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Best Teacher Reinoud Lavrijsen, “I want to train critical thinkers”

The TU/e Best Master's Teacher is not the first award Reinoud Lavrijsen has received, but it is the one he most enjoys. Among his other 'wins', the associate professor at Applied Physics (AP) can count the National Science Quiz in 2016, a Rubicon in 2011 that enabled his passage to Cambridge, and a Veni grant that brought him back to Eindhoven. But the prize he received during MomenTUm lies closest to his passion. “And that's teaching young people and letting them find their own way of 'owning' the material.”

by
photo Bart van Overbeeke

For pedagogical methods used in the past on the Nanomagnetism course, Reinoud Lavrijsen has been recognized on several occasions by STOOR, AP's education committee, but having now made the course fully lockdown-proof, he has been recognized for his pedagogical prowess by the entire TU/e community. Of the pitches made by the three nominees, Lavrijsen, Wybo Houkes (IS) and Zümbül Atan (IE), it was his that the student council chose as the very best.

What appeals to students is that the course is asynchronous and that they themselves decide how they digest the material. Lavrijsen works with Panopto software, available via Canvas. “You can do way more with it than most people realize. At first I thought it was likely to be a lot of work, but not so. Below right, students see my PowerPoint, top left my talking head, and they can watch multiple streams at the same time. Students can switch between the slides, they can scroll back, fast-forward, pause, whatever they need. They get a complete picture. For me, what's most important is that it allows a connection with the teacher. At their request, I can write on the slides to clarify a point, I can add a quiz, it is great.”

Pitfall

“When I first started recording the lectures for Nanomagnetism, I made a mistake that lots of my fellow lecturers make: I wanted to make the perfect video. But that's not possible. So I changed my attitude; I do it in one go, and if there is a mistake in it, so be it. Now I simply use the errors or make a joke about them.” This may well be one reason why students refer to Lavrijsen in the jury report as being very accessible. “You are easy to talk to, said a woman student who I'd noticed was becoming less closed. And it's true. I talk about my activities with my children just as openly as I discuss what I heard at a conference.”

The scope for taking control that Lavrijsen gives his students is also highly appreciated. “Nanomagnetism is an elective in the master's. In this phase, students are juggling a hundred things at once. You mustn't force them to go at your pace. But I do have to ensure they aren't leaving it to the last minute to study for the exam. And so I hold a Q&A session every week. If students don't bring their own questions, I post a discussion piece. It is a studio classroom, during which students are actively learning.”

Feedback

Lavrijsen takes his students “super seriously”. He never stops asking for feedback and he wants to know what can be done even better. Thus, on request he looks for more suitable textbooks or places the assignments in a more concrete context. Likewise, he gave the studio classroom a complete makeover. The big four-hour blocks involving two cycles of him giving a 45-minute lecture before students spent 45 minutes on assignments have been ditched. “The first two times it went well, the third time everyone fell asleep.” Lavrijsen's solution was to ask for feedback and to show what he did with it.

Anytime

He now offers Nanomagnetism in its new format four times a year. It is a pilot intended to find out whether it gives the fifty students more freedom of choice. This quartile he has four students, next quartile nearly thirty. With the course prerecorded, all Lavrijsen needs to do in addition is host the interactive Q&A sessions, two hours a week.

But students can contact him anytime for advice or coaching. He responds immediately, even during his weekends. “To my mind, if the course is delivered asynchronously, I have to be prepared to answer students' questions at times that may be asynchronous with my own working hours.” He likes students who engage him in debate. “The more critical the better.”

Magnetism

By his own admission he is passionate about magnetism, but another driving force for fanning his students' enthusiasm for the discipline is his desire to find good bachelor's graduates and doctoral candidates for the Physics of Nanostructures (FNA) group. “We are doing research on data-storage and the logic chips of the future. The better the basis students have, the better our research will be if they stay on.”

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He likes to have the students ‘get their hands dirty’. “After all, they are being trained to become experimental physicists. For the practicals on this course, we use the materials, high-end measurement setups and methods that the PhDs in our lab also use. Students immediately get to take the step of applying in practice the abstract theoretical concepts they've learned.” The lab is also where he himself prefers to be, but these days his duties consist mainly of managing the research group, writing proposals, creating the long-term vision, and supervising and inspiring his doctoral candidates.

He himself was once inspired by his final project supervisor and doctoral supervisor, now colleague, Henk Swagten. “I left every meeting with yet more questions and new insights. To my mind, that's how you learn: by formulating the right questions. Then the comprehension follows automatically. And that builds your self-confidence and you have the sense of being in charge of your own research or learning process. It's something I also try to impart to the master's students.” For the 41-year-old, self-confidence came late. These days he is comfortable with more improvisation, but he used to be a perfectionist. “The step from assistant to associate professor, which I made last year, gave my self-confidence a terrific boost.”

Future

Lavrijsen is intrigued to know whether the approach he takes to education in his own area of expertise will also pay dividends in other tracks at Applied Physics. “I'd like to try it out in the plasmas or in fluid dynamics. I'd enjoy figuring that out. And, you know, the best way to learn something is to teach it to students. But I would also like to gain more experience of the best ways to motivate and enthuse bachelor's students. And introducing our vision of Challenge Based Learning into our program is another thing I see as an enjoyable challenge. I've already joined the think-tank.”

The 10,000 euros he has won he will be spending on a group outing, after he and his family have enjoyed a small trip of their own. “It is a gross amount that I can spend tax-free on an inspirational event. Next week, by the way, we are going to celebrate the 2019 winner of TU/e’s Best Master's Teacher with our group. That is Bert Koopmans, the chair of our group.”

Birthday experiments

To his children, now aged three and six, Lavrijsen is Gyro Gearloose the inventor (from the Donald Duck comic). “Three weeks ago I arranged a day of experiments for my daughter's birthday party. You know what I mean, with things that go ‘BANG’ or froth profusely. It was great fun, she didn't want to take off the lab coat, and by the end of it all the little girls wanted to become a professor. Isn't that just the right message?”

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