The high school teacher who became a top researcher
Claus greets me in front of his house in the center of Odense where he has personally made sure to keep a parking space available for me. The conversation quickly turns to whether I had a pleasant drive and what I would like to drink. There is tea, coffee, sweets, and strawberries on the table. Hospitality is found in spades in this cozy and coffee-scented academic home.
Such a welcome says a lot about who Claus Michelsen is, both as a private person and as a researcher (that is if the two things can be separated): He is welcoming, attentive and thorough.
I have always had a very broad approach to what I work with. Of course, my original subjects physics and mathematics interest me a great deal but my research is also very much about how I bring physics and mathematics into interaction with other subjects. It is the interdisciplinary approach that has always been my main interest.
Soccer, hockey, and rock music
When Claus describes himself without the “professor’s cap” he talks about his large family and his broad field of interests which among other things include rock music, hockey and soccer. He also has a great passion for literature and travels – especially to Germany. And namely his love for Germany – he goes so far as to call himself a closet Germanist – holds a central place in the story of Claus. Which may also explain why there are so many German researchers at Department of Mathematics and Computer Science (IMADA).
– I have employed many of them myself, says Claus with a crooked smile.
This versatility and broad field of interests is also reflected when the “professor’s cap” is back in place.
– I’m probably not a traditional researcher. I have always had a very broad approach to what I work with. Of course, my original subjects physics and mathematics interest me a great deal but my research is also very much about how I bring physics and mathematics into interaction with other subjects. It is the interdisciplinary approach that has always been my main interest, Claus explains.
The high school teacher who rose to the top of the university
Claus spent the first fifteen years of his career as a high school teacher in physics and mathematics at Mulernes Legatskole in Odense. Here he developed his great understanding of the field of praxis in teaching– a field he later developed important discourses within.
The first part of Claus’ research career in summary:
1999-2000: Shortly after Claus had completed his PhD dissertation he was offered an associate professor position at the Department of Upper Secondary Education (in Danish: Institut for Gymnasiepædagogik) which later became a shared position between the Faculty of Humanities and Faculty of Science. His task was to strengthen the didactic area within science.
2003: Head of NAMADI – Centre for the Didactics of Science and Mathematics. Here Claus spent some great research years while at the same time continuously raising funds for the area. At the centre he also got his first MSc and PhD students within the didactic area.
In 1997 it came to Claus’ attention that SDU was looking for an experienced high school teacher for a master’s scholarship. It was designed as a two-and-a-half-year position where he was to establish connections between colleges and the university within the field of science.
– At the time I imagined that I would go back to teaching in high school when the project position was over, but it never really came to it. The academic world kind of stuck with me, says Claus and he laughs his usual giggling laugh.
Already a few months into the recruitment process Claus was offered to turn the position into a PhD program. This was the kickstart to his long research career where the caps, the titles and the academic knowhow grew at a steady pace.
A serious career change took place in 2007 when Claus became the new Head of Department at IMADA.
– If someone in the beginning had told me that 10 years after I had left the profession of high school teaching, I would be Head of Department, then I wouldn’t have believed them, he says, as he has never really applied for leadership positions, but somehow, he still got them.
– I recall my four years as Head of Department with joy. Among other things, I helped to set an agenda to strengthen Applied Mathematics. And I think you can see the trace of that today because now IMADA is the only department outside DTU (Technical University of Denmark) that offers education and research within the area, says Claus.
Until then the department had experienced a separation between Mathematics and Computer Science, where the “and” in "Mathematics and Computer Science" was strong. Claus’ idea was to make the “and” more embracing.
I will never forget the warm welcome and sincere interest Claus showed me when I came to my job interview in Odense, where the day began with Claus picking me up from the hotel.
A cherished colleague
Two of Claus’ colleagues from IMADA talk warmly about their time with Claus as Head of Department.
Kristian Debrabant, associate professor at IMADA, says:
– I will never forget the warm welcome and sincere interest Claus showed me when I came to my job interview in Odense, where the day began with Claus picking me up from the hotel. With his enthusiasm for Applied Mathematics, Claus has, in addition to a lasting impact on the department, also made an impact on mathematics and more generally STEM teaching in both primary and secondary school.
What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and is an interdisciplinary approach that can help provide insight into the major challenges of our time, such as energy efficiency, resource consumption and environmental quality.
STEM gives us a toolbox to gain knowledge, attitudes and skills in identifying real-world issues and problems.
Also Professor Achim Scholl, who had a close collaboration with Claus when he was Head of Department, has many praises:
Claus knows what he wants, and he has managed to implement his convictions.
His determination and effectiveness have been rewarded with respect among specialists and throughout the faculty. As Head of Department and Vice Dean, he has had a lasting impact on his department and the faculty. The Laboratory for Coherent Education and Learning will continue to represent and develop his spirit beyond his active time. That’s what one can hope for as scientist. Claus, you made it!
Just four years after Claus was appointed Head of Department, he was offered the position, as Vice Dean of Education at the Faculty of Science. At the same time, he was also Head of Studies for Science and Pharmacy and Head of the PhD school.
When I ask Claus to explain his quick steps up the management ladder, he emphasizes that he has always had a hard time hiding his enthusiasm and commitment:
– I’m a political person who finds it easy to get involved in developmental work. I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, he says with a smile, and continues:
– And that is both a good and bad thing. In my case, I have been fortunate that people around me have seen the potential in my enthusiastic ways and viewed it as useful regarding management of developmental projects.
While Claus was Vice Dean of Education, he focused on scaling student capabilities. The question was what kind of abilities they wanted to equip young people with. Likewise, he also put a greater focus on to the students first year of study, because this is when the individual student establishes his or hers’ academic habits.
It was also while Claus was Vice Dean that he began collaborating with the previous Vice Chancellor of the UCL University College, Erik Knudsen. The university colleges had to build research environments, and therefore the two men began discussing the possibilities of establishing an environment across the institutions aimed at mathematics and science didactics.
– The university colleges train primary- and preschool teachers. At the university we educate teachers for high schools and higher educations. In this way, we cover the entire spectrum and ensure that praxis is strongly linked to research. That was our starting point, says Claus.
Our research is paid for by taxpayers, and therefore it is crucial that we show an obvious and direct benefit to society. And in this context, education is incredibly important.
Praxis goes hand in hand with research
While we pore more coffee into the mugs, I ask Claus why he thinks it is so important to have a strong link between praxis and his research.
– Our research is paid for by taxpayers, and therefore it is crucial that we show an obvious and direct benefit to society. And in this context, education is incredibly important. In addition, I have always considered myself an applied researcher where my background within praxis, as a high school teacher, naturally also comes into play, says Claus.
When Claus started as a researcher, he made some experiences that he wished he could have benefitted from as a high school teacher.
– And conversely, I have met researchers who were so theoretical that they would have benefited a great deal from experiencing the real world. I am probably characterized by a rather systemic thinking, where it is the context and coherency that is central. Research and practice must enrich each other. Which is something, that I always try to convey to my own students, Claus says.
The interdisciplinary synergy
The project with UCL led to Claus’ hiring as professor MSO with the special task of developing the collaboration between the institutions by creating a research centre. Today this centre is called Laboratory for STEM Education and Learning (formerly: Laboratory for Coherent Education and Learning).
Claus has a special approach to STEM. He doesn’t see the letters individually, but instead as integrated where math, the "M", is the language that links all the letters together. He views STEM as an interdisciplinary synergy:
– Sectorial thinking is a clear challenge. I am particularly thinking of the subject-divided primary school. The subjects have their justification because it is a place where we form and change concepts. It’s our conceptual system, but we still must think across disciplines. Because one subject can’t exist without the other, says Claus.
In addition to being Professor MSO, at IMADA, Claus is also:
- Chairman of the board at Midtfyns Gymnasium.
- Chairman of the Committee for the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Teaching Awards.
- Member of the review committee for educational research at the Swedish Research Council.
- Member of the Government’s expert group for the ABC of Science.
The great focus on interdisciplinarity, the understanding of STEM and not least keeping an eye on how important it is not to forget praxis in his research, has all led Claus far and wide. And when I ask him to highlight his greatest successes there are several efforts that deserve mentioning.
In 2018 Claus was appointed by the previous government to be part of an expert group led by astrophysicist Anja Andersen. The group were to develop the ABC of Science – an action plan, which will be the focal point for teaching science in primary school and in upper secondary education in the future. In the same strategy it was also decided that a master’s education should be developed for teachers in high school. A graduate program in STEM teaching. Claus’ ideas about interdisciplinarity and the connection between the science subjects is a central part of the education today.
Through Claus’ long career, he has raised well over DKK 40 million in external funding for various projects within science didactics, STEM learning and interdisciplinarity.
Claus has always been hugely accommodating and has shown a lot of interest in me as a student. He has always been generous with his time for his students and has helped them with professional sparring.
A committed teacher
Though his earnings of external funding are impressive, Claus is probably most proud of his direct efforts towards the many students he has tutored throughout the years. Being a teacher falls close to his heart.
– Because of the didactic activities I started SDU is now the only university in Denmark that offers
a whole program designed for students in science who wishes to work with education or as a High School teacher. Besides this I am very proud to have participated in so many students’ educations. The day-to-day sessions with the students have meant a great deal to me. It has been enriching helping them prepare for the very important task of being science teachers for our younger generations, Claus says with pride in his voice.
When I talk to one of Claus’ students there is no doubt that the enthusiasm is mutual:
– I had Claus as a supervisor on my first-year project, after which he was a supervisor on my bachelor project and subsequently on several individual study projects. And finally, he was supervisor on my thesis project. Claus has always been hugely accommodating and has shown a lot of interest in me as a student. He has always been generous with his time for his students and has helped them with professional sparring. He has many years of experience and has extensive didactic knowledge, which means that he always has many perspectives to offer and suggestions for interesting topics to work on. He has met me as a student where I am and tried to accommodate me and my interests in the best way possible.
I wish Claus all the best in the future, and I look forward to using all that taught me when I am out in the real world, become the best possible teacher that I can be, says Maria Simonsen, who just graduated, and now has a MSc degree in Mathematics, Sports and Health. She has also just recently been hired as a high school teacher at Sct. Knuds Gymnasium.
If I were to give the research world and the university environment some good advice, it would be to remember that we have an obligation to strengthen the academic discussion and never ever forget that our most important task is to find contributions and solutions in order to create a better world.
A professor retires
Claus will retire as professor at the end of 2021, but as he says:
– I am stopping at the top of the hill. I think the time is right to let my projects live on in the hands of others. I need to find my focus elsewhere. Or at least so I have promised to my wife - even though I probably can’t let go completely, he says and smiles knowingly. He then reveals that he is keeping a number of his posts on various councils and boards, and that he, alongside a couple of other researchers, is in the process of publishing a book about how mathematics relates to many different subjects in an educational and teaching context.
Claus continues as professor emeritus at IMADA and thus also as a consultant on a number of projects. Therefore, Claus’ many colleagues will not be completely without his great knowledge and experience in the future, as they will be able to seek his advice and guidance for many years to come.
Finally, a last piece of advice to the entire university from Claus, reads:
– If I were to give the research world and the university environment some good advice, it would be to remember that we have an obligation to strengthen the academic discussion and never ever forget that our most important task is to find contributions and solutions in order to create a better world.
We are many who will miss Claus in our daily work. Good luck in the future!
Professor Claus Michelsen on the bench in his backyard. (Ursula Lundgreen)
Claus takes a closer look at the 10 proposed findings he himself helped to recommend to the Ministry of Education. (Ursula Lundgreen)
Claus was part of the expert group that came up with their recommendations for 'Naturvidenskabens ABC'. (Ursula Lundgreen)
Meet the researcher
Claus Michelsen is a professor and former head of the Laboratory for STEM Education and Learning (formerly: Laboratory for Coherent Education and Learning).