The UTS community was deeply saddened at the news of the sudden death last week of Professor Les Kirkup after a short illness.

Les combined his love for his discipline of Physics with a passion for teaching and learning. This blog celebrates his way of weaving together research, scholarship and teaching, an approach that saw him win the prestigious UTS Medal for Teaching and Research integration in 2012.

Les had long had an impressive dual profile in discipline-based research and teaching. He was a member of the first cohort to complete the UTS Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching and Learning in 1992 (see photo below – you may recognise some other faces as well) with a project on inquiry-based learning in first-year Physics laboratories.  

The first cohort to complete the UTS Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching and Learning in 1992; Les pictured standing in the back, seventh from left.

Les won a National Teaching Fellowship in 2011 to pursue this on a wider scale with the project Inquiry-oriented learning in science: transforming practice through forging new partnerships and perspectives. Further national recognition followed in his discipline, with Les winning the Australian Institute of Physics Education Medal in 2014.

Eschewing more traditional approaches to science laboratories which saw students following step-by-step processes (I remember those well from my undergraduate days), Les engaged students in groups to design and carry out the investigation themselves. In this way, first-year students experienced the joy of research themselves by learning through inquiry.

Les continued his focus on helping students develop research skills through authentic assessment and learning to peer review. Only a few months ago he contributed to a blog series on this process: The value of peer review for students, part 1 and part 2.

He also embedded this inquiry-based approach to his classes, and as recently as last month wrote about his approach to lectures in Campus Morning Mail – lectures not as ‘stand and deliver’, but ‘engagement, involvement, exploration and explanation.’

Les’s passion for inquiry-based learning was aligned with a strong commitment to supporting casual tutors and demonstrators to facilitate this learning. It also mirrored his own passion for inquiry about teaching and learning. Those of us who have attended many UTS Teaching and Learning events will remember Les’s longstanding participation and his questions. Always the first hand up, always from the front rows, and always a genuine inquiry. 

Les also possessed a number of personal attributes that were well described by many Australian teaching and learning luminaries, many of whom paid tribute to him on social media last week:

Les managed to blend deep seriousness about improving teaching with an infectious sense of fun. Rare and important to celebrate.

Professor Peter Goodyear, Senior Fellow of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in Education, University of Sydney

So, so sorry to lose the wonderful Les. Still writing (in CMM) to place student learning at the heart and make us think. Generous, funny, inquisitive and lots of fun.

Professor Elizabeth Johnson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education, Deakin University

I worked with Les as a Fellow ALT Fellow for ten years. He was generous, kind, hilarious, and just really cared about learning and teaching. A huge loss.

Professor Sandy O’Sullivan, Professor of Indigenous Studies, ARC Future Fellow, Macquarie University 

Les was such a genuine person and had that quiet passion for making things better for students. His sense of humour, humility and generosity of spirit will be remembered by all those who knew him. Our thoughts are with your family Les and we will miss your company and insights.

Professor Geoffrey Crisp, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) University of Canberra

As you can see, Les contributed much to students and their learning. And he was a wonderful colleague. It’s up to us to continue his legacy.

  • This is devastating news. I had the immense privilege of being a student and lab demonstrator in the subject Physical Aspects of Nature. Les’ enthusiasm for physics and learning was infectious, he genuinely cared about his students and his mentorship helped me throughout my career well after graduation. Les was an inspiration to so many of us.

  • Thank you for letting us know Shirley. I am devastated. Les was a passionate supporter of U:PASS and I will always treasure our chats which ranged from Virtual Reality in education to training and supporting teaching staff.

    A wonderful man.

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