18 March 2019

Teacher of the year 2019: Niels Bovenschen, Senior Fellow, Centre for Academic Teaching

‘Many Bachelor's students are more capable than one might think’

Bekendmaking docent van het jaar 2019
Niels Bovenschen with study association Mebiose during the Onderwijsparade

Niels Bovenschen is chosen as Outstanding Teacher of 2019. After he already received the Lecturer Award at the Faculty of Medicine last year, the medical biologists study association Mebiose nominated him for the university wide election. The jury announced his winning on 7 March at the annual Education Fair. How can the popularity of this lecturer-researcher be explained?

In its nomination for the Lecturer Award, the study association writes the following: ‘Niels entrusts students with freedom, responsibility and challenges, which inspire us to reach greater heights than we initially thought possible.’ He nonetheless maintains a sense of modesty: ‘To my mind, the reason is that I explain things clearly, listen attentively and always look after my students. I adapt my teaching to their requirements and frequently invite feedback. As a result, they are comfortable enough to approach me and I encourage them to share their thoughts.’ To his students, Niels is a role model. ‘Few other lecturers at my faculty devote equal amounts of time to research and education. In terms of research, I know what I am talking about.’ Indeed, the integration of education and relevant research comes natural to Niels. ‘It is important to me that students encounter and can conduct scientific research already at an early stage of their undergraduate studies. In this manner, students not only hone their academic and scientific skills, but they also sense that they're making a relevant contribution to society. It additionally allows students to discover early on whether they are suited for research. You can never find out soon enough.’

Huge brainpower

Despite the large number of students, Niels has come up with teaching methods that set Bachelor's students to work on scientific research in teams. ‘For example, my Bachelor's course on Pathology asks students to design an experiment that follows up on my own unpublished data. About one hundred students are divided into groups of six, which work on the same issue at the same time and subsequently peer review each other's work. The huge brainpower resulting from this collective activity directly feeds back to my research. As I'm the sole lecturer, they can send me an app or ask me questions. Whichever team has the best idea will actually proceed to conduct their research at the end of the course. This step could be the first on the path to great things.’

"Teaching is in my blood"

Large impact of teaching

Niels is a devoted academic; before he started work as a researcher at Utrecht University, he spent many years conducting research at Sanquin in Amsterdam. Fellow researchers in his vicinity recommended that he should not waste his time on teaching. ‘The thing is, teaching is in my blood’, Niels laughs. ‘My family are all teachers. First my grandparents, then my parents, and now my sister and I are employed in education. I get a great deal of satisfaction from educating people. All matters considered, the impact of my teaching will be far larger than my own research. Just imagine everything that my students will achieve following their graduation. Social contacts and interaction with students also brighten up my working day. Last but not least, students provide my research with fresh input. A win-win situation, in other words!’

Niels Bovenschen, docent Geneeskunde
Niels Bovenschen, Teacher of the year 2019

Niels not only holds the Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO) and Senior Teaching Qualification (SKO), he has also completed the Educational Leadership training programme. Moreover, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Academic Teaching since 2017. When he manages to finish this fellowship, he will be eligible for an appointment as professor with a special focus on education. In his fellowship project, Niels is concerned with the synergy of research-based teaching. ‘It is often possible to improve the academic schooling of our students by having them contribute to scientific research much sooner in their studies. There is frequently insufficient confidence in students. Many Bachelor's students are more capable than one might think.’

Confidence and smart organisation

However, confidence is not the only issue. ‘Lecturers are also afraid of the time investment. Smart organisation of teaching is required. I do so by having them work on the same issue in smaller teams, applying regular peer review and being constantly available, among other things. An abundance of facilities is another advantage. For example, I designed a laboratory that allows students to conduct actual research. In future, I hope that all faculties will create spaces for Bachelor's students, which will grow into a university-wide, interdisciplinary network of Bachelor's research hubs.’

Integration of education, research and patient care

For the first time, Niels invited a real patient to his class this year. ‘A four-year-old boy entered the lecture room alongside his parents and grandfather. He's suffered from an inexplicable neuromuscular disease and a lack of energy ever since he was born. UMC Utrecht is at a loss to unearth the cause of his illness. I'd invited the doctors to explain their findings in a brief lecture. A small abnormality in his DNA was the only clue that they had to offer my students, who were to continue from there.’ Niels again divided about one hundred Bachelor's students of Biomedical Sciences into groups, which had to come up with an experiment as well as a scientific strategy. Whichever two teams had the best idea were actually allowed to proceed in the laboratory. ‘It was clear that the presentation of a real patient case affected the students deeply. They contributed to a complex medical situation that was also of benefit to the patient. In future, there are huge opportunities for this teaching method, which will help to bridge the divide between fundamental scientific research and society even further.’

Read the news article about the Outstanding Teacher Awards of the Utrecht University.