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'I always consider: What would have worked best for me?'

Starting with the ‘why’, putting herself in her students’ shoes and providing structure. These are three ways in which environmental scientist Ranran Wang tries to make her course as interesting and manageable as possible. With success: she has been nominated for Science Teacher of the Year 2022.

When Wang took over the EEIOA course (see box), it had quite a high drop-out rate. ‘The focus was primarily on understanding the dry mathematics’, she explains. ‘But that’s not where my passion for this research field came from. I thought: if I were a student, what would have worked best for me?

‘I start my lessons with the why’

So Wang restructured the course completely. ‘I now always start my lectures with the Why: ‘Why are we studying this method or equation? We talk about important questions and current issues and I try to make connections with what the students care about in real life. And only after we have tackled how the concept works, will we move on to the What: the technically detailed part. Then, even if the equations are a little challenging, I hope my students still have the incentives to push through.’ And it worked: the pass rates for the course are now significantly higher.

Tracing environmental impacts

Wang teaches EEIOA: environmentally extended input-output analysis. ‘A mouth full,’ she says. ‘It’s all about a methodology to assess environmental footprints and analyse the production and consumption structures within or across economies. We rely on economic data and structures to trace all sorts of environmental impacts, no matter how far away they are generated from production and consumption. Because the methods are based on economic data from all around the world, students also develop a more critical understanding of the pros and cons of policy debates, such as Brexit.’

EEIOA is a relatively new course, based on the emerging field of Industrial ecology. ‘This field is one of the strengths of the CML. The course, therefore, has a strong connection with our research. As far as I know, this advanced course we offer is the one and only on the planet.’

‘I believe making and seeing connections makes life much more interesting.’

Aha, okay, hmm? : the best sound in the classroom

According to Wang, both the presence and absence of sound during class can be a good sign. ‘It feels great when everyone is involved and is discussing and asking questions. But a completely silent room during a computer practicum is just as wonderful. When all students are intrigued and focusing on their work.’

But the best sound is what Wang calls the ‘aha, okay, hmm? - moment’. ‘It’s the sound students make when they’re giving something a second thought. At first they go: “Aha”, but when they start thinking more critically you hear: “hmm wait a second, is this true?”. That moment is very intellectually fulfilling. I believe making and seeing these kinds of connections makes life more interesting.’

Inspiring teachers make the difference

During her studies, Wang had a few favourite teachers herself, each with their own specialty. ‘Some were very caring and patient. That’s always helpful because then students feel comfortable to ask questions.’ But most inspiring to Wang was her teacher in Energy System Analysis, who filled his lectures with critical insights. ‘I still remember that we met for three hours every Monday afternoon. These were never regular lectures. Each time you went there, it felt like he was giving a public lecture. The teacher always started with something you thought you knew everything about. But towards the end of the lecture, he had completely changed your view. I hope, one day, I can be that kind of an inspiration to my students as well.’

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