Southern Cross University scientist wins prestigious national teaching award

Published 22 March 2021
Dr Michael Whelan

He’s passionate about aligning student assessment and experience with cutting-edge industry learning, and now Southern Cross University long-time lecturer Dr Michael Whelan has won a national University Teaching citation.

Universities Australia recently announced Dr Whelan as a recipient of the prestigious Australian Awards for University Teaching, celebrating his 34-year teaching career in Environmental Science and delivering curriculum innovation at Southern Cross University.

“What I really love is watching students transform from walking in as newcomers to leaving the University as well-equipped professionals who are highly regarded by industry,” Dr Whelan said.

Dr Whelan said some students come straight from high school and others were mature age who had worked – many in hospitality and labouring roles – who wanted to pursue their dream career in environmental science.

“I would see them as first-year students where I taught introductory subjects, then again in final year when I took over as coordinator for the internship unit for student placements, and that’s really where I found my niche,” he said.

“I helped establish the internship at the end of the degree at a pathway for students towards employment, and we often have more than 80 per cent of our cohorts being offered work from their industry hosts before graduation.

“We have graduates now working all over the world and across numerous industries, from aquaculture, to national parks, environmental officers, health officers, working for government, private consultants, and high-tech labs such as locally at Rous Water.

“I remember a student who recently graduated, who came from a hospitality background who had her sights set on working in Antarctica. She landed a high-profile job in a science lab less than a year out of university and is well on her way to pursuing her dream.

“It’s an honour to win the award and to have the work I’ve done over many years recognised in this way, and I’m looking forward to the awards ceremony in Sydney in June.”

Dr Whelan said his dedication to teaching and learning was very focussed on ensuring the employability of graduates through changing the curriculum and assignments with his wider team to align with current industry standards.

“I have a lot of contact with industry, especially the placement partners, and was able to change the degree to incorporate GIS (Geographical information systems) making it compulsory, as it increases student employability,” he said.

“GIS is a skill that is really sought-after by employers and increases a graduate’s ability to apply for a job by more than 50 per cent, and I was able to ensure what we were teaching students was exactly what industry needed.

“Basically, GIS involves mapping landscapes using spatial science, similar to GPS technology we have in our smart phones where instead of searching for restaurants nearby you can search for koala habitats, a stream, or areas that may be suitable for a vulnerable species. It helps scientists look at environmental impacts of projects such as building roads and is used in other research around endangered animals and modelling impacts of climate change. All the big institutions use it, such as Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Transport, Forests and so on.”

Dr Whelan’s career spans more than 34 years, with its beginnings in Agricultural Science when he wrote software for farmers in QLD, VIC and NSW, then teaching computing to Environmental Science students - where he discovered his passion for promoting student learning.

Dr Whelan said he’s currently in a stage of transition from his fulltime role into an adjunct position.

He has previously served on the board of the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) contributing to National Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) strategy, and was previously the School Director of Teaching and Learning at the University.

Dr Whelan says he hopes part of his teaching legacy will be for others to recognise the importance of teaching and learning alongside research output and rankings.

Media contact: Content and Media team content@scu.edu.au