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Nurturing the next generation of environmental innovators

A new experiential learning award at the Bieler School of Environment will provide forward-thinking students with the opportunity to explore creative solutions to environmental challenges facing the planet

George McCourt and Maureen O’Connor-McCourt

An award set up by George McCourt and Maureen O’Connor-McCourt encourages environment students at McGill to think outside the box.

The O’Connor McCourt Family Experiential Learning Award, a new award offered by the Bieler School of Environment, supports students participating in cross-disciplinary experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. It is an opportunity, explain the O’Connor-McCourts, to give forward-thinking students the freedom to pursue their own intuition and creativity when it comes to researching and developing environment, sustainability and climate solutions. 

“I struggled badly in my first two years at university and got little sympathy from the system. When I got into the teaching process I said I would never forget what it was like to be a struggling undergraduate,” says George McCourt, MSc.’94, a recently retired Senior Faculty Lecturer in the Bieler School of Environment. 

During his 24 years teaching at McGill, McCourt received multiple awards in recognition of his innovative efforts to transform undergraduate education by making it more student-centered and giving students more of a say in what their time at McGill should be best spent doing. “I believe students learn best when they’re given as much freedom as possible to learn,” he says. 

“My philosophy always was: I'm not going to tell you how to do something. You're going to tell me what you want to do and you're going to show me how you're going to do it, so that you are teaching me,” explains McCourt, a widely beloved teacher at McGill, not to mention a key contributor to the wider McGill and Montreal community in countless ways, including the creation of a food waste composting plan for all of downtown McGill’s Food and Dining Services. “He’s more than a teacher, he’s a role model,” states one of his many glowing reviews online. 

Born in Ireland, McCourt completed degrees in geology and natural sciences at the University of Alberta and McGill, respectively, and worked as an exploration geologist in the oil business, an archaeologist in Jordan, and a salesman in a classical record store. He met his wife Maureen while they were both graduate students at the University of Alberta, and followed her to Montreal in 1987, where he eventually joined the School of Environment as a faculty lecturer. Maureen O’Connor-McCourt is a highly accomplished research scientist, and President and Chief Scientific Officer at the biopharmaceutical company HyperMabs which develops biologics for the treatment of life-threatening diseases. She has also taught at McGill, as an adjunct professor in the Departments of Biochemistry, and Anatomy and Cell Biology. 

“When we hire, what we appreciate are independent thinkers,” says O’Connor-McCourt. “We don’t want our employees to do just what we tell them to do. We want them to think more creatively than that; we want them to be able to tell us what they see as needing to be done. We really appreciate those recent graduates who can think broadly.” 

Over the next five years, the O’Connor McCourt Family Experiential Learning Award will give McGill environment students the opportunity to do just that – think broadly – and will reward applications that involve either a special research project, independent study, internship, laboratory or field work. The O’Connor-McCourts encourage applicants to show independent and creative thinking, especially when it comes to the myriad sustainability, climate, and environmental challenges we face globally. 

“An example I think of is Irene Hofmeijer, who was a McGill student. She went to Peru and started the Life Out Of Plastic (L.O.O.P.) operation, where she created a grassroots organization that collected plastic bags that were blowing around and turned them into beautiful shopping bags of recycled plastic material that people could use,” says McCourt. “She got some money to do this, and it had a massive effect. So that kind of thing interests me quite a bit.” 

Ultimately, the award’s goal is to support students with bright ideas, helping them move their projects forward. “We’re hoping this award will aid students who may do something which has a big impact, but they haven’t been able to do it because they don’t have the money. A lot of undergraduates are stretched, and so we’d like to see them use this to take on those kinds of projects.”

 Learn more about the O’Connor McCourt Family Experiential Learning Award