‘I think it’s great to make education a priority’

As one of the first Junior Lecturers at TU Delft, Astrid van der Niet is contributing to education in the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering.

Astrid van der Niet: “We found out that very few Mechanical Engineering master’s students actually finish their graduation projects within the expected time. That’s a huge problem.” (Photo: Heather Montague)

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“I did my bachelor’s in Industrial Design Engineering and went on to do the bridging programme for Mechanical Engineering where I completed a master’s degree. I felt like I needed some more in-depth technical knowledge to support my design decisions. My original plan was to become a product designer with some more technical knowledge. But then when I did the master’s in Mechanical Engineering, I thought it was really cool and thought it might be worth investigating further.

While doing my master’s, I took on a few teaching assistant jobs and then I saw a vacancy for this Junior Lecturer position. I had never heard of it before. I’m one of the first Junior Lecturers here at the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE). There are about 12 or 13 of us now. The idea is to have two or three of us in each department. We help out with education while at the same time doing a master’s degree in Science Education and Communication (Faculty of Applied Sciences). We spend about half of the time working here teaching courses and the other half on the master’s, which also involves doing an internship at a high school.

My colleagues and I are all involved in different courses and activities. For example, one is involved with Statics, one with Mechanics, one with Mechanics of Materials and I’m involved with Dynamics. Because we have such close contact within the Junior Lecturer group, those courses automatically get better connected as well. For example, we set up a training programme for Teaching Assistants (TAs) to teach them some of the didactical knowledge that we received through the master’s programme. On a larger scale, the teaching relations between Maritime Engineering and Mechanical Engineering have also improved.

I set up a master’s course for the master of Robotics, which is really cool because that programme started right when I started this job. I had some space to create a course together with a more experienced lecturer. I really felt like I was able to provide a lot of input, and I’ve been running the course since then. In the bachelor, I’m mainly involved as a coordinator of the first-year Dynamics course. I’m not the responsible lecturer because I’m not qualified to do that yet, but I do things like hire, instruct and oversee TAs, create schedules, select exercises for the instructional lectures, and help in creating exams. And in the dynamics course for the minor in Robotics, which is a lot smaller, I actually get to teach as well.

‘Junior Lecturers can make quite a difference in education’

I want people to know that Junior Lecturers exist and that we can make quite a difference in education. For example, one of my colleagues streamlined the entire Python curriculum for the first year of the bachelor programme. Instead of teaching one or more scattered courses, we can look at the complete picture more easily. It is easier to innovate and contribute to education if you are practising it all year round, and it helps that we are not distracted by doing non-education related research projects or applying for funding. In computer science, they actually have a whole teaching team that is purely focussed on education. I think that’s great to make education a priority. The results from that teaching team are already huge, and it proves how full-time teaching can really contribute to educational programmes. I often feel like research is the first priority here and education comes second.

My job is cool because I get to decide what interests me and really do something I think is important. For example, I’m also looking into the master’s graduation process here. It’s something you don’t think of as part of teaching, but it is related. We found out that very few Mechanical Engineering master’s students actually finish their graduation projects within the expected time. For the bachelor’s it is quite regulated, but for the master’s there is no set start or end time and you don’t have to hand in a proposal. I have talked to many students who have been working solely on their graduation projects for more than three years. I think that’s a huge problem. If a course is worth a certain number of ECs (European Credit), an average student should be able to finish the course within the corresponding time when putting in the work. And students are not the only ones struggling with this. Supervisors need to supervise a lot of students, and this number would decrease if the time spent on graduation decreases.

To look further into it, I’m working with a PhD student from another department who came to me saying she couldn’t find any regulations about what to do as a graduation project supervisor. It turned out that they only sent the regulations to professors, not the PhDs, so they didn’t know what to do. The expectations are not clear, the organisational process is not optimal and we want to change some things, but it’s hard. We have talked to so many people. Some people know it’s a problem and are working on it but there are also so many people who just look away or think this problem does not exist in the first place. We need to raise the alarm on this issue.

My contract is for three years, and I’m already in my third year. I have no clue what I will do after this since there are no career options here for lecturers without a PhD. Some people know that they want to be a doctor when they are five years old. I’m not that person. I never had a clear career vision. I know one former colleague already left to teach at a university of applied sciences (HBO) and he really enjoys it. That could be an option for me if I want to stay in teaching, but I know if I go into teaching now it will be harder to get back into the engineering field. The other way around is easier, so if I want to explore that this is my moment.”

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Heather Montague / Freelance writer

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