Meet the Faculty: Ian VanderBurgh

Our “Meet the Faculty” interviews provide a window into the work lives of faculty across the University of Waterloo. Faculty members talk about the day-to-day joys and struggles, and share tips for getting the work done and staying mentally and physically healthy in academia.

Ian VanderBurgh is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) in the Faculty of Math.

What is the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing and what do you do as director?

CEMC is the outreach arm of the Faculty of Mathematics. We do activities in elementary and secondary schools to promote mathematics and computer science to students and teachers: contests, school visits, workshops and conferences, and an online master’s program for teachers.

My role is to help other people do what they love and need to do, and to try not to get in the way. And help solve problems when they need to be solved.

What do you teach these days?

Most of my teaching comes in our Master of Mathematics for Teachers, which is an online, part-time, professional master’s program for active high school teachers—and occasionally undergrad classes.

What other roles do you have on campus or in the community?

On campus, I am the chair of the University’s Complementary Teaching Assessment Project Team. We’re looking at ways of assessing teaching other than student course perception surveys. That’s been a great experience for me so far and it’s an important thing for the University to be looking at. I’m heavily involved in undergrad admissions for Math as well.

Outside of the University, I’m the pianist for the Grand Philharmonic Choir and also accompany the Wilfrid Laurier Concert Choir sometimes, too.

I love teaching. For me, the best part of the job is getting to work with people face-to-face and expose them to new ideas.

What is it about your work that you’re really passionate or excited about?

I love teaching. For me, the best part of the job is actually getting to work with people face-to-face and expose them to new ideas or new connections. Particularly, working with teachers has become a real passion, giving them resources and tools they can use to open up their students’ eyes to different things. Giving them positive reinforcement is important—we as a society don’t value teaching enough, and so part of CEMC’s role is to provide support for those people who are doing really hard jobs.

When was the last time you were surprised about something at work?

I think I get surprised pretty regularly, often by practices or procedures where something happens and you think, “I’m not sure why that happened that way. Maybe we should be doing this differently.” 

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

Finding time to do everything. There are so many things to do, so many important things to get involved in, and to pick and choose is hard. And trying to say no—I’m not very good at that. Just trying to find that balance: what do I have to do, and what can I ask for help on?

Are there any productivity tools or practices that help you get it all done?

Nothing magic. I try to keep only things that haven’t been dealt with in my inbox. It was down to two before I went away for the Christmas break!

I walk to the University and that helps me get ready for the day and leave things behind before I get home.

What does a good day at work look like?

When I leave at the end of the day, I don’t feel further behind than when I got here in the morning. And if I got to do some math along the way, too, then that was a good day.

Do you have anywhere in particular that you do your best work?

Usually in my office. The dining room table between 4 and 7 am. Not often, but those three hours of the day can be very productive for me.

How do you stay healthy?

I run five times a week. I walk most of the time to the University and home, 20 minutes both ways, and that also helps me get ready for the day and helps me leave things behind before I get home. The music stuff also makes a big difference. People say there’s so much similarity between math and music, and for me, I do music because it’s not math, because it is very different for me. And I don’t like doing music on my own. I love doing music in a group, that’s why I like playing the piano for choirs rather than just playing the piano by myself.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your career?

I started as a lecturer in 2000, and I became director of CEMC in 2005. At that time, we as a University I don’t think did a really good job of preparing people for leadership. So I think I fell into lots of traps, and I think I would do a much better job if I were starting now when there are better systems in place to help new leaders.

Is there anything else you want your colleagues to know?

I say to people all the time what a great place this is to work—the University, but also CEMC. There’s a great culture in CEMC of collaboration. Everybody’s believing in the same mission of helping promote mathematics and computer science. Trying to find those places and find passion is really important. Many of us will be working at this institution for our entire careers or most of our careers, so trying to find those positive places is really important.

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