Wednesday 9 December 2020
Stefan Kooij is programme director in Applied Physics. He likes to build a close bond with students, who he regards as future colleagues. One of them is Sefora Tunc, who recently starts as a PhD student. Today she is interviewing Stefan about his vision for education and his ambitions. A conversation about 'people first' and how we can improve collaboration at the UT. 'We all have a different background, expertise and views. So, you can have endless discussions. I prefer to look at what connects us.'
Sefora Tunc: 'Hi Stefan, nice to meet you! We don't know each other very well, so tell me something about yourself.'
Stefan Kooij: 'Hi Sefora, good to meet you too! So, where shall I start? I joined the UT as a research scientist in 2000. Over the years I gradually got into teaching. In 2015, I became programme director at Applied Physics, a role I really enjoy. We have a great team of study advisers, teachers and coordinators. Together with our students, we develop interesting projects and organize our study programme.
Sefora: 'I think you have a reason for saying 'together with our students'. So, what do you mean by that?'
Stefan: 'I believe in education in which students and teachers are partners in the learning process. And I tell lecturers: don't think of a student as someone you are preparing for the next exam but as your future colleague. That creates a totally different mindset. Obviously, we give the traditional lectures, but there's more than that. Reflecting together on academic skills, for example. And talking to students about the projects, classes and tests. Are we doing the right things? And do we do them well?'
Sefora: 'That sounds interesting. How do you go about that?'
Stefan: 'We organise drinks, events or study evenings. Obviously, it's been more difficult to do that this year. But we manage fine online too. In fact, I just had a tutor meeting with a group of first years about a test they felt was bad. My main aim is to listen to them. What issues do the students have - what are their concerns? I want to respond to them. As a person, but also as a lecturer. That doesn't mean that we accept everything they say, though. Of course not. But by talking to each other, there’s more mutual understandstanding and can help each other much better.'
Sefora: 'That dialogue assumes that students also say what's on their minds. Is there scope for that?'
Stefan: ‘Yes, I believe there is. We recently had one of our study evenings. I arrived at Carré at 9.15 in the evening and there were still twenty students preparing for their exam! A senior student was standing in front of the board explaining the material. He said: 'Hi Stefan' and everybody just went on. That's great. For me, it was proof that no one thought: 'Oops, there's a lecturer, don't say anything stupid'. Creating that bond of mutual trust takes time and energy, but it is incredibly valuable. It's also reflected in the high rating that we get from students and the results we achieve.'
Sefora: 'Listening to you talk, I realise that the human touch is a big part of you, would you agree?'
Stefan: 'Yes, definitely. We may be an unusual and perhaps odd bunch, but physicists are people too, lol! I won't list all the Shaping buzzwords but people first is the one that's most important to me. In terms of content and in processes. At the UT, we develop technological knowledge and innovations which help people and society. Now and in the future. But people first also says something about how we want to relate to students and colleagues. I see room for improvement there. Take the collaboration between research and education, for example, and between the primary process and management services.'
Sefora: 'Have you got a practical example?'
Stefan: 'Yes, the recent online open days at the UT. We obviously knew that we would have to plan the open days differently. From the various study programmes, we suggested ideas quite early on. However, I don't feel that the management did enough with them. A missed opportunity. Because we know what works for our future students. Don't get me wrong - I don't want to complain or criticise people. We all do our work with the best intentions and everyone has their own expertise. If we listen more to each other, we can only get better. Because ultimately: we all have the same goal. To attract the right students and make sure that they have a good future.'
Sefora: 'I agree. You also mentioned the collaboration between research and education. I'd like to know more about that, because once I've completed my PhD, I'd like to be a lecturer at the UT. What opportunities for collaboration do you see there?'
Stefan: 'That's brilliant, Sefora! I can really recommend it. But yes, I think that education and research can work even more together. We develop all kinds of interfaculty programmes. For example, in the field of fluid dynamics, materials science and robotics. But our education is still organised per faculty. That means that future students do not see enough of those interesting research themes in our programme yet. We can make our programme much more accessible and more attractive. By not thinking in terms of systems, but in terms of people.'
Sefora: 'I feel we are on the right path with Shaping 2030 then. What does interest me though: when do you go home feeling satisfied?’
Stefan: You have days when lots of initiatives get going. On those days, I can take steps forward with lots of different people - students, researchers, lecturers. And you know what really helped me move on in my career, Sefora?'
Sefora: 'I’d like to know. Tell me!'
Stefan: 'When I was doing my PhD, I never thought that I'd be programme director one day. The opportunity just came along. I found I enjoyed teaching and overall students appreciate what I do – the two often go together. It's all right wanting to plan everything in advance, but my advice is: stay true to yourself, do the things that you enjoy and pursue your ambitions. And, very important: take the opportunities that come along. Because there are plenty at the UT!'