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Mikael Ersson uses his experience of his time as a student to develop his teaching methods. (Photo: Camilla Cherry)

Now everyone can keep up

Published Nov 21, 2016

How should we teach difficult, obscure subjects that only a few people can easily understand? For Mikael Ersson, keeping a moderately slow pace and taking on board his students' ideas has been the formula for success. Now he has been rewarded with KTH Teacher’s Prize for his innovative and creative methods.

”I was really happy to win. It feels fantastic to get a prize for something which I am so passionate about and for which I’ve worked so hard on,” says Mikael Ersson , assistant lecturer and teacher in materials design and engineering.

Among other things, he teaches about flows of energy, heat and matter in the course Transport Phenomena, a subject which he found very difficult in his time as a KTH student.

”I have tried to cherry-pick the best bits from what I experienced when I studied the course,” says Mikael Ersson. ”The focus is on exercises instead of lectures. I almost never use PowerPoint slides – I would rather stand at the blackboard and draw and explain things.”

The challenge is not to go too fast, so he adapts his teaching pace to ensure that everyone can keep up.

A slower pace

Mikael Ersson has doubled the length of time of the course so that it now runs for an entire semester. That’s because there is so much to learn and because he wants to avoid the students cramming. His students are happy with the pace of learning and are doing better in the exams than before.

”It’s a lot of fun when you really get into the flow of teaching,” he says. ”Student contact is the best thing about this job and I am constantly surprised by how much they can handle.”

A popular feature of the course is the video that the students produce to illustrate everyday transport phenomena, such as how sugar in a cup of coffee will dissolve when you stir a spoon. The ideas come from the students themselves, and the films will be published online to inspire and increase knowledge about the subject. Other year groups have followed suit.

In the same spirit, Mikael Ersson has built a water model lab where students can test physical models that they have made with a 3D printer, to gain a deeper understanding of computer simulations and flow theories.

”I believe that everyone has an intuitive knowledge of how flows work. The lab will make it easy to visualise how the processes function.”

He wants to improve the course material

Taking part in the labs is voluntary, but Mikael Ersson would be happy to have a specific lab time where all the students could attend. The number of labs has decreased since his time as a student.

”It’s a shame. People learn in different ways; some like to read books, others prefer to work with their hands, but I think we should make all types of learning possible.”

Although he is satisfied with the results of his teaching – the students are at a higher level than when he started the course – he feels that there is still room for improvement.

He would like to replace the existing literature with self-produced materials that focus more on the course's key elements, with interesting examples and content that the students themselves have asked for. He also wants to expand the online course material, with more filmed lectures and laboratory exercises.

But the most important thing for Mikael Ersson is to be committed to putting the students’ needs first.

”You have to constantly come into the classroom with fresh eyes, and not forget how it was when you yourself were studying, and which things you thought were difficult to understand.”

Text: Christer Gummeson

Jury’s motivation, KTH Teacher’s Prize:

  • Mikael Ersson has been awarded KTH Teacher’s Prize for 2016, for his innovative and creative work to activate and engage students in their learning in courses that they previously experienced as being incomprehensible and boring. Mikael Ersson works as a teacher in the materials design software and mechanical engineering programme, to which he brought his great passion for teaching people about transport phenomena.
  • An example of this is the seminar part of the Transport Phenomena course, in which he encouraged the participants to record movies and upload them onto YouTube to explain the subject to others.
  • Another example is the water model lab that he built for the course toolbox for simulation and modelling. In this laboratory are models of different reaction vessels and a 3D printer that can be used to manufacture different parts of the water model tests. For example, students can use mathematical models to study how different geometries of the nozzles that are used for the injection of gas into a liquid can influence bubble formation, flow pattern, and so on. Then the most promising nozzle geometries are manufactured in the 3D printer, before trying out water modelling to test the new nozzles. This initiative has given the students a deeper understanding of the field of transport phenomena.
  • Read more about the Teacher’s Prize