Professor of Excellence Just Herder: ‘It’s nice giving students things to think about’

Dedicated, enthusiastic and always approachable. These are three reasons why Professor Just Herder deserves the 2023 Professor of Excellence Award.

Just Herder: “I think it is important for students to look beyond the well-trodden paths." (Photo: Bas Koppe)

The Delft Teaching Academy awards the Professor of Excellence Award every year to a professor who excels in his/her teaching and research. Just Herder, Professor of Interactive Mechanisms and Mechatronics, received the award at the opening of the academic year on 4 September but was ‘bowled over’ by the news before that.

Herder earned the award for his passion for his work, the way he collaborates and because, says the Dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Maritime Engineering and Material Sciences (3mE), he brings teaching to a higher level.

“They always try not to let slip that you won the award. They succeeded as I fell for everything hook, line and sinker,” says Just Herder in his office. “During a meeting with the Dean, the Faculty Secretary came to ask if we could help with a problem. When we got to the corridor everyone was standing there and I was given a bunch of flowers. It took a while for the penny to drop.”

‘Approachable’ is an important aspect mentioned in the nomination letters. How important is it?
“Whenever I can, I try to give people the attention they need and to ask questions. Apart from when I am in a meeting, my door is always open.”

An open door policy is not a matter of course in a time when many university staff members complain about the workload.
“I believe that the people who need help the most should be given priority. Students and PhD candidates are in a phase in their careers that will determine the direction they take in life.”

You are also called a source of inspiration. Why is this?
“I think it is important for students to look beyond the well-trodden paths. My assignments for graduates and PhD candidates are not always firmly defined. They delve into the literature research to choose what they want to continue researching. This sometimes leads to new findings that we can publish. It is wonderful if they can contribute to science while they are still studying.”

“When our Dean, Fred van Keulen, read examples from the jury report aloud, I realised that I had done most of it for others. I set up an open access journal called Mechanical Sciences with a doctoral candidate who wanted to become an editor. The journal gives young researchers around the world the opportunity to experience publishing and editorial work so that they can grow and publish in established journals.”

Why is TU Delft the ideal place to work for you?
“I really enjoy working on unusual mechanisms that are not yet in use, but that have potential. One example is elastic mechanisms. They do not work with joints, but with flexibility. This means that no tissue can get caught in medical applications. It’s nice giving students things to think about.”

In an interview on TU Delft’s website, you say that working with students gives you energy. How does this happen?

“I am often impressed by the speed at which students pick up complicated things once they properly understand the basics. So I try to choose subjects that need an extra step in the thought process in my lectures. I first explain one simply, and later use a more complicated example. I believe this is the best way to make complex material comprehensible.”

Like his Professor of Excellence predecessor Kees Vuik, Just Herder has some tips for his colleagues.

1. TU Delft is there to help people
“Graduating or obtaining one’s doctorate is a process in which someone grows and learns about themselves. It is important to give them the space they need. This is why I never make projects very specific. This gives them the space to do what they want.”

2. Create a one-to-one relationship with students
“This is easier to do in a graduation process than during a lecture. In large lectures I try to do this by addressing people directly, asking questions, and letting them discuss things with each other once in a while. I hope this gives them the feeling that the lecture is really for them.”

3. Design is very important
“This tip is primarily for the mechanical engineering course. I try to give students a hands-on experience in some of the design subjects. In one example the students take apart a drill, try to understand how it works, and think up something to improve it.”

4. Do not lose sight of the outside world
“When you are concentrating on your research, you sometimes lose sight of the outside world. For this reason we also do practical projects. It starts with a problem at a company. We work with that company to try to find a unique solution through a research project.”

5. Try new things
“I also recognise that I do not know everything. I still feel like a student. My hope is that after their research, PhD candidates know more about a certain subject than I do. And I say this to them too. I also add new components to my teaching, such as self-study videos to get students to think about an assignment differently.”

News editor Bas Koppe

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