Jan 13 2015 – David Helfand – Quest University in Squamish

David J. HelfandDavid Helfand joined Quest University Canada in 2005 as an advisor to the University. He was a visiting tutor during the University’s inaugural semester in the Fall of 2007 and, in September 2008, was appointed President and Vice-Chancellor of the University. He has spent 35 years as a Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University where he served as Department Chair and co-Director of the Astrophysics Laboratory for more than half that time. He has also been a visiting faculty member at the University of Copenhagen and spent a year as the Sackler Distinguished Visiting Astronomer at the University of Cambridge.

He is the author of nearly 200 scientific publications covering many areas of modern astrophysics including radio, optical, and X-ray observations of celestial sources ranging from nearby stars to the most distant quasars. He recently completed a major project to survey the Galaxy with a sensitivity and angular resolution a hundred times greater than previously available. The goal is to obtain a complete picture of birth and death (for stars) in the Milky Way.

In 2011, he was elected President of the American Astronomical Society, the professional organization of astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary scientists and solar physicists in North America. He will serve in that role until 2015.

A decade ago, David appeared weekly on the Discovery Channel’s program Science News, bringing the latest astronomical discoveries to the US television audience. More recently, his television appearances have been limited to more serious matters on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and National Geographic’s The Known Universe. David believes he is a better cook than astronomer and, ambiguously, colleagues who have sampled his gastronomical undertakings agree.

David can be reached by email at david.helfand@questu.ca, or by phone at 604.898.8000 or toll-free in North America at 1.888.QUEST.08 (1.888.783.7808).

To see his TED video:


 Notes on David Helfand’s Presentation

By John Gunn

Bill Robertson introduced our guest speaker, Professor David Helfand, a renowned astronomer from Columbia University and now President of Quest University in Squamish, BC.  Speaking rapidly without notes or props, Dr. Helfand gave us a vivid word-picture of this remarkable institution about which, we suspect, many of us are either unaware or know little of its workings.

The University, a not for profit secular liberal arts and science university, was established as a result of a 100 million dollar donation from benefactors, inspired and driven by Dr. Strangway, formerly president of UBC.  This whole concept was made possible by the enactment of a provincial bill proposed by MLA Ralph Sultan.  The university is located on a 240 acre site in Squamish. As Dr Helfand explained, typical university education is still widely based on the original (German) idea as a method of dispensing information to students by means of lectures and books – disseminating knowledge which, in olden times, was difficult to obtain and very expensive to acquire.  All that has changed.  Today, in the extreme, almost anyone with access to the internet can obtain the facts behind this knowledge, almost instantly and generally at no cost.   What is needed is to teach students what to do with the knowledge and the facts, and how to pursue and embellish what has been learned, how to use it to further our understanding of our situation in the world and in our own lives. In 2002 a provincial act was passed for the establishment of this independent university to educate undergraduates in a new way – to teach them to validate what they learn, figure out new ways to use the new knowledge, and be better citizens.  As an aside, Dr. Helfand could not resist pointing out that this current exercise in which he stood in front of a theatre full of ‘students’ and talked at them to impart information to them would be a process inimical to Quest and a vestige of the old way – the method still used in most universities today.

The university was up and running in 2006 and now has an enrolment of about 520 students and a faculty and support staff of 50. The Goal is to provide a liberal arts and sciences program to prepare undergraduates for life in the 21st century, not for the early 20th century which is what most current universities do.  Here was an opportunity to start with a clean slate.  Most universities at present are modelled on the 19th century German model – clearly not suitable to the 21st century.  In 2011 they held their first convocation with graduates being awarded Bachelor of Arts and Science degrees.

What is different between Quest and almost all other universities in North America?  Well, one would notice that the classes are small – 20 students.  They are not in a typical lecture theatre – they are sitting around an oval table (the table limited in size to take only 21 seats!), and the 21st person at the table is the tutor – and you would note that they do not call them “professors” – they are Tutors and are there to Teach.  There are no departments – the tutors are mixed together to encourage interplay between various disciplines – for example, the math tutor and the music tutor might talk things over and end up teaching the mathematics of music (or the music in math!).  All the students are in residence.   The students study on the block plan, taking one course at a time, each for 3½ weeks. There are four blocks per semester and there are eight blocks per year.  Courses are primarily in Humanities, the Life Sciences, the Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and the Social Sciences and all students are expected to be involved in all courses.  Great emphasis is placed on collaboration between students, with students breaking off into small groups and giving presentations on the results of their collaboration.  There is strong pressure to be competent in standing up and making a presentation – in other words, ‘public speaking’- an essential life skill.  Each student, (introverts included) at the end of the course, is required to give a 15 minutes dissertation on his chosen theme.  .

In comparing Quest to other universities, Quest ranked top in the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement among Canadian universities on five key criteria: academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, supportive campus environment, active and collaborative learning, and enriching educational experience.

Among the questions raised to Dr. Helfand was this – can the Quest model be used elsewhere?  His answer – a provisional “yes” if it is in a similar “stand alone” environment – in other words, not part of a larger institution such as UBC, for example.  To work properly it should be separate, and small and strictly for undergrads.

Tuition is $30,000 per year, high by Canadian standards, low by USA standards.  The university receives some contributions from outside, but nothing from the government.

Ralph Yorsh thanked the speaker.

Comments are closed.