Engineering Fresh Faces: Colin McDonald

Photo of engineering professor Colin McDonald sitting at a table and smiling

Photo by Jin Lee

Fresh Faces is a series highlighting Engineering faculty members hired in the last five years who are doing interesting and innovative things in the lab and classroom.

Colin McDonald is the director of Engineering 1 and teaches in both Engineering 1 and the new Integrated Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences (iBioMed) program. McDonald, who joined McMaster in 2013, talks about his passion for engaging students, the joys of fatherhood and the impact his father made on his career path.

On the most influential person in his life

My dad was my hero and my mentor. As a high school teacher, he was passionate about social justice causes and wanted his students engaged in the world around them, not just a particular curriculum. I was fortunate in that he taught at the same high school I attended, so I got to hear what he was like from my friends who had him as a teacher. Although, it’s not easy when your dad is more popular than you are!

I come from a family of teachers.  My dad passed away in 2003, just before I graduated from engineering. At the time, I hadn’t planned on pursuing a career in education.

But I’ll always remember, as both my brothers were beginning their teaching careers, my dad pulled me aside and told me, ‘you’re a teacher too’ and that’s how he always saw me. Turns out he was right.

On experiential learning

The types of people who come out of Engineering 1 and iBioMed are people who can think critically. They’re people who, in a lot of cases, have been faced with challenges and sometimes fail. And I don’t mean failure in an academic sense. I mean if there is a project that they’re really interested in but it’s not going to work and they have to think about tweaking something or try something else.

I also see them as effective communicators. We can’t emphasize that enough for our students – to be able to have the technical skills and be able to effectively express them.

The foundations are set in their first year. We’re preparing them to be experts in a particular area but they still have to have that breadth of knowledge in other areas that is reflective of the real world.

On his first lecture

The first time I entered the lecture as a student I thought what am I doing here? I don’t belong here. And I think a lot of students do feel that. My first class was calculus. I looked around the room and thought everybody here is smarter than I am.

From the perspective of a professor, I hoped that I was the smartest in the room. There is this perception that you need to be the smartest person in the room as a professor. And very quickly I realized that yeah, you know what? That’s not always the case. But to be the facilitator who can mentor and guide and show direction to the students, I think that’s what matters.

On his happiest moment

The birth of my first son was an absolutely incredible experience that nobody can really prepare you for. The elation and the joy and the emotion that comes from that – it’s a once in a lifetime experience.

On what he does for fun

I’ll try to watch sports with my two young sons. My four-year-old, Alex is devoted to colours. He will cheer for the green team. We watched a World Cup game, Croatia vs Nigeria. My father-in-law is Croatian so we cheered for Croatia. But Nigeria’s color is green so Alex cheered for the green team.

My wife and I have been trying to watch Stranger Things, season two on Netflix since it came out last October. We will watch it but I just don’t know when. Right now, it’s all about the kids shows – Paw Patrol, Blaze and the Monster Machines, Dora the Explorer and the new Magic School Bus.

Inside the classroom…

I strive to engage my students and hope that they like my jokes.

Outside the classroom…

I’m always thinking of better ways to engage my students.

For more Fresh Faces profiles, go to the Engineering Faculty’s website

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