Computer scientist Rob Belleman is specialised in interactive visual systems. He teaches courses in the Master's programme Computational Science as well as in the Computer Science Bachelor's programme – for which he is also programme director.
Presenting problems that are difficult to grasp in such a way that people finally have a eureka-experience, that is at the heart of Rob Belleman’s work. That goes for his work as a computer scientist specialised in interactive visualisation, but also as lecturer and programme director for the Bachelor's programme in Computer Science.
‘I'm currently working on a project in which we are trying to use virtual reality to present 'difficult problems'. If we are successful, we will be able to visualise the different elements of which such problems are comprised. It might be that the problem is merely difficult to picture, but it could also be a problem that is too expensive or too dangerous to work on in reality.’
‘Let's consider the Graphics course, for example, in which linear algebra is used. This involves three-dimensional spaces and their transformation. You will usually find me frantically using my hands and feet in an effort to explain these spaces and their transformation. I've got a picture in my head and I can see that students are struggling to understand what I'm trying to get across. In situations like this, I think that it could be useful to use a virtual reality application to show students the transformations that I'm currently trying to explain with my little dance routine. That way, I hope to get that 'aha-erlebnis' out of them.’
In 2016, Belleman obtained his Advanced University Teaching Qualification (Advanced UTQ). The course gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in research results on the subject of didactics. ‘I was able to take a good look at developments in the field of teaching, to see what is possible, what works and what doesn't. Although lectures are often effective, students learn better if active involvement is required of them.’
Traditionally, little attention has been paid to didactics at the university, and Belleman sees it as his job as programme director to do things differently. ‘I think that it would be good for us to critically consider whether the way we currently teach is actually the best way. If you go back in time 20 years, researchers were put in front of a class without any idea of teaching. Today, I encourage lecturers to take teaching courses or experiment with different teaching methods, or I help if someone wants to apply for a UvA Grassroots grant, which enables them to develop technology for use in their teaching.’
Belleman is not averse to the occasional use of low-tech methods to get a concept across. ‘One of the concepts covered in the course that I was just telling you about – Graphics – is the so-called state machine concept. Every time I mention this concept, I give a loud bang on the whiteboard. Some students are so startled by it every time, that they beg me to stop. But it’s an effective method: when I talk to students later on, they invariably say ‘oh yes, the state machine’ and give a loud bang on the table.’
Ideally, Belleman likes to give students the chance to 'play' with the knowledge that he imparts to them by presenting them with a problem and asking them how they would tackle it. ‘They then learn that the way in which certain discoveries are applied is not an automatic process, but is based on all kinds of reasoning. By prodding, steering and pushing students a bit, I try to encourage them to arrive at a solution themselves. It’s very nice to see them succeed: they lean back with a broad smile on their faces, happy in the knowledge that they've figured it out themselves.’