3M Teaching Fellow: Pamela Shaw

Two decades in the professional world led this planning professor to arm her students with practical knowledge to aid nearby communities.
Marzena Czarnecka

Pam Shaw was a self-described “uninspired” undergraduate at the University of Alberta until she met a geography professor with a passion for urban planning.

“He infected me with his passion and enthusiasm,” Shaw says of Peter J. Smith, who taught at the U of A’s department of geography until his retirement in 1997.

Now, Shaw continues to spread the contagion to her own students. She spent two decades working in urban planning roles across Alberta and British Columbia, but was lured back to academia by the University of Victoria’s Larry McCann, who accepted her as a Ph.D. student and quickly put her in front of a classroom, where Shaw found another passion.

“Every day I have the extraordinary opportunity not only to teach, but to help students find their path—find their way to something that sets their minds alight,” she says. “What an incredible job to have! Every day, I leave the campus knowing I’ve helped students move one more notch toward their full potential.”

One of the things that make Shaw such an effective teacher is her fervent belief that urban planning actually matters. She ensures her students have practical skills that they get to test immediately in the communities served by Vancouver Island University.

“In many university programs and courses, you go to a classroom and you read books. In Pam Shaw’s classes, you go into the communities and you work with them on meaningful projects that actually affect people’s lives,” says Graham Sakaki, the research and community engagement coordinator at VIU’s Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute, where Shaw is the research director. Sakaki was also one of the first graduates from VIU’s new master’s of community planning program. It’s no coincidence that Shaw directs that program as well.

“It definitely influenced my decision that I would be working with Pam,” he says. “I knew that working with her would connect me to the entire community and I would see my work take shape in the community.”

Shaw credits her pragmatic pedagogical approach to the 20 years she spent as a professional planner between her master’s and her Ph.D. “You don’t have the luxury of engaging in activities just for the fun of that activity—you need to be getting something done,” she says. “I’m always looking for ways to engage students, share and gain knowledge and apply it in practical ways.”

Shaw and her students have worked with several Vancouver Island First Nations, as well as many local municipalities and community groups.

“The community and the First Nation, ideally, gain some useful info from the project, and for the students, it’s an enormous opportunity to be able to present to real clients,” she says. “It also develops in them that sense of citizenship that comes from being engaged with community. Ultimately, I hope it changes their lens on the world.”