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Professor Michael Savage.

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

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

Savage, a UKZN Fellow, is a Senior Professor in Agrometeorology in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences on the Pietermaritzburg campus.

He has lectured Science and Agriculture students for the past 38 years in the areas of agrometeorology, atmospheric science, bioresources, irrigation, meteorology and soil physics and has been involved in the development of all agrometeorology courses at UKZN since 1977.

As part of his recent teaching and learning activities, he developed over several years the Agrometeorology Instrumentation Mast (AIM) system used extensively by undergraduates, postgraduates and staff. Much of the success and use of the AIM system, also used for research in teaching and learning, is due to the undergraduate and postgraduate students involved, including post-doctoral students, and also support staff.

‘Teaching is the one part of my overall range of activities which has never received formal recognition,’ said Savage. ‘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.’ 

According to Savage, his approach to education entails understanding students’ learning difficulties but at the same time reminding them of their everyday experiences in 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 entails 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.

Savage said 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’.

Savage says the success of teaching his discipline is when students master the skills required, and it brings them joy and a great sense of empowerment.

‘With this success follows the step of challenging the student to strive for 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 encountered 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, and so on. Also many of the English technological terms that are used in the Agrometeorology modules do not exist in the home language of the student.’

Savage said the 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 AIM 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 the 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,’ said Savage.

Distinguished Teachers’ Awards will be formally presented at Graduation ceremonies later this year.