April 21, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

Text about an award and the recipient's name (left) with photo of Matt Heun smiling (right)

If it’s been done before, we are not interested.

This was the unofficial motto for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when Matt Heun led studies and experiments there related to planetary exploration with balloon systems in the late 1990s.

“This idea of pushing the boundaries of what we can do and what humans know became a high value for me,” said Heun.

A quarter century later, you could say that unofficial motto applies to Heun’s current enterprise—helping young aspiring engineers dream bigger.

Great teacher, great students

This spring, Heun, a professor of engineering at Calvin University, is being honored for the ways he’s inspired students over the past 21 years to go beyond their own expectations of themselves. He’s the winner of Calvin’s 2023 Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching—the highest honor the university awards for teaching.

“It’s super humbling,” said Heun of learning of the recognition. “I just think of all the students I’ve taught over the years and how it’s not possible to be a good teacher unless you have good students. That partnership between teacher and students is something that’s really important and not to be taken lightly.”

For Heun, teaching has always been a part of his life, though he didn’t recognize it as such until he formally filled the role. He captained high school soccer teams. As an undergrad, he helped other students with homework. As a grad student, he directed a lab that included younger students, and then in his work in aerospace he led projects and teams.

“At the time I thought of it as helping, but really it was teaching and bringing other people along in ways that were aligned with the mission of the organization, whatever the organization was at the time,” said Heun.

For the past two decades, Heun’s had the title of professor and he’s taken that role very seriously, helping students shift their thinking of what they’re capable of achieving.

High standards, high support

“Alumni report that they appreciate how he enabled them to accomplish things they weren’t sure they could,” said Gayle Ermer, chair of the engineering department.

Ermer says Heun helps his students achieve these outcomes by “setting extremely high standards” and then “coaching and supporting students” along the way.

Heun says both expecting much of students and supporting them well is crucial to getting students to broaden their definition of what’s possible. He says without high demands, students get bored. And without a high level of support, students get cynical, thinking the expectations are unrealistic.

“The way to avoid either of those poles is to claim that the work they are going to do is important, provide a big challenge for them, because important things are challenging, and then provide the support to help them succeed,” said Heun.

Less teaching, more learning

Heun sees this pedagogy play out most clearly in his Engineering 333 classes, when he presents them with a big problem and turns his class loose for a semester-long discovery process.

“I like to tongue-in-cheek say, ‘less teaching, more learning.’ You get that when you set a big problem and then cut students loose on it. As the teacher you are trying to guide the group one way or another slowly through the semester and provide the support they need to do that,” said Heun.

And in this process, there always comes a time for a magical moment. Though Heun admits it’s not seen as so magical at the time by his students.

When the learning really happens

“It’s that moment when students come to me and ask detailed technical questions and I have to say, ‘I don’t know the answer,’ and then I say, ‘but now it’s your turn to become the expert,” said Heun. “That magic moment is part of the process of getting students to understand that this is not just an assignment, but a responsibility that you need to work on and make it your own. The moment when that happens is really special.”

For Heun, when he leaves his students with that challenge, he said “I’m saying yeah, yeah, yeah!” He admits his students reaction is usually quite different, “they say, ‘oh, he doesn’t know the answer, how does he expect us to know?’” But when students take ownership of the process, they come to answers and solutions.

It's all part of the intentional design of Heun’s teaching pedagogy.

“He uses creative problem-based and team-based strategies to assist student learning,” said Arlene Hoogewerf, the dean for the School of STEM at Calvin University.

“I teach that way because I have a background in aerospace where we are always doing something new, always challenging ourselves to take a step that’s never been taken before,” said Heun. “That’s what we want with education, young people full of enthusiasm and energy, paired with older and wiser practitioners who can provide the guidance. That’s a cool combination.”

Caring for creation because of faith commitments

Heun also appreciates the invitation to integrate his Christian faith into his teaching and his scholarship. One of the ways he does this is by promoting care for God’s creation, to the human, but also the non-human parts of it.

“So, I view the non-human parts of creation as really important and it takes on greater importance when you realize the two ways to know God are through Scripture and through creation,” said Heun. “If we are destroying the creation, we are reducing one of the ways that we can know God. So right there, with that simple statement, you know it’s important.”

Heun is a leading scholar and thought leader in the environmental sustainability space having published dozens of articles, co-authored books, and given countless presentations and interviews on the matter. He also holds multiple leadership positions on sustainability-focused faculty and student groups on campus.

“It is clear that Reformed Christian faith motivates his personal commitment to championing sustainability at the university level,” said Ermer. “Matt has inspired a lasting commitment to more sustainable practices among students and faculty through his development and implementation of the engineering department’s new Energy, Environment, and Sustainability concentration.”

Placing a high value on student outcomes

He's also made a lasting impression on his students. One of the reasons? He always makes time for them.

“He regularly meets with students outside of class and is a prolific emailer and Teams user for answering student questions with a goal to answer questions within 24 hours,” said Hoogewerf.

It's usually much quicker than that.

“I try to respond within an hour to provide an answer. I’m working hard to help them be successful and that’s a model that encourages students to see the importance of what they are doing and for them to rise to the expectations that you set,” said Heun. “And that’s why I teach the way I teach, and if students are picking up on that, I’m 100-percent thrilled.”

They surely are.

One alumnus reflected that Heun “has been the most influential professor I have had in my time at Calvin” and that he “helped me understand some of the most difficult courses I had so far, but more than the coursework, it is the influence, direction, and wisdom that he poured into me.”

Another reflected in gratitude to Heun, “thank you for your kindness and care, your encouragement, your challenging questions, and the ways you empower me to learn more about myself and the world around me. Thank you for always making time to talk, even when you didn’t really have time … Thank you for listening to me and praying for me and believing in me.”

When Heun received the award on Thursday, April 20, it was fitting that more than half of his invited guests were students.

“I wanted to honor them in accepting an award that’s only possible because they are so awesome,” said Heun.

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