Professor Michael Savage’s commitment to teaching has earned him the 2014 Distinguished Teachers’ Award, which rewards excellence in Teaching and Learning.

The award requires candidates not only to be outstanding teachers that demonstrate successful and effective learning outcomes, but also to have made a sustained contribution to Teaching and Learning.

Professor Savage has lectured Science and Agriculture students since 1977 in the areas of Agrometeorology, environmental biophysics and meteorology. He has been instrumental in the discipline of Agrometeorology responsible for the development of all Agrometeorology courses from 1977 to the present.

‘Teaching is the one part of my overall range of activities that has never received formal recognition. Now, besides the research and administration contributions, there is also recognition for teaching and this can only bode well for the future of the discipline. Hopefully, the award will stimulate others in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences to also work towards research on teaching and learning in their disciplines,’ said Professor Savage.

According to Savage, his approach to education entails understanding students’ learning difficulties but at the same time reminding them of their everyday experiences of the agro-environment while developing the basic concepts.

‘This approach is an empathetic one, for teaching without empathy means that it is done as a job, with little emotion. Also, what may be different is my direct engagement with the students, especially during lectures, practicals and small-group sessions. Even in large second year classes of more than 100, this would mean walking around even to the back of the class to ask questions to elicit responses. This method of engagement includes trying to relate complex subject matter in a way that is much more easily understood,’ he said.

Professor Savage also highlighted that the use of continual engagement and reliance on visual teaching materials ‘results in it not being a case of me trying to get the students to my level but of me getting to their level at the same time as trying to impart knowledge gained by both the student and myself, in a way that they can relate to’.

Professor Savage says the success of teaching his discipline is when students master the skills required as it brings joy and a great sense of empowerment to the student.

He adds ‘With this success follows the challenge of challenging the student to this level of success. It is hard work on the part of the student and hard work from my side as well. Agrometeorology is difficult for most students – even in second year. They have never met it before and many of the things we speak about are invisible - usually, we cannot directly see evaporation, infrared radiation, greenhouse gases, wind other than its effects, atmospheric pressure, etc. Also, often, many of the English technological terms that are used in the Agrometeorology modules do not exist in the home language of the student’.

Professor Savage added that teaching and learning of mathematics and computer literacy remains a challenge.

‘The greatest gaps are in mathematics, physics and computer literacy. Most of my students, when they start off, say they are computer literate. However, give them a large set of data from our Agrometeorology Instrumentation Mast system to interrogate and they do not know what to do. Even plotting graphs to demonstrate something is beyond the capability of many. My experience, over many years at many different institutions, both locally and internationally, has been that students are not adequately exposed to information and data that directly reflects the state of the environment around them, and they may therefore leave university with a degree that has not sufficiently equipped them with a first-hand understanding of the environment. They are therefore unable to easily relate to the problems of our uncertain agricultural and environmental future.’

The Distinguished Teachers' Awards will be formally presented at the Graduation ceremonies this year.

Mongezi Mhlongo

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