He helps engineering students realize their full potential
DTU Associate Professor Torben Knudby prioritizes teaching over research. The students have rewarded him for this with the Lecturer of the Year award.
Wednesday 13 July 2022
Torben Knudby received the award as Lecturer of the Year 2022 for a) being the most motivating associate professor the students have had, b) for communicating at eye level and being full of positive energy, and c) for always being available to answer questions and help, at virtually any time of day.
Torben Knudby—Associate Professor at DTU Engineering Technology—responds with a quiet yes after each of the three statements that are read aloud to him.
“Now you shouldn’t praise yourself”, says Torben Knudby—after having cleared his throat—and adds:
"But I stand by it because it’s connected with my values and goals for my teaching. So, I’m very happy and proud.”
Left executive job for the classroom
13 years ago, Torben Knudby started as a lecturer at DTU with 25 years of professional experience behind him. At the age of 50, he quit his executive job with a leading Danish medical device company to become a student. He completed a University Teacher Training Programme at assistant professor level and subsequently a degree as Master of Science in International Technology Management.
"There I suddenly became a student myself and could observe the different teaching methods used by various lecturers. I could feel what worked and what didn’t. What motivated me and what was fun or boring,” says 64-year-old Torben Knudby, who is also Head of Studies at the BEng Programme in Manufacturing and Management.
It was also back in the classroom that Torben Knudby found out that he liked working with practical case examples, which he likes to use in his work as a lecturer. He finds that working with cases helps students see the correlation between theory and practice.
“The lecturer must be able to describe why the students need to learn this. Why is it important to you? I spend a lot of time and energy on that. Because if I can explain it to the students, they will learn everything else with greater ease, because they know they need it. They know that—in one or two years—they will have a job somewhere in the world where they will need to use what we’ve taught them here at DTU,” he explains.
Prioritizes teaching over research
As an Associate Professor, Torben Knudby is employed under an 80/20 scheme, where 80 per cent of the time is spent on teaching activities, while the remaining 20 per cent is spent on research activities. This is at the low end, but it is a conscious priority on Torben Knudby’s part.
“I’m concerned with solving the challenge that we educators face today, where we must ensure that the students receive teaching that is just as good or better despite larger classes with more students and greater diversity,” says Torben Knudby to justify his emphasis on teaching.
Torben Knudby notes the development that has taken place in the engineering programmes since he was an engineering student himself:
“Back then, we were a homogeneous mass. We all looked alike. Whereas—if you look at the students today—there is a huge diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and level of ambition.”
As diversity increases, it becomes more and more difficult to ensure teaching that takes into account the students’ different learning styles, academic level, special abilities, and motivation, Torben Knudby finds:
“One of my values is to try to the best of my ability to meet the students where they are at, so that they all realize their potential. Some will end up becoming professors or taking a PhD degree, while others will become a skilled engineer at a blacksmith factory in Ringsted.”
“These are completely different levels of ambition and different jobs, but they both represent good lives. They are well-paid and exciting jobs, but they concern very different types of persons and involve very different potentials and career dreams.”
In the very first lecture, Torben Knudby spends his time talking with the students and asking them why they are at DTU and what they want with their studies.
"Some of them don’t even know this themselves, so it’s very instructive for them to put words to it. My teaching goal is to accommodate all the diversity that we have and that we’re getting more and more of. Which is great, because the influx of so many different individuals makes the engineering profession a hundred times better equipped,” says the Associate Professor.
A Netto store is a place that the students in Torben Knudby’s courses always talk about.
“It’s a wonderful example from everyday life where we wonder why things cannot be done smarter? We’ve all tried standing in a queue in Netto at half past six on our way home from work, wondering why there aren’t more tills open. And why does a big truck that unloads goods always arrive when there is the largest number of customers in the store? Why couldn’t it come when there are no customers? Why aren’t there more fresh heads of lettuce left at the end of the day?
These questions are essentially what production engineers are engaged in: optimization and planning. They calculate how many customers visit the store on a given day and when. Through data collection, they calculate how many customers can be served per minute per till.
“Instead of me saying: “Now listen up. When I worked as head of production, I did such and such.” They couldn’t care less. They’re not interested in hearing about how smart I am. But if I can get them to think: "God, there must be a way to do this smarter”, then we’re really getting somewhere,” he ascertains.
Torben Knudby points out that the development in production technology is changing rapidly at the moment. From manual work to outsourcing to China, to the introduction of robots in production, and all the new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“Production engineers are—in fact—those tasked with creating the solutions. Soon, you will not have to go to the till in the supermarket. You just put the goods in your trolley, and when you walk out the door, it will say: beep beep beep, because there is a little chip in every single product that is scanned when you leave the store,” says Torben Knudby.
The purchase will then be deducted from your account, and new goods will be ordered for delivery to the store. Without human intervention.
Nightingale song on repeat
Torben Knudby’s telephone number is on the door to his office. It also says that the students can call him when it suits them. Even outside normal office hours.
"Some of my colleagues ask me; “Don’t they call you all the time? Do you ever take time off?”. Listen, the students are actually well-mannered and cautious, and they apologize three times if they call me,” assures the Lecturer of the Year.
It is important for Torben Knudby to be available to the students at virtually any time of the day, because he would rather have them call him and ask if they are on the right track than waste their time on something that turns out to be wrong.
The interview is interrupted at regular intervals by the sound of bird whistles. It is the sound of Torben Knudby’s mobile phone ringing. He says that it is the beautiful song of the nightingale recorded in nature.
“That was Haldor Topsoe—a large Danish industrial company—calling. They currently have a DTU student doing an internship with them, and now they need one more for a Bachelor of Engineering final project. My job is then to coordinate the contact with potential candidates,” he explains.
Torben Knudby finds that it is a huge privilege to educate young people who are in high demand by the companies. Because it makes his job a lot more fun.
“Right now, I feel like I've succeeded in that task by the students saying that I’m good at it. This is the very best evaluation you can get,” say Torben Knudby with a smile.