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Calvin Rans: "Blended learning gave me more space in class." (Photo: Connie van Uffelen)

Assistant Professor Calvin Rans has been chosen as TU Delft’s Best Lecturer of 2018. He explains how he keeps his students motivated and what he will do with his prize.

Congratulations! What does this election mean for you?
“It is a little bit different than being voted the best lecturer of our faculty. My efforts in teaching now have a wider visibility than in my own little Aerospace Engineering bubble. It was quite a nice little thing to receive.”

What kind of courses do you teach?
“I teach the first year introductory course on structural mechanics in which we look at stresses and deformation of materials. In the second year, we switch from learning the concepts to both structural analysis and design of aircraft and spacecraft. The second year is a follow-up course to the first year. In the master’s, I teach courses on joining methods and forensic engineering, that is investigating aircraft failure. For the final exam, we simulate an aircraft accident on campus.”

In your first-year course, you teach students using blended learning. Students watch movies and then work together on exercises (flipped classroom). Did this lead to better results?
“It led to better results in the sense that the students who passed did better. But some did less well. About 35 to 40 percent of students fail, but the blended learning helped them do better. Instead of having to go back and look at entire recorded lectures, they had short videos on specific topics. This left more classroom time for talking about what they were struggling with. It’s funny, the main reason I wanted to do blended teaching was that the second year course students had forgotten details.”

You even came to class in ice hockey clothing. Why?
“I realised that the way the material in a lot of my lectures is presented can be very boring. Blended learning gave me more space in class, so I decided to demonstrate a real engineering application rather than do the calculations. I am Canadian and I like ice hockey, so I brought in a hockey stick. We watched a video of someone taking a slap shot and looked at the deflections.”

Is there a lot of engineering in a hockey stick?
People think it is just a simple stick but its properties change along it. Essentially it is a calibrated catapult. If you hit the ice with the stick when you take a really hard shot, you will bend the stick. If you hit the puck, it acts like a big spring that throws the puck like a catapult. It is the design of the stick that is very important in how you throw the puck.”

Did you get feedback from the students?
“Yes, they get excited. They may not be able to do all the analysis but what it does – and this is the secret of teaching – is plant the seed of motivation in students. If they can’t see what something is potentially useful for, then it just becomes an endless exercise. I use another example about bending. I talk about the Airbus aircraft A340-600 which is one of the longest airplanes. I show them pictures and ask them why there are curtains between two parts of the economy class. The students really scratch their heads at this question. But because we are studying bending, they realise the deflections are larger. The curtains are there because otherwise the passengers would see an unsettling amount of movement. They realise that deflections can be important.”

‘I like to play with new learning technologies and see how useful they are’

Was it a problem to integrate into the TU Delft community as a Canadian?
“It is a problem to integrate into Dutch culture but not into TU Delft. In our Faculty everything is in English. Delft is a very international city: you don’t need Dutch anywhere. All this made it easy to come here, but it makes it difficult to integrate. Anytime I try to speak Dutch, people switch to English.”

What do you think about the English language skills of your colleagues?
“English is not a problem for the scientific staff as the language of science is English. Where I have encountered some difficulties in communication tend to be with support staff. I think that is partially related to the culture of TU Delft where Aerospace is a unique exception.”

You wrote that next on your teaching endeavours is developing an open online textbook for aerospace engineers.
That is what my educational fellowship is for. All the textbooks for my second-year Structural Analysis & Design course date back to my generation and before. They very much focus on the maths and the analytical stuff. Their presentation style has not really been updated. I want to make an open textbook in a digital format and embed blended learning videos in it. The students can watch some interactive components and do some virtual experiments. I try to focus on understanding concepts first.”

Do you already know what to do with the money linked to your prize?
“With the EUR 5,000 for educational use, I will buy a HoloLens, an augmented reality headset. It looks like a virtual reality headset that completely blocks off your vision. With augmented reality, you can actually see through it and you can project a hologram. You can drop in a 3D model and interact with it. I can also use the cameras to project it on a screen and use it for 3D visualisation in the first and second year courses. I like to play with new learning technologies and see how useful they are.”

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