‘My students learn that there is no such thing as a single truth’
Computer Science lecturer Hendrik Jan Hoogeboom feels like a kind of stand-up comedian when he stands in front of a classroom of students. And it works. ‘He makes everyone enthusiastic. Even those students who had been thinking of giving up!’ He is one of the five nominees for the LSr Education Prize, the prize for best lecturer of the year.
Hendrik Jan Hoogeboom (53) teaches Fundamental Computer Science, Combinational Algorithms and Challenges in Computer Science. For this subject, mathematical insight alone is not enough, he says. ‘A large dose of fantasy is also important because there are often no ready-made answers. You have to be able to think in terms of different scenarios. In secondary school, pupils are taught what the answer is. I teach my students that there is always more than one way for something to be true.’ He recently taught a class on game analysis, together with a colleague. They did not agree on a technical solution and they discussed it in the presence of the group. ‘I was afraid that this would come across as messy, but it turned out that the students really appreciated our discussion; it gave them food for thought
'Hendrik Jan Hoogeboom puts humour to good use and he finds his own subject often so interesting that his voice cracks from excitement. He knows how to make everyone enthusiastic, even those students who have already given up on their studies,’ wrote the students of the study association De Leidsche Flesch who nominated him for this education prize. Hoogeboom reacts drily. ‘They say that I am funny. I don’t prepare those jokes, they happen spontaneously during the lectures. I feel like a kind of stand-up comedian when I am in front a classroom of students. I explain the material in an enthusiastic way and I really give it all I’ve got to keep the students interested. After class I am exhausted.’
He likes to use appealing metaphors and often scans YouTube. In a lecture on the concept of infinity Hoogeboom often refers to Hilbert’s Hotel, a metaphor originating from mathematician David Hilbert. Hilbert’s Hotel has countably infinitely many rooms. Even when all the rooms are occupied, it can still accommodate new guests. “How is this possible?” he asks his students. The answer is: all the guests have to move up one room.
Students also appreciate the interesting examples he gives from ‘the real world’, as they write in his nomination. Hoogeboom draws from a long list of notorious computer bugs. ‘In a subject like programming, carelessness and misunderstandings can have serious consequences. For instance, I tell the story of an artificial moon that crashed because the English designers turned out to count in pounds while their American colleagues used kilograms. Or the story of the patient who was accidentally radiated ten times longer than required because of a misplaced comma.’
Hoogeboom has been teaching computer science since 1987. How did he develop as a lecturer? ‘I used to treat the material much more literally. I would fill two whole blackboards in order to give the answer to a theorem. I also tend to take more into account who my audience is. Computer science is a subject that attracts very different types of students, from very mathematics-oriented types and dabblers in hardware to creative software writers. But I get them all in the same group. I adjust the material to the level of the listener and adapt my answer to the person asking the questions. I think that that is the secret to a good lecture.’
The winner will be announced by the Leiden Student Council during the Dies Natalis celebration (8 February). Until this time, every week one of the candidates is placed in the spotlight. The other four nominees for the LSr Education Prize are: