Researcher and education revolutionary

In the middle of the corona crisis TU/e appointed Rick de Lange as Full Professor of Energy Technology at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. What's so special about that, you may well ask. But his appointment is special because it came about thanks to the new system of assessing academics: Recognition and Rewards, whereby research performance is not the only element taken into account. Excellence in teaching, management and the impact of the person's research also weigh heavily.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

It cannot be said that Rick de Lange deliberately mapped out his career path towards the crowning achievement in the academic world: becoming a full professor. In all the diversions he took, his drive to innovate the education delivered at our university surfaced. Always, he displayed that effort to forge the link between theory and practice. Like his love of science, it is bred in his bone.

Challenges appeared on his path and he tackled them. After he took his doctorate at the Energy Technology group, for example, and continued to develop his research. All the while, his enthusiasm for activities in education was growing. And this led to his being appointed as the department's director of education. “That coincided with the start of plans for the new educational model at TU/e, the Bachelor College. I was given the chance to help shape its design.”

With the Bachelor College I fell on my feet, though it wasn't always a soft landing

Rick de Lange
Professor at Mechanical Engineering

Falling on his feet, that's how it felt to De Lange, becoming part of that revolution in education - “though it wasn't always a soft landing”. The Bachelor College, the subsequent Graduate School, the USE courses; De Lange was involved in everything. “Those were intense and challenging years, but it was huge fun to do.”

Seeking connection

Bringing together academic practice with academic theory is the thread running through everything De Lange does. He always seeks this connection. This was noticed: he was asked to rebrand the Design basic course as Engineering Design. “It is a fine thing to do, to try and model a design course in such a way that you can embed the practical in the theory.” On this course students are asked to make a device that does not yet exist. They have to work out for themselves what they will need to do this, in terms of both knowledge and the practical process of building their prototype.

And practical it was: in the early years students were assigned the task of building a robot capable of rescuing ‘victims’ on the day of the presentation. Gemini (and later the Auditorium) was converted into a ‘disaster area’ with dummies that had to be gotten to safety. Later the assignment became to conceive and make a tool or aid for disabled athletes. Always that focus on the applied, inspired by real-life needs and society, seeking combinations of design work and research.

Challenge based Calculus

In his new role as a full professor, De Lange will maintain his focus on innovation in education. Since September he has been involved in the Project E3 (Eindhoven Engineering Education), in which links are being sought between the basic courses and Challenge Based Learning, one of the cornerstones of education at TU/e. “Both are eminently interdisciplinary, but can you combine Calculus and Applied Natural Sciences with a challenge? We are investigating this right now.”

Read on below the photo.

The corona crisis is a considerable hindrance to new innovations in education, De Lange is finding. “Getting new things started is complicated because you can't meet each other in person. Added to which, people have been working so hard, developing solutions for online education, using proctoring to administer exams, and now there's the curfew to contend with. Again and again, it's a question of having to change gear whenever new measures are introduced. This is now the priority; we are asking a great deal of our organization.”

Students, who have been taught online for more than ten months, are also being asked to show great adaptability, De Lange sees. Like others, he too misses teaching on the campus, meeting students, the exchange of ideas. New students, with their new ideas, ways of seeing things and personalities, are the major plus that comes with working at a university. “Only recently, I heard a lecturer say that at the end of semester he ran into one of his students - out in the real world - for the first time and did not even recognize him. That's not how you want it to be with your students.”

It feels good when your effort is seen and rewarded

Rick de Lange
Professor at Mechanical Engineering

It was Dean Philip de Goey of the Department of Mechanical Engineering who broached the subject of promotion to full professor with De Lange, based on De Lange's excellent track record in educational innovation. “It's not something I had ever worked towards, but I am really pleased to have my work appreciated, and in this particular way. It's important that the bigger issue is being addressed, for me, but also for a great many other people. It is a huge help.”

Does this mean that from now on De Lange will himself assess the staff in his group differently? “I always try to look at the actual person: what fascinates you, how do you want to develop your talents? Everyone needs to explore where their interests lie. I am happy that with Recognition and Rewards we are seeking a new balance in how academic staff are valued and appraised, across the whole university. It means that optimum use can be made of each individual's talents.”

Recognition and Rewards

Academics do so much more than their research. They teach, run their section, share their insights with the general public. But they are assessed primarily on their research output. This will change thanks to the new system of Recognition and Rewards, which is being rolled out across universities in the Netherlands. From now on, in addition to research, talent for education, leadership and impact on society will also weigh heavily in the assessment and promotion of academics.

A task force led by Rector Frank Baaijens is working on the rollout of Recognition and Rewards at TU/e. In the spring this task force will invite employees to exchange views on this subject during dialogue sessions.

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