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Boundary Crossing: for the Love of Research  0

crossing-a-lineLately, I have been occupied with the concept of boundary crossing. The first (and not the least) reason is, that within my own PhD, boundary crossing could provide me with a useful concept to look at the linkage between research and design activities in an educational context. The other, main reason is that my partner and I are literally boundary crossing (or actually, border crossing) at the moment, and the reason is: research. To be more specific, we are now crossing a physical boundary (called North Sea) as well as a symbolic boundary (Brexit), separating The Netherlands from the UK, since my partner moved to London for his first post-PhD postdoc job.

Boundary crossing is defined as “negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid situations’’ (Engeström et al., 1995, p. 319). These boundaries can be crossed by people (called “brokers”), but also by objects (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011a). I think this theory might not only prove to be of use for my research, but also perfectly sums up my personal situation right now. We are combining ingredients from different situations (eg. living in The Netherlands and living in the UK) to achieve a hybrid situation in which my partner and I can still see each other and live with each other regularly, smoothly moving between these two countries.

However, we are still learning to be brokers, still learning how to optimally cross that boundary and facing difficulties while doing so. I think many researchers can identify with the challenges one faces while working and living abroad. It is very common to gain some research experience abroad while doing your PhD, this is also an activity very much encouraged here at ICLON.


If you have worked or lived abroad, what were your experiences? What things did you find helpful (or not)?

Below are some of my experiences:


  1. Be prepared for the idea. When you’re in research, especially certain fields of scientific research, research jobs are not so easy to get within a small country like The Netherlands. There might be far more opportunities in other countries. No one tells you this when you start an academic study, but I wish I had known when I was still studying Biology. It really was a surprise to me that staying in The Netherlands is not self-evident when choosing for certain research professions.
  2. Make good agreements with your partner/family. It is much easier to go overseas if you can see eye to eye with your loved ones, and not dragging along a reluctant partner. For example, we agreed to Skype every day (be sure to buy enough internet data for Skype! We made that mistake) and see each other every two weeks, while taking turns in flying to The Netherlands or the UK.
  3. Money issues. Be sure you have an adequate amount of saving money before moving to another country. This whole operation can be quite costly, if the company or university you are working for does not reimburse your flight or moving costs. We also had to spend some money on furniture in our London apartment, since we could not move whole closets to England by car (and Ikea in England is much more expensive!).
  4. Socializing. If you’re moving to work abroad, it is very important to get to know some people to build a social network while you’re there. This will make your stay much easier and much more pleasant. Get to know your colleagues, go to borrels, maybe join a club or sportsteam. This is of course also very important for the partner staying home 🙂
  5. Sightseeing. While you’re in another country, why not play the tourist for a few times and plan trips to go sightseeing. I have seen sides of London that I otherwise would never have seen, because of this move. And we are planning to see a lot more.


I hope, as I progress in the boundary crossing literature for my research, I will also become a more experienced broker myself in real life. And who knows, maybe in a few years it will be me crossing a boundary for research…?


telephone cell









Airplane & telephone: boundary objects…?






Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Learning at the boundary: An introduction. International Journal of Educational Research, 50(1), 1-5.

Engeström, Y., Engeström, R., & Kärkkäinen, M. (1995). Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: Learning and problem solving in complex work activities. Learning and Instruction, 5, 319–336.

A Pirate’s Treasure Trove  0

Last time, I was thrilled to announce that my data had arrived. Now, as I am looking though the piles and piles of questionnaires, new questions have risen in my mind:

  • Why would someone cut out squares from the pages of their questionnaire?
  • I said: “tick the boxes in black or blue pen”. Not: “tick them in red, orange, yellow, lightblue or barely visible pencil”!
  • Why do these kids leave so many questions unanswered? I didn’t put that question mark in for nothing!
  • Why does a significant portion of the student population think my picture on the announcement letter ought to have a beard?

But the most important thing I discovered was that not all students fill in the questionnaire seriously. Of course, that could have been expected, but naïve as I was, I thought  it wouldn’t be so bad. While scanning in the hardcopy questionnaires into the computer that can read the answers for me, I came across a group of 6 questionnaires that were all filled out in a zigzag pattern. Obviously, this had been a group of silly teenagers who were sitting together and had come up with the idea of transforming the questionnaire into a zigzag artwork. Unfortunately, I could not use these questionnaires anymore. From then on, before I scanned the questionnaires, I manually looked through all of them to discover any other potential jokers. While doing this, I also discovered some other nice (and some not so nice, and some even very rude) artworks of students on the questionnaires. I made a selection of the nice ones as a keepsake.20151217_143010

“Good luck with your research, stranger”. Well thank you, stranger!




















Nice hat!

















“This makes me cranky”



















An assembly of some nice artworks.

















A Harry Potter-with-a-beard look and a mathematical problem.



















Some students thought I should be a pirate instead of a researcher. Time for a career swap?


It is a little like snail mail: students responded to my “letter”. Although not very extensive or polite sometimes, it was a peculiar and surprising form of communication. I have enjoyed looking for the most creative outbursts on the paper.

Which one is your favourite? And have you ever experienced students drawing on your questionnaire or picture – and if so, did they also think you were meant to be a pirate?

Until next time mateys, ARRR!

Pirate treasure













Well, this pirate is going to search for more treasures in her data!

Image source:

My Questionnaire Quest  0

Quest: a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and (frequently) as a symbol… In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles”.

From last December until now, I have been anxiously awaiting for mail in my mailbox here at ICLON. By the time it was Christmas, I was singing “All I want for Christmas, is maiiiiil”! Really, nothing could make me a happier PhD student than receiving a bunk of mail like this on my desk every week:

















Because, ladies and gentlemen, my first data have arrived! Finally tangible proof that my first year of work as a PhD student has paid off.

Constructing and distributing a questionnaire was somewhat more complicated than I thought. Here are some things you should think about:


  1. Constructing the questions. You cannot just ask whatever you fancy to ask, I discovered. You need to justify what you ask your participants, preferably supported by literature and/or by questionnaires already available covering your topic.
  2. Online or hardcopy’s by mail? That was a very relevant question, since I wanted to have about 2000 students filling in my questionnaire, an online survey would be so much easier for me. But it would also have such a small response rate… Also considering that my questionnaire took about 20 minutes to complete, I chose to send around my questionnaire in hardcopy. That way, students could fill it out in the lesson of the corresponding teacher, and be more likely to complete the survey.
  3. Recruit participants. In my case, I needed schools and teachers to commit to my research, ensuring their students and teachers would fill in my questionnaires. I already knew some teachers, but definitely not enough to cover my whole research population. So, I started asking around. With colleagues (do they have any contacts with schools that might be interested?), friends, acquaintances, institutions also interested in my research topic… And eventually, I even made a list of appropriate schools, looked up their telephone numbers and tried to call the specific teachers to explain them about my research and invite them to participate. Do not underestimate this step. It. Takes. Time.
  4. Logistics. After I printed and stapled over 2000 questionnaires (thank God for automatic staplers), they needed to get to the right persons in the right schools. And those right persons in the right schools should also be able to send the piles of paper back to the right person: me! I am so, so lucky to have gotten help from people in my department, and people from the post office (and occasionally my boyfriend, who helped in the stapling process). I had this whole administration of how many questionnaires should go to which school, how many for students (white coloured paper) and how many to teachers (orange coloured paper). I needed piles of envelopes with the right addresses, and also self-addressed envelopes in which the teachers could send the questionnaires back in the mail.
  5. Communication. It helps to be clear about the agreement you have with the corresponding teacher. Remind them in which classes the questionnaire has to be distributed. In general, remind them. And administer who returned how many questionnaires to you.


And then, everything needed to get back to me. I waited in such anxiety. At this moment, my response rates luckily seem very high, although one of my greatest fears also came true as some of the envelopes got lost in the mail. While still awaiting the very last envelopes to return, the scanning and analyses can begin…

What are your experiences when constructing and distributing a questionnaire? What were the obstacles you met, and do you have any tips and tricks for others? Please let me know in the comments below!














Image source:

Letting off STEAM  2
Image source:


As an educational researcher, I focus on the bèta science subjects in secondary education. Internationally, these subjects are also often referred to as STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Some time ago, I heard the suggestion to add a letter to this formula: the A of Art.


This is food for thought. In my research, I tried to briefly determine what people thought that an engineer, or a designer needed. Among other characteristics, I heard that a lot of people associated these professions with being creative, and being able to build things. Also, when designing, you often go back to your previous steps and adjust your choices to optimize the result. Some people even mentioned they thought of a designer (or engineer) as an artist. These qualities are not only used by designers and engineers, but often also by artists. Qualities that are considered to be important in STEM, appear to be important in the arts as well (or vice versa!).


I think Arts and Sciences are a good match. For one, you can communicate science through art. I remember a conversation I recently had with my peers, about valorisation of our research and letting people know your results. Getting into the headlines of newspapers is hard. Why not use art to communicate scientific research? Art can be a great way of enhancing one’s experience with science, not only addressing their ratio, but also their emotions end feeling for aesthetics. And why not use art in science? A creative infographic could really light up your paper. Art is also valuable in science education: as a trained Biologist, I drew hundreds of plants, animals, cell structures… Drawing enhances the amount of detail in which you look at things, which ultimately leads to a greater understanding of that what you’re studying. Art, in terms of music, could help you better understand the scientific content of a message: for example in this Dutch DNA song I made with peers during a Science Communication course.


Image source: adapted from

Arts and sciences are combined during festivals, such as the Night of Art and Knowledge, which took place last month here in Leiden. The several activities present included music acts (with attention to the science of music), maths in comedy, arts inspired by astrophysics, science themed theatre and storytelling, and more. The next Night of Arts and Sciences is already in the planning. The theme of this year’s children’s book week in the Netherlands is related to science. I often consider children’s books also small pieces of art. They do not only communicate knowledge, they communicate feeling as well.


In my opinion, arts and sciences can enhance each other when combined. Please comment below if you know more ways in which they might enhance (or possibly hinder?) each other. Do you think there is a future for STEAM? Feel free to share your thoughts (and let off steam).wink-98461_640


Planning like a Pro  0

I am a planner, an organizer, a nit-picker. I love to plan. I love to plan dinner, I love to plan vacations, I love to plan my work. OK, so I might be a bit of a controlfreak. But planning is one of the most essential things to do while conducting your PhD, so we were told last week by The Dutch PhD Coach Arjenne Louter. While I might be over-organizing things myself sometimes (illustrated by the pictures below: (1) my “Wall of Thought”, (2) my neighbour’s wall), still I found some tips to be very helpful. Especially when you are just starting out as a PhD, just like me, planning four years into the future might make you somehow scared, stressed, or leave you completely blank. What on earth will you be doing in your 4th year when you have not even been around for 6 months yet?! Do not panic, for here are some tips for planning your PhD when you have only just started.


(1) My “Wall of Thought”.
(2) My neigbour’s wall.
(2) My neigbour’s wall.


Plan your PhD: Tips for starting PhD’s

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The Hagelslag Dilemma  3

Blog 1 - hagelslag 3

I’m standing in the supermarket. It is a rather large supermarket, but luckily I only have to be in one department. So, here I am, standing in front of a pile of boxes of chocolate sprinkles (“hagelslag”, in its Dutch term). The place has huge departments and lots of choice. I recently got hired to do research on boxes of hagelslag. Which makes me very excited, because I love hagelslag! I look at the shelves, no, I gaze in awe at the shelves, where piles and piles of hagelslag are exposed, hundreds and thousands of different kinds. Since I know nothing about hagelslag yet, I have to get a grip on the field I’m studying. I have to choose the right boxes of hagelslag to start with, otherwise it will take me ages to find some information. After all, I’m getting paid now to choose the appropriate boxes of hagelslag for my research. Where to start?? Read more

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