When you talk to Niall Palfreyman about his work, it is all about the fundamentals, because he likes to trace things back to the very beginning. "Learning is a collaborative process between teachers and students," explains the bioprocess informatics professor. Managing this process in the best-possible way is important to the Englishman, and something that has occupied his time since well before he joined HSWT in the winter semester of 2000 when he was appointed as one of the professors on the new bachelor’s degree programme in bioinformatics.
Even when he was a student himself, he engaged not only with the content itself, but how one learns and teaches this content – adding the psychology of learning to his expertise alongside mathematical physics. The combination of theoretical considerations and practical application in teaching was also what drew him to HSWT, as well as the practical approach pursued at the university. And so he left his job as a software developer and made the move into university teaching and research.
Niall Palfreyman was a didactics mentor for a long time, and has been striving to make STEM subjects in particular more accessible to young people for years, for example as part of the children’s university. "Learning is what separates the living from the non-living," he says. Firstly, only living organisms have the ability not only to solve problems, but also to ask questions of their environment in their own interest. Secondly, learning is what gives you life. What do you need to learn? "Fun and curiosity are key to learning," Niall Palfreyman responds. He does not expect students to have an endless supply of those qualities, though, emphasising: "It is absolutely the responsibility of us teachers to spark and maintain that in our students: a curiosity in the subject and enjoyment in it." As STEM subjects fill a lot of people with fear and awe, Palfreyman explains that it is particularly important to do this in these subjects in order to reduce the disproportionately high number of students who withdraw from the related courses.
And what constitutes good teaching? "The acknowledgement that teaching is downright impossible," the 63-year-old says. "Humans and other animals are not passive recipients of the world they inhabit – they create through their actions. You cannot 'give' someone knowledge – they must create it themselves." If, as a teacher, you assume for example that a subject has been explained in sufficient detail, but the students perform poorly on the exam, he explains that this is due to the explanations being interpreted differently to how the teacher thought. "Neither side is to blame," Palfreyman says, "but something did not go to plan in the collaborative process."
Professors and teachers often do not find it easy to talk about the quality of their teaching. "Teachers are vulnerable," Niall Palfreyman says. "Because every day they enter into a kind of personal contract with the students. They demonstrate their passion for a subject and hope that the students will reciprocate."
Another challenge when it comes to examining and improving teaching is the relatively widespread misconception that only teaching benefits from the research, and not the other way around. Palfreyman explains that "the need to explain complex issues in an understandable way when teaching can also benefit research enormously: you can research a topic more precisely if you are able to present it to others in a coherent way, as then you are all on the same page."
One of the things that he particularly likes about working with students is having the opportunity to discuss a topic that fascinates him – mathematics – with young people. He goes onto say: "I love experiencing the students’ energy and how honest and unchecked the emotions are, both positive and negative. It’s also fantastic to see how much understanding and mutual respect they show towards one another."
In order to be able to put himself in other people’s shoes, specifically those of his students, Palfreyman, the father of two adult children himself, makes a conscious effort to keep hold of his own memories. "I was also nervous going into exams once upon a time, but definitely also at times the exhausting know-it-all," he says. "Instead of pushing these memories aside and forgetting them, I use them to help me show more understanding towards others."
Admittedly, he is also a student in many aspects. For example, when trying to improve his guitar playing. Palfreyman is part of the Irish folk band 'Riverrun'. This hobby has also given Niall Palfreyman one particularly special memory from his more than two decades at HSWT: a performance at Asam Hall in Freising for the university’s 40th anniversary in 2001. Back then, there was no pandemic to wreak havoc with event planning. "My friends Robert and Brigitte and I appeared as the 'Green Peas' and performed rock songs from the year when HSWT was founded: 1971. Professor Frank Leßke also sang with us on stage for a bit. It was a fantastic project and a really wonderful memory of Robert, who has sadly since passed away."
Anyone wishing to see Riverrun perform live – coronavirus restrictions permitting – can do so on the third Monday of every month at the Irish ceilidh at St. Lantpert parish hall in Freising.