'Interaction is what works best for me'
Sandra Loerakker was elected Best Master Teacher at our university during MomenTUm.
Sandra Loerakker was overjoyed and utterly surprised to receive the Best Master Teacher Award during the Momentum ceremony. She is responsible for the Numerical Analysis of Continua II course, and has been familiar with the subject since she herself took the course as a student in 2005. How did she adapt the course to the needs of both the students and herself?
Right before her maternity leave, Sandra Loerakker heard that she had been nominated for the Best Master Teacher Award and was thus invited to give a pitch. “That was quite challenging because that pitch was during my leave and work was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. Also, I found it difficult to pitch about teaching instead of research, which is something I’m more used to. But given the fact that I’d been nominated by students, I really wanted to do my best. Still, I never expected my pitch to win.” After four months of leave and having welcomed her third son into the world, she returned, and Rector Frank Baaijens presented her with the award for the Numerical Analysis of Continua II course, which is taken by some 60 master’s students.
Loerakker, now Associate Professor in the Modeling in Mechanobiology group at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, studied Biomedical Engineering at TU/e and also obtained her doctorate here. Her plan at the time was to start working in the industry afterwards, but in the end, she opted for a postdoc position because it was more appealing to her than a job in industry. Only when she started giving lectures as an Assistant Professor in 2015 did she feel she was a teacher as well as a researcher.
I found lecturing terrifying in the beginning
Sandra Loerakker, associate professor Biomedical Engineering
“It was terrifying at first”, she admits in all honesty. “It was a completely new experience for me. I did have some experience in teaching as a postdoc and PhD student, but always in an assisting role. Now I had direct responsibility, and giving lectures is nothing like giving a conference presentation, which was something I was used to.”
She had no didactic training; she did take some relevant courses, but what helped Loerakker the most was feedback from fellow teachers. The first thing she learned was to take a little more time to explain things. “The pace of a conference is totally inappropriate for students who are learning something for the first time.” From her experience supervising self-study hours, she also realized that it would be a good idea to have students already practice more with mathematical derivations during lectures.
But her own experience as a student also plays a role in improving education. “I took this course in 2005 and didn’t really grasp the point of it at the time. I thought it was very abstract. It wasn’t until I started my research that I finally gained the corresponding insight. In retrospect, I thought that was a missed opportunity, which is why I now begin the course of lectures by explaining the purpose of the mathematical models.”
This way, she shows students how they can apply them in regenerative medicine, using examples from her own research. “In the research within our department, we had problems with the living heart valves we develop for quite a long time. These valves are supposed to be able to adapt in the body just like natural valves, but experimental studies have shown time and again that this adaptation was actually causing the heart valves to malfunction. When I was a postdoc, I used mathematical models to find out that the fault was probably in the then current design, and I was also able to calculate how the design could be improved. This is because these models allow you to calculate things that are impossible or difficult to measure in experiments. The insights from my models ultimately led to a major breakthrough in my field, because the valves now adapt to their environment much better than before. And the models weren’t even that complicated. So at the end of this first lecture, I always say: ‘Everything you need to make these models, you learn from during course. So if you complete this course, you can do this too’.”
I’m very patient when I explain something to someone who wants to understand it and I don’t care how many ways I have to explain something
She concludes the course with an exam as well as a practical assignment. She provides a format for that assignment, but she greatly appreciates it when students put their own personal spin on it or even come up with their own, completely new assignments. “Not many students choose to define their own assignments, because that’s more difficult and takes more effort than simply choosing something from the list of available options, but it’s highly educational in my opinion, and I personally really enjoy thinking along with the students. This is something I learned during my year (2016-2017, Ed.) working as a Marie Curie Fellow at Stanford University. There, teaching is often more open ended with more room for creativity.”
Loerakker expects students to do their best and participate. “I really appreciate it when students ask me questions. That means they really want to learn. I’m very patient when I explain something to someone who wants to understand it and I don’t care how many ways I have to explain something. It’s extremely satisfying when you see the penny finally drop.”
She appreciates that Frank Baaijens, as co-teacher, also takes on some of the lectures. “That leaves me more time to give students practical guidance and talk to them. That’s very valuable. It makes students more open and it’s often the only way I can tell what they’re struggling with. I also ask them a lot of questions. Interaction is what works best for me, but interaction requires effort on both sides.”
For a moment, she smilingly recalls her own days as a student. “I was someone who never raised their hand. When I didn’t understand something, I always thought to myself; ‘I’ll look it up later’.” For that reason, she can vividly imagine her students doing the same thing, but through her teaching style, she tries to involve as many students as possible. “I walk around the room during exercises in the lectures and ask students individually how they’re doing. I often go by intuition.”
Loerakker is very happy with the award of best master teacher. “Still, I don’t think I'm better than other teachers; everyone has their own qualities. I do think it’s important to talk to students and try to find out what they’re struggling with and why they sometimes lose focus. I think that’s what has helped me the most in improving my teaching.”
It is not the first award she has won. As it happens, she also received two other important awards during periods of maternity leave. Seven weeks after giving birth to her first child, she got to defend the ERC Starting Grant in Brussels; and a few days before the birth of her youngest baby, she received a Vidi grant.
“The research grants are, of course, fantastic and very important for the research in my group, but for me, the teaching awards are definitely the best ones I could ever receive. After all, they bear witness to the students’ appreciation. Within the department, I’ve been elected best master teacher three times before. I’m very grateful for that and it’s extremely motivating. I put a lot of time into it, but without the students’ dedication I can’t teach in this way. So this award is partly their merit as well.”
This interview was written by Cursor.
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