The Best of Both Worlds: Jan Van der Spiegel makes it his mission to bring research to the classroom

Jan Van der Spiegel is a busy man.   The humble 56-year-old professor from Belgium has served in the Electrical and Systems Engineering Department since he came to Penn as a postdoctoral fellow in 1980 and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1981.

When he isn’t sharing his wealth of knowledge in meticulously prepared classroom lectures and labs, Van der Spiegel is leading his own research initiatives and facilitating the Summer Undergraduate Fellowship in Sensor Technologies (SUNFEST), an undergraduate research program that takes place on the Penn campus every summer. “Education is not a one-way channel, just giving students information,” says Van der Spiegel from his office on campus. “It’s really about letting them think outside of the book, letting them learn through discovery.”

A much-decorated professor at Penn and former Chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Van der Spiegel was also awarded the IEEE’s Educational Activities Board’s Major Educational Innovation Award, “for his efforts in promotion of undergraduate research and creating robust opportunities for undergraduate students to enrich their education through integrative research experiences.” Van der Spiegel says he has always emphasized the merits of a reciprocal relationship between classroom study and real-world research.

And he practices what he preaches. In his time outside the classroom, Van der Spiegel has a lengthy resume of published works and is pushing new boundaries in his field (sensors) with his own research. His recent pet project, already patented and possibly pegged for the commercial market, is focused upon image sensors capable of detecting polarization. “I like the combination of teaching and research,” says Van der Spiegel. “I find that very exciting—handling the more advanced levels of research, pushing the frontiers of knowledge, but at the same time also integrating that [research] into teaching.”

Van der Spiegel’s path to Penn began in Aalst, Belgium, where he grew up the son of a businessman and a stay-at-home mom. Despite having no real familial connection to engineering (his brother Daniel is in business and his sister Lyliane is a pharmacist),
Van der Spiegel says he was drawn to engineering even as a boy. “When something broke in the house, I would be the person who fixed it,” he says. “I always enjoyed opening little toys, opening mechanical or electrical things. I always had an interest and a curiosity about how things worked and how they were put together. It was a natural interest for as long as I can remember.”

After receiving his undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. from the University of Leuven in Belgium, Van der Spiegel was drawn to a research project on chemical sensors at Penn. Twenty-seven years later, Van der Spiegel is still as enthusiastic about his students, electrical engineering, and Penn in general, as he was then. “[Philadelphia] offers a lot of cultural opportunities and makes a great combination with the university. The research is top notch and the students are always very engaged and very intelligent. I think it’s a great place.”

Clearly, the place thinks the same of Van der Spiegel.

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “The Best of Both Worlds: Jan Van der Spiegel makes it his mission to bring research to the classroom," by Eric McCollum.

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Jan Van der Spiegel’s Faculty Profile

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