside of Media Commons (on websites etc.), make sure to read the specific terms and conditions of use.

While it may be tempting to gloss over the question of Copyright, it is important to remember that Canada’s Fair Dealing (or what some dangerously think of as a “get out of jail free” card) is much more strict within the categories of education and teaching than the US’s Fair Use.

If you have questions about Copyright always err on the side of caution and contact the Copyright holder directly or CTSI ( for guidance. Avoid a fight, use it right.

Getting the Goods

One of the major hurdles that can dissuade faculty from using video is the stress of finding quality video for a class. Chris O’Neal, a blogger from, calls YouTube a “giant video flea market,” which gives you the gist of the type of labour  involved in retrieving useful clips with what can seem like

a big mess of junk.

There is no way around it – using videos to add oompf to your lectures does require extra effort. Below are several sites, which may help you in building your “classroom clips” library.

External Sources – scientific research clips – philosophical discussions on “big issues” amazing source for independent movies free to use as an educational tool, on demand! – public lectures by some real visionary people

UofT Libraries

AV Catalogue searching
 Search Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic.

AV Subject Searching
 Connect to Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic, such as gender diversity or visual arts.

Online Video Resources 
A growing number of online video resources is now offered by U of T Libraries, available for classroom and individual streaming.

Resources & Links

New Arrivals

Embracing videos in university classrooms beyond the level of instructional “bells and whistles” does not have to pander to the nostalgic idea of a thoughtless movie period or shift anyone’s core teacher values. Punctuating every lecture with a snappy YouTube clip would (I guess) grow old.  Videos and interactive elements of visual entertainment should always support the timeless and simple goal, furthering student learning. That being said, learning about gravity is so much more fun watching Bill Nye throw stuff off of a roof. .

My Life is Average (Part 3): How Did I Choose?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the third in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with why he chose his major.

Often times I’ve been asked, “Tian, why did you choose engineering?” and “Why did you choose to go to the University of Toronto”. There are many reasons:

  1. My father had recommended it to me
  2. I was very unsure as to what I wanted to do, but with much deliberation, I heeded his advice since I believed that it embodied both my technical and creative sides of my personality
  3. Economic stability after graduation
  4. I wanted to escape the harsh, cold and bitter winters of “Winnterpeg”, but in actuality, I wanted to escape what truly put the “plain” in the “Plains” of Winnipeg’s sleepiness to the vivacious global city of Toronto
  5. As parents want the best for their children, I want the best for my future, therefore knowing U of T Engineering is ranked number 1 in Canada, I knew I had to be here.

The thing is, I was very foolish, since I hadn’t given my career path much thought, I jumped into electrical/computer engineering without knowing what I was getting myself into. I soon found myself bitter because I hated programming, circuits and anything and everything to do with engineering altogether. I even began asking myself “why did I choose engineering?” I came into university with no plan and that was what bit me in the behind. It wasn’t even the course load that made me hate engineering, it was just material itself. I had no passion for it and that’s what made my first year so very difficult.

Continue reading

Learning through Current Events: Huge, Immediate and Complicated

In many courses, finding opportunities to incorporate current events into teaching can be a way to engage students by enriching traditional material through application of concepts and approaches to current issues. For example, the “Occupy” phenomenon that began in Fall 2011 provided an opportunity for students to engage with current social, political and economic issues. Some engaged through a call to action: Erin at UpbeaT returned from attending Occupy Wall Street with a desire to keep talking about it, so she sought out a conversation with her Academic Don. She found,

“[i]t was rewarding to hear someone in an academic position at U of T talk candidly about something that feels so huge, so immediate and so complicated.” (Erin Kobayashi, “Occupy Your Academic Don”, October 20, 2011)

A packed crowd at Varsity Stadium.

For those more scientifically- than politically-minded, current events don’t get much more “huge and immediate” than the most recent astronomical event, the Transit of Venus on June 5th. The event was huge in numbers (with some 5,000 people gathered at Varsity Stadium) and collaboration (with the Dunlap Institute, the Department for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Department of Alumni Relations and the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, and the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC) all involved). Immediacy was to be found in the rarity of the event ( the next transit of Venus won’t take place until 2117), and the addition of a live feed broadcast to the Varsity Stadium screen from UofT’s own 8 foot refracting telescope on the 16th floor of the McLennan Physical Labs building. The event was one-of-a-kind and truly a UofT experience.

Yes, that transimission is coming live from space via McLennan Physical Labs

The Transit of Venus provided organizers with a rich opportunity to engage students in the historical, cultural and scientific impact of the event itself, while broadening outreach to the general public. UTSIC, managed by a group of PhD students from the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), worked with the Department of Astronomy to host an exhibit on the scientific instruments used to observe transits in the 18th and 19th centuries.  1830 Bate Gregorian telescope that was available for viewing the transit on June 5. The Dunlap Institute also increased its outreach by distributing pamphlets in multiple language; an Arabic pamphlet increased awareness of the event for a local Islamic school, who hired buses to bring large groups to Varsity Stadium.

Bringing events like these into the conversation with students not only helps bring our teaching material to life, but gives students a memorable experience that serves as a point of reference for their learning that brings their readings and discussion into the present. How many physics instructors will be inspired by the recent discovery of the Higgs boson to strike new conversations with their classes this week about the origins of matter? (It doesn’t get much more “huge” and “complicated” than this one!)  It might seem hard to make room in a packed course syllabus to take time out for the current and unexpected, but when you find excitement in current events, your students will find it too.

Coming to a close…

Tonight, I will begin the final phase of my undergraduate career. I need two half credits (one 400-seminar course and the Digital Text) – which means night classes Monday through Thursday – to finish the degree that I began in 1988. It is my 24-year degree. The BA 2-4.

I wasn’t in school that entire time. I arrived as an eager student straight from high school but I’m an example of someone who should have taken a bit of time off in-between. It wasn’t necessarily about grades (at least not at first) but that I didn’t know how to ask for help. I’m sure the help was there; I just didn’t have the confidence to seek it out. And so I left mid-way through my third year (actually, I left for a variety of reasons. There is, of course, a much longer version of this story but probably more appropriate for another post…. and maybe some place other than the CTSI blog) in 1991 and returned in 2008 after I began working at U of T. I didn’t take the first class thinking that I would finish my degree. I just wanted to delve into a subject that interested me (history of science), stretch my skills and do something that scared me. It was a year or so later that I realized I could actually finish my degree. So, now, 4 years (24 in total), 10 courses and 9 credits later, I am nearing the end. A giant sigh of relief.

It wasn’t necessarily that I came from a small town and was overwhelmed by the big city. I was pretty happy in the city and living in residence those first two years. I met people who remain close friends today. The culture of houses must change through the years but back in 1988, Jeanneret (Sir Daniel Wilson’s, University College) seemed like a collection of oddities. We joked that if they didn’t know where else to put you, they assigned you to Jeanneret. This was all fine by us, of course. Somehow, all of our jagged pieces fit together and we were happy to find each other. We were the Island of Misfit Toys, except we didn’t really mind being stranded. And of that group, there is more than one professor, a geneticist, lawyers, teachers, writers, an editor, journalist and, well, me, who will soon be the proud recipient of an Honours BA. And, yes, there will be a party.

A photo of me a few years after leaving school….

This time around, I’ve been more willing to speak in class (which is still a bit frightening but I persevere) and I ask for help when I need it. Well, most of the time. For a final essay this past term, I let things get away from me. Too busy (full time work, 2 classes, freelance writing work that occupied whatever free time I had), trying to do a dozen things at once and I made a right mess of it. I should have asked for help but I didn’t. In fact, it was such a tumble that I wrote an apology to the professor.

And one of me today. Better hair, same blank stare.

I’m not surprised that there are some darn clever folks at U of T but I am often amazed at the insight and comments of fellow students. Yes, I am sometimes intimidated. It always feels like a risk when putting my hand up in class – don’t want to say the wrong thing, or if I know how to identify the right or wrong thing to say, or worry that I’ll speak too quickly. And there are times when I already feel like an odd duck in class. I stand out. I’m a woman in her forties. I have a student number that begins with 880…. I have to check myself sometimes so I don’t sound like a grandmother telling stories about the depression (“Now, let me tell you what it was like to live through the Reagan years!”, “In the years before the internet, we had to remember things all on our own!”). And, as a friend so helpfully pointed out, I could be the mother of many of my classmates and it wouldn’t have been a scandal. I can get past these fears (for the most part) because I recognize that few people are paying that much attention to me, at least not as someone who is old enough to be their mother (or a much older sister, or maybe a cool aunt?). Most people in the classroom are there to learn. Most are accepting and interested in comments and suggestions from classmates. My goal is to leave the classroom more informed, with a better grasp on the subject, than I when I walked in. I’m happy to report that I’ve met this mark over these last four years of my BA. Now, I just have to get through these last six weeks…..