‘Students actively exploring science right from the start’

During Education Day 2017, Anton Akhmerov, Pieter Bots, Pasquale Cirillo and Kevin Cowan were appointed TU Delft Education Fellows. Each fellow will receive € 50,000 to carry out an innovative educational project. In the second of a series of their projects, we today look at Kevin Cowan.

Kevin Cowan: “We are effectively not using computers for the core learning process at all.” (Foto: Kevin Cowan)

In higher education, a lot of time is spent transmitting theory to students through lectures, books, videos and other materials. At the end of the course there is generally a paper, or paper-surrogate approach to testing what the students have absorbed. But this long cycle of passive sending and receiving is an inheritance from the Chalkstone Age, lecturer in Astrodynamics & Space Missions, Kevin Cowan, states. “We are effectively not using computers for the core learning process at all. The learning process that you go through by deriving a formula or solving a problem on paper rarely if ever happens with support of computers.”

According to Cowan, the problem is that the theory is embedded in a number of courses and then, somewhere else, there is a programming course. “We have been working with computers for decades and yet, somehow, the programming has never managed to leak into the theory courses,” he says. “They are entirely separate. Why?”

Two tools

Cowan wants to use computers to help students directly engage with and apply the theory. He has identified two tools that he thinks will help. “One is a general tool called Mathematica, a commercial technical computing system that allows you, among other things, to put a formula, that you either want to understand or experiment with, directly on the page and literally start playing with it. Instead of going through many hours of training on a programming language to become a programmer, Mathematica really puts the fun and the exploration back into the learning process, and is using the computer to do it.”

The second tool is TUDAT – TU Delft Astrodynamics Toolbox – that has been developed in the Space Department at the Aerospace Faculty over the course of several years. “It is a growing library of C++ code, a hardcore programming language that allows us to tackle complex computational problems that we could not tackle otherwise.”


Cowan thinks that students should start experimenting with Mathematica and the fundamental theory of astrodynamics. “Students will begin to understand the dynamics of a particular system of planets and spacecraft by creatively interacting with the theory through Mathematica. By trying different methods, they can find an approach that they can then implement and validate with the TUDAT package. It nicely bridges theory, application, and implementation.”

At Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Cowan was able to do this on his own with over 200 students at a time. “With fairly good results, getting them from basic linear algebra to modelling and understanding aircraft control systems within half a year. I think the idea is promising for any technical field. Students become far more engaged quickly. They are exploring science right from the start, and I believe that the learning is deeper in the end.”

Cowan will create small, challenge-based assignments or projects, and actually have students tackle them directly. He will start with astrodynamics and aims to share this approach with other faculties.

Also read: How students experience peer review and appraisal 

News editor Connie van Uffelen

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