‘All students learn better if their senses are stimulated’

Dr Bart Root (Aerospace Engineering) was awarded the Innovative Teaching Talent 2017 award at the Education Day. “By making a course hands-on you can motivate students to really dive into difficult mathematics and physics,” he says.

Dr Bart Root at the ground station on EWI: "Students really want to feel they participate in projects and that they are contributing to a real-life application." (Photo: Bart Root)

Congratulations! What was your first reaction when you heard you had won this award?

“I was very honoured. It was gratifying to hear the faculty had nominated me for this award, especially because I had put a lot of effort into this project and am still improving it. Although students had given me positive feedback, I had not heard from others that they liked the project. This is a good reminder that I am on the right track.”

 What courses do you teach?

“A space minor called Satellite Communications and Tracking. My part concerns Satellite Tracking. I had a role in making an online version of the Satellite Orbit Determination master course. Furthermore, I am the lecturer responsible for the Planetary Sciences course homework assignments. I was asked to give a lecture in my field of research, Gravity Field Modelling, this year. The lecture will be given during the advanced course of Planetary Sciences II.”

In what way are your lessons innovative?

“I think people find them innovative for two reasons. First, during lectures, students need to prepare for an experiment in which they record a real-life satellite radio transmission. To do this they have to predict when the satellite is flying over the campus. Then they have to contact me to schedule a visit to the ground station to actually measure the signal of the satellite. Students have to write the software themselves to post-process the data. I give them tips during classroom sessions and on Brightspace, but they are in full control of this experiment. The assessment reports on the experiment and discusses the results. The second reason why people find it innovative is the way I prepare students. Their task is difficult, especially for the students who don’t have a programming background or who have not covered signal processing in their bachelor curriculum. I give one lecture in the first week, and they have to work on the software for the rest of the quarter. That is the most innovative part I think.”

What do you mean?

“I give them a very cheap version of the ground station, consisting of an antenna and a USB dongle that acts like a Software Defined Radio (SDR). Normally these are used for watching satellite television, but in the classroom we use it to record radio waves. During class, I use a radio beacon that simulates a satellite signal so they can test their software. They have to tune in, try to find the signal, measure it, record it and do the processing. At the beginning of the module, students look at me and say: ‘Bart, this is too difficult’.  By the end, they all succeed in building their own software, record data, post-process and estimate the motion of the satellite and its radio frequency. I like to see that change. That’s the difference.”

Why did you choose this way of teaching?

“I did my masters here and there was a course on satellite orbit determination. I liked the theory very much. The second part was more practical and I thought we were going to listen to satellites and track them. Instead, we used a very big complex software package which already contained data. In my opinion, we were not learning the practical side of satellite tracking. So when I became a PhD I asked my professor if I could explore this area and make the learning goal more hands-on. He gave me complete freedom. You can motivate students to really dive into difficult mathematics and physics by making assignments hands-on. The students can touch it, can hear the sound of satellite radio waves and can visualise it. I think all students learn better if their senses are stimulated.”

How do students respond to this way of teaching?

“I think they are positive. At the beginning of the course, they are a bit nervous because of all this complex stuff. At the end, every group hands in a report with their own recorded data and conclusions. I also use the ground station set-up in projects and I really get good feedback. Students really want to feel they participate in projects and that they are contributing to a real-life application. All the software in the ground station is built by students and it works. Students really like this. They are motivated when they can help you in your own research project.” 

The award consists of a challenge cup and 5,000 euro to further develop your courses. What are you planning to do?

“I’d like to buy or build better antennas for the SDR and go outside during class and let students point the antennas. They can then make the connection between what they have predicted and the real location of the satellite orbit. I think this experience will make satellite engineering even more tangible.”        

Nieuwsredacteur Connie van Uffelen

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