Critical Thinking as Taught by the Avengers

Engineering professor and vice-dean Jason Carey, the U of A’s top teacher in 2020, challenges students to think in ways they might never have before. Sometimes that even involves the Marvel Universe.

Jason Carey

Jason Carey was named the 2020 Vargo Teaching Chair, the University of Alberta’s top teaching award. (Photo: Supplied)

Was Thanos right?

That question was posed on internet forums and at dinner tables alike after fans of The Avengers: Infinity War watched the God-like antagonist, Thanos, wipe out half of all living things in the universe—including half of the beloved Marvel heroes—with the snap of his fingers. He did the unthinkable, ironically enough, to end suffering caused by overpopulation.

“You can see that there’s a huge ethical side to it,” says Jason Carey, a vice-dean in the Faculty of Engineering and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “But there’s also a technology side of it, because what we create as a species can actually cause a lot of damage to the environment.”

In search of an answer to the dilemma posed by Thanos, Carey divides up his engineering class, hands out the position they need to defend, and gives them a week to prepare.

“I find it absolutely riveting to watch these students who have never been put in these situations because that’s not what we do in engineering,” says Carey, who was named the 2020 Vargo Teaching Chair, the University of Alberta’s top teaching award.

Originally from Ottawa, Carey did his undergrad at the University of Ottawa, a master's at Queen’s University, and a PhD back in Ottawa before coming to the U of A 17 years ago.

He was always drawn to student leadership and maybe that explains why he still takes students’ side when it comes to learning, Carey says. He really took to heart advice he received while involved with Ottawa’s equivalent of the U of A’s Centre of Teaching and Learning.

“Make sure to be yourself. Don’t try to project an image, because people see through that so clearly.”

Carey adds if that means enjoying lighthearted moments, great. “When you have to be serious, you’re serious. Students like the fact that you’re a human being and they know the professor up front is just Jason. It’s more engaging.”

This human approach to teaching means Carey’s classes will veer off topic when he senses low energy.

“If they’re engaged, it’s registering at some really deep cognitive level where eventually they’ll be able to put the pieces together,” he says.

“I learn every time I teach something, because when students are engaged they’ll throw something at me that I’ve never thought of.”

Carey is also a big proponent of critical thinking. A few years ago he co-created a mechanical engineering course based on the popular Mythbusters. But rather than bust myths by blowing stuff up, he asks his students to do it with analysis.

Although he was a big fan of the show, Carey says he would look at some of the experiments and wonder if there was a better approach from an engineering perspective.

“You can see this in the world right now. People are reading things and believing them without actually testing them, and that’s terrible. We should be pushing back on a lot of things.”

He also teaches engineering’s professionalism course, which covers ethics, professionalism and aspects of equity, diversity and inclusion, which Carey says are subjects that most engineers are quite often uncomfortable with.

“It's wonderful to see how the students engage in the right way, and sometimes in a way even you wouldn’t want them to, but at least they’re thinking about it and, eventually, I think we’re moving them in the right direction.”

As an administrator, Carey says he started thinking about the other part of what he believes is the primary mission of the university—teaching and making sure it is as good as it can be.

“Part of it is making sure I was a better instructor as I was going along and bringing the folks along with me who are wanting to do that,” he says.

“As with anything, if you start building a bit of a following that believes in these types of things—and I’m not saying they follow me, I think they they do it by themselves because we have absolutely wonderful instructors—they’ll see the value and they'll start building and building and building on their own.”