Research and teaching in harmony

Published: 21 Jun 2016

Working Week - 21.06.16

After realising her pilot dreams as a teenager – on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters – Suzanne Kearns has established herself as one of Canada’s leading aviation academics, with a special interest in human factors.

It sounds as though you made an early start with aviation

I became fascinated with flight in my early childhood. I grew up in Ontario, Canada and began formal flight training at the age of 15, flew solo on my 16th birthday, and had my private pilot fixed- and rotary-wing certificates signed off on my 17th birthday. After high school, I completed a one-year commercial helicopter pilot diploma that included some really fun flying–long-line operations, using chainsaws to create log landingpads, and lots of work in confined areas. I then moved to Florida and began a degree in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). This was a wonderful experience and allowed for a tremendous amount of personal and intellectual growth. While there I completed my fixed-wing training to the commercial multi-IFR level. Through this process, I became fascinated with human factors and pilot safety, and stayed on at ERAU to do a masters in human factors.

What came next?

I returned to Canada and sent a cold résumé to the University of Western Ontario. I was hired shortly thereafter, and officially began my academic career at the age of 24. I was always the kid obsessed with aviation but now I had to learn how to succeed within a ‘publish-or-perish’ environment. While working fulltime at the university, I completed my PhD in education and transitioned into a tenure-track position at the university. When you begin a tenure-track position you have five years to prove yourself as a researcher, at the end of which all of your work is evaluated and you are granted tenure (which means a job for life) or you are fired. It is a stressful career period and mentorship from other academics who work in a related research area is vital.

Was mentorship available?

Not in Canada, so I attended a University Aviation Association (UAA) meeting in the USA. The UAA is a non-profit organisation that is the ‘voice of collegiate aviation’. Its goal is to support aviation as an academic discipline. Through the connections, I made with other aviation academics at the UAA meeting I was successful in the tenure process – becoming the first aviation academic to receive tenure within a Canadian university.

What are your current duties?

I am an assistant professor with tenure at the University of Western Ontario. The typical workload for an academic is 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service activities. I teach several courses related to aviation safety and aviation human factors. My research explores training methodologies and teaching technology. I have also successfully published research articles and books. My service activities include serving as the president of the UAA. I am also a committee member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Next Generation of Aviation Professionals programme. And I’m excited to say that on 1 July I begin a new position as associate professor with tenure with the University of Waterloo.

What have you been researching?

Research allows me to focus on issues that I notice through observations of the industry. Most recently I observed increasing discussions around ‘competence’. Working with two co-authors from Australia, we spent two years writing a book called Competency-Based Education in Aviation: Exploring Alternate Training Pathways, which came out earlier this year. The distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘competencies’ is very important, because as soon as competencies are put on paper, some of the intricacies of real-world performance can be lost. Professional competence is so diverse and intuitive, research suggests it is very hard to describe in written language. This creates a gap between the written ‘competencies’ and actual professional ‘competence’ and can lead to statements that are artificially simplistic.

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