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Marco Swaen, the Faculty of Science nominee for Lecturer of the Year, obtained his PhD at KdVI Institute for Mathematics for his proof-theoretical research. He subsequently concentrated on teaching. He is a teacher at the st-Michaelcollege in Zaandam and teaches Maths in the Bachelor's degree programmes in Natural and Social Sciences and Chemistry.

Marco Swaen. Photos: Liesbeth Dingemans

Becoming a teacher

Marco Swaen knew from a very young age that he wanted to be teacher. ‘That doesn't happen very often anymore but, at the time, it seemed like a very good job to me. In those days, teachers earned a fairly good wage and had a lot of spare time. Of course, I considered these very appealing terms of employment,’ he says, smiling. ‘And at school I excelled in maths, so that was another easily made choice.’

After graduating, however, he decided to do a PhD before definitely pursuing a career as teacher and lecturer. ‘I really enjoy doing research, reading articles, talking to people, figuring things out. But lecturing at a university is primarily about the content, the subject matter, whereas teaching at a secondary school also concerns the childs' overall development. I missed that.’

Theatre aspect

On the other hand, lecturing at a university has its own advantages. ‘The larger the group, the more I usually enjoy it. The theatre aspect of lecturing really appeals to me. You can achieve a kind of concentration that only occurs in such a large group. Being able to convey something so that people understand it, really feels like a success.’

Learning by doing

Swaen does take care not to let things go over too smoothly. ‘That feeling of ‘getting it’ can be very infectious. With the risk of everyone enjoying the lecture but not really knowing or remembering what it was all about later. The same thing can happen in research. You think you've grasped it but when you come to write it up the next day, you can't make head or tail of it.’ 

In other words, you have to do maths to learn maths! Even during a lecture. Or rather, especially during a lecture, because the transition from attending a lecture to solving the problem yourself is sometimes a big one, Swaen explains. ‘My aim is to remove that barrier by letting them work on their assignments during the lecture. Then they can set to work straight away after the lecture, without having to look everything up in the book.’

Trying it out during the lecture can be a good idea. ‘I want to show them how best to approach maths, how to sit and set about it. Some students sit with nothing in front of them and I encourage them to at least have a pen and paper to hand. Even if you only copy down the problem, it will at least start to become your own work.’

Coming from within

For many students he teaches, maths is not actually their chosen study, rather a subject they are doing as a ‘requirement’ for the rest of their study programme. Nonetheless, Swaen uses examples from their chosen study as little as possible. ‘I am not a chemist and they will learn the relevant applications further down in their study anyway. But, moreover, I much rather teach them maths in a way that makes it interesting to them in its own right, and with the clarity of feeling like it’s coming from within.’ He says it’s not his goal to turn his students into mathematical researchers. ‘But I do feel it is important that they can enjoy maths, at least for the time they spend doing it.’