Teaching interdisciplinarity in field-specific disciplinary programmes is more than a shift of mind

This second post on interdisciplinary education is about my gain from the National Interdisciplinary Education Conference, organised by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) February 2nd, 2017. At this conference a wide range of Dutch and Belgian institutes for higher education shared their best practices and discussed the challenges in interdisciplinary education:

Continue reading

Posted in Continuous professionalisation, Innovative teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Interdisciplinary education: a wave of the future?

interdisciplinary-crayonsAlso at my university, though rigidly organised in disciplinary silos and producing disciplinary programmes, I hear the buzzwords “multidisciplinarity” and “interdisciplinarity” almost every day. Obviously there is a shift of interest towards exploring questions and solving problems that cross borders and engage with experts from multiple fields.  Quite some universities in Europe, the Americas and Asia make even bigger steps. They develop “liberal engineering” study programmes with the aim to bring broader education with more holistic thinking and societal context to engineering students.

Interdisciplinarity: a buzzword that will go away?

But do we know what the term “interdisciplinarity” actually means? When do we call education or research projects interdisciplinary? How do we challenge students to step across the disciplinary borders? How would an interdisciplinary curriculum look like? These were among the many questions that were addressed at the first National Interdisciplinary Education Conference in Amsterdam February 2nd. In another post I will address this conference separately. But first let us see why interdisciplinarity gains prominence.

Gaining prominence?

When I visit websites of innovation and integrated research institutes, I notice interdisciplinary research is more prominent on their agendas than five years ago. That trend slowly trickles down in our education. Or maybe it is the other way around: graduates who learnt the interdisciplinary mindset in their study initiate research in a broader context: Research follows Development (the sequence is reversed from R&D to D&R).

“We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the boundaries of any discipline”. (Quote Karl Popper, 1963).

Also at the 18 January kick-off meeting, where I was one of the 80 participants who committed to develop the Strategic Framework for TU Delft 2018-2024, I heard “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” among the most frequently used words. And reading the 80% version of the 18-page TU Delft’s new Vision on Education, you can’t miss this trend. Is n’t it remarkable that the words multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary show up 19 times in the text, while other “modern” skills such as leadership, creativity and ethics are only mentioned zero, one and two times respectively?

Interdisciplinary engineering: a wave of the future?

Those of you who have read my vision document on engineering education may know my ideas about interdisciplinarity. I do not expect it to be a buzz word. In the domain of engineering and many other professions it is there to stay. Interdisciplinary thinking becomes increasingly important, but in balanced partnership with disciplinary expert thinking. Innovation needs excellent, talented specialists ánd people who are able to cross disciplinary borders. And I expect that in the near future also specialists have to be able to move more easily between the detailed level and the bigger picture.

The world is changing at an increasing pace. Complex societal and engineering challenges such as climate change, infrastructures in urban settings, cyber security, digital well-being, energy transition, health care, they all demand solutions that cross traditional disciplines. Recruiters of engineering businesses show a growing interest in engineers and other professionals who have proven to be able to acquire and apply specialist knowledge and look across the boundaries of their expertise. People who are capable to build bridges between technology, government, businesses and social institutions have higher value.

Is this new? Not really. Dougherty’s quote 60 years ago, tells us that engineers have always needed multiple skills to operate successfully in multi- and interdisciplinary environments. But since the end of World War II policy makers in engineering education have found it necessary to deviate from what society needs, with deeper specialisations and more fragmentation.

“The ideal engineer is a composite…
He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or writer. But he has to use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.” (Quote N.W. Dougherty, 1955)

Trends in disciplinary and interdisciplinary education

In job advertisements I read that companies seek candidates with skills in computational sciences ánd safety, biology ánd chemistry, engineering ánd finance, human engineering ánd robotics, medicine ánd mechanical engineering. Today’s problems apparently require teams that can work together to address problems from different and innovative angles. The best strategy for defining and solving complex problems is bringing people together who havep different backgrounds, who can quickly learn new knowledge, have respect for different disciplines, are willing to share knowledge and connect their scientific curiosity to societal concerns.

Innovation cycles are getting faster. Many development projects typically last two to three years at most. Projects in industry and research often last less than one year. Companies therefore need to find people who can quickly learn new fields and are open towards and respect other people’s views. Don’t get me wrong here. We have to remain teaching our students the rigour of engineering fundamentals in their discipline. But in order to stimulate them to cross boundaries and connect to the real world, we should add early exposures to other areas too. It will make them better engineers or scientists in their discipline because they are forced to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their own field.

Interdisciplinarity involves much more than knowledge about a second or third discipline. It is equally important to learn how to think in a way that is different from the way you think as a specialist in your own field. We should make students aware that engineers and scientists in different disciplinary domains speak different “languages”, sometimes don’t (want to) understand each other. It makes communication and collaboration between different disciplines complicated and prone to errors. Not seldom is it a source of friction and conflict. Interdisciplinary thinking means that people have respect for each others’ discipline, and understand that under the surface, everybody is engaged in surprisingly similar ideas and concepts.

Multi-, inter- or transdisciplinarity?

The words “multidisciplinary”, “interdisciplinary” and “transdisciplinary” get thrown around a lot today. Key characteristics in multi- and interdisciplinary education and research are the integration of elements and a bridging and symbioses between different disciplines. They have in common that they are averse to disciplinary ego-centrism.

In multidisciplinary projects each discipline contributes a piece of the puzzle. But this is not integrated along the way. When I worked in spaceflight industry in my former life on the design and development of highly advanced space instrument, the Structural and Optical  Departments worked on one and the same instrument design, detached from each other, each designing and analysing their own specialism. By some “interaction” the lenses and mirrors were eventually mounted, aligned and fixed through the structural elements.


Multi-, Inter-, Trans-disciplinary work. Source: University of Technology Sydney

Interdisciplinary ways of working realise integrated ways of working and solutions. If we consider Multidisciplinary as an equivalent for Additive, then Interdisciplinary is an equivalent for Multiplicative. Interdisciplinary work blurs the boundaries between disciplines and tears down the walls. In my above mentioned space instrument design it was my responsibility as a Systems Engineer, a truly interdisciplinary function indeed, to link and harmonise the mechanical and optical requirements and detailed designs to ensure one integrated design. This also applied to electrical, thermal, radiation protection, mechanisms and electronic subsystems, all within the domain of engineering. I designed and controlled interdisciplinary mass and power budgets, performed Contamination engineering, Reliability, Availability, Maintainability and Safety (RAMS) engineering. Each of these design parameters is influenced by all subsystems and disciplines, but does not belong specifically to any of them. Systems Engineering is interdisciplinary, within the domain of engineering. From personal experience I know that systems engineering is a very social activity also. Collaborating with people with different priorities and interests, with different cultures and backgrounds, speaking different languages. It requires oversight over technical disciplines, engineering skills as well as personal leadership, knowledge and insight of enterprise management, knowledge management, project management, certification and so on.

To be honest, I had never heard about the silly term trans-disciplinary when I was employed in industry. It is a term that is only used in academics when research involves knowledge beyond the professional experts and scientists. This may be lay-mans knowledge, and knowledge and understanding of politics, technical acceptance, enterprise management and finance control. In the non-academic world, such split between trans- and interdisciplinary is completely artificial and does not exist. Real-life projects are always interdisciplinary, where non-scientific aspects are all in the game.

Levels of interdisciplinarity

Talking about interdisciplinarity in academia can be confusing. There are so many  different levels of interdisciplinarity. If I ask a specialist in humanities or social sciences to collaborate with an engineer, no matter what discipline, he or she will say the work is likely going to be interdisciplinary. If I ask mechanical engineers to collaborate with industrial design engineers, they will perceive it as interdisciplinary work. And if I ask an aerospace engineer who is highly specialised in light-weight structures to collaborate with his fellow aerospace engineer who is specialised in manufacturing engineering, he will state this is interdisciplinary work also. The trend to ever deeper specialisations leads to fragmentation and generates new disciplines, like the “super-specialisations” in composite material engineering or nanotechnology. It could make collaboration between a composite materials specialist and a structural engineer already interdisciplinary, in spite of these two fields being so closely related.

The complexity is further increased by fusions of disciplines into a new one. Such new discipline may have an interdisciplinary origin, but once it is there, it could also be considered as a new mono-discipline. Take the example of the fusion between mechanical engineering and medicine. It has generated the new discipline Medical Technology. Education or research in this new mono-discipline has an interdisciplinary origin…

Interdisciplinary education: added value?

My intuition tells me that teaching interdisciplinary skills is only valuable for students when they learn to appreciate another discipline and its “language”, if it has sufficient “distance” to their own discipline. Suppose I split the engineering domain into three categories: Engineering (Mechanical, Civil, Electrical Engineering), Design (Industrial Design, Architecture) and Sciences (Applied Sciences, Mathematics, Computational Sciences). Some level of interdisciplinary learning could be achieved when students from one category learn the language of one of the other categories. But still, I believe this is interdisciplinary learning in the margin: it’s all within the single engineering domain.

The essence of interdisciplinary learning is achieved when engineering students learn to connect their domain also to societal context and relevance. For which they have to learn how to share knowledge, how to debate, communicate and collaborate with students and professionals with backgrounds in social sciences or humanities, or with lay-man. What is the limitation of interdisciplinarity within the engineering domain only? No matter what engineering discipline, all engineers rely on analytical skills, are problem solvers and rational and creative thinkers. While lawyers, philosophers or economists have a very different appreciation of what engineers do, no matter whether they design nanometre level strings of polymeric molecules or megaton offshore oil rigs.

Opportunities and courage

“Interdisciplinarity is crucial for the development of excellence.”
(Quote prof. Rane Willerslev at the Excellence 2012 Conference)

Obviously we will never be able to teach all this in our classrooms. Engineers and professionals need a lot of learning on the job to build up interdisciplinary experience. But what we should do in our classrooms is better introduce the interdisciplinary mindset and train staff to be mindful to the students by crossing their borders also. Given the growing need for cross-disciplinary competences in the labour market, the question rises whether we should develop dedicated cross-disciplinary Master programmes? The question could be a yes or no. It all depends on who we want to be as a university.

My home university has a strong reputation in disciplinary knowledge, and I expect also in the future disciplines will remain leading the profile of the Delft engineer. Does it match with our dominant culture to develop more Master programmes where we educate and investigate interdisciplinary topics by bringing Bachelor graduates in different engineering disciplines together and educate them in the full range of an interdisciplinary subject? Or should we develop hybrid Master programmes where students still acquire specialist disciplinary knowledge at their faculty? And bring that deep disciplinary knowledge on Master’s level to a hub where they investigate interdisciplinary problems in teams of students who have different disciplinary expertise, while they are also trained in interdisciplinary thinking?


Hyperloop is the most recent success of the many successes of the 14 so-called DreamTeams of TU Delft students. The student teams work hard with an interdisciplinary mindset and demonstrate that they can push boundaries further than anyone expects.

TU Delft has already a place where students work and learn together with students from other faculties and cultures, and other stakeholders: the D:Dream Hall, the working space of the Dream Teams. These interdisciplinary teams spend all their leisure time to extracurricular activities and are incredibly successful. This is the place where people learn how to engineer. I wish we could copy the concept of these student teams to our regular education for all our students.

And I think we can if we have the courage to change.

TU Delft has a vast number of research institutes where scientists do research in collaboration with public and private sectoral organisations: the Deltas Infrastructures and Mobility Institute, Delft Robotics Institute, Safety & Security Institute, Sports Engineering Institute, Space Institute, to mention a few. We are also developing Living Labs, such as the Innovative Airport by the faculty of Aerospace Engineering and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions  (AMS) by the faculty of Architecture and Built Environment. Today these research institutes are the prime territory of researchers and PhD students. Bachelor or master students are hardly involved. This year the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering has initiated a number of Design Labs specifically for their master students: the Cardiology Lab, the Museum Futures Lab, the Workspace Design Lab, the Future Travel Experience Lab, the Active Materials Lab. Last but not least the faculty of Aerospace Engineering has plans to develop an Aerospace Innovation Centre for staff, students and professionals.

I identify the research labs and institutes as potential hubs in the future where engineering students can develop their interdisciplinary skills as part of their regular study programme by developing multi-faceted solutions to our most pressing engineering challenges.  Let us organise these hubs flexibly around high-tech “hot topics”. I would expect the students will become the driving force behind the projects and ideas in these hubs, just as in the Dream Hall. Since they come from different background, they bring their own disciplinary expertise and will study different ideas. These projects will have more relevance, more public engagement and more connections to society. The students work in collaborative teams of students from different engineering disciplines, in the future maybe complemented by students in Liberal Arts and Sciences from Leiden University and Erasmus University Rotterdam.

I am not a strategic analyst but dare to forecast that the learning gains of the students and the output of such interdisciplinary research and design projects in these hubs will be more engaging and have more impact on our innovation ecosystem and the outside world than most of the research output of today’s mono-disciplinary master projects. All we need is the courage to change.




Posted in Continuous professionalisation, Curriculum development, Future engineering skills, Innovative teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Interdisciplinary education: a wave of the future?

Labs and makerspaces create a sense of belonging and bring students face-to-face with engineering practice

At the festive opening of the new and renovated Aerospace Structures and Materials Lab at TU Delft Faculty of Aerospace Engineering 27th January 2017, I presented my viewpoint that educating the next generation of aerospace engineers should address more skills that are gaining prominence in future engineering practice, and that the renovated and new labs provide excellent opportunities for their learning and teaching. 

The uncertain VUCA world

Predictability of changing needs2“Let me draw a graph that describes our rapidly changing world, the VUCA world that is characterised by high Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. “The first couple of years in the future are, I would say, foreseeable. Although the recent Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory show how unforeseeable even the immediate future can be. What happens after say five years is still forecastable, based on the visible trends today. But uncertainty rises sharply with time. With the current accelerating change in society, engineering and technology, it is unimaginable how the world will look like in about more than seven years from now. Please remember, January 9 this year, it was exactly 10 years ago that Steve Jobs introduced the wide-screen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet device, not in three products but in one: the iPhone. Can you imagine a world, your life, without a smartphone nowadays? In less than 10 years we all have become a prisoner of the smartphone.”

“Acceleration of change: In less than 10 years we all have become a prisoner of the smartphone.”

“Our current engineering education focuses on the foreseeable future, on a mindset of exploiting disciplinary knowledge, making analysis and optimisations and solving problems. It emphasizes the how and when of problem solving in engineering and technology. To better prepare students for less than ten years from now, we would need to teach them more a mentality of exploration, more about the why and what. Which is a very different way of working of problem definition, holistic thinking, creativity, innovativeness, interdisciplinarity and agility. And which requires a different way of teaching.”

How would you characterise the present aerospace engineering education?

“We are strong in educating research scientists. We can be happy with the education we have, but have to think how future proof it is. In the past 30-40 years our engineering education has become increasingly engineering science driven. That is a worldwide trend. Ideally speaking, the analytical approaches of engineering science and engineering practice should be balanced and stimulate each other in our education. The trend however is that the engineering science component has become much more important than engineering practice and design. This trend is not at all aligned with the jobs our students get after graduation. Eighty-five to ninety percent of our graduates end up working in industry. A small percentage of this starts their own venture. Only ten to fifteen percent pursues a scientific career.”

“If you look at our staff, there are far fewer members with experience in engineering practice than 30-40 years ago. Publishing scientific papers is in higher esteem than teaching how to engineer. However, at the heart of every engineer is a maker-instinct: making something that can be developed into a product, a process, a system that works, to add value to society. Professional engineers therefore not only have to embrace the analytical modes of engineering science, but also need to know how to work hands-on in multi- and interdisciplinary teams.”

What are the thoughts of the industry about engineering education having become more academic?

“In the late 90’s the companies Boeing and General Electric, together with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a couple of Swedish universities observed this trend already. They worried about it and developed a framework for a re-engineering of engineering education, the so-called CDIO Initiative. Since 2011 also TU Delft is a member. When I talk with representatives from multinationals like Airbus Group, Total, Vanderlande or RoyalHaskoningDHV, Bosch, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SME),young start-ups, or industrial networks like the Netherlands Maritime Technology Innovation Committee, which I regularly do, I hear these worries many times.”

“Nowadays many innovations take place on the fringes of disciplines, or fuse by transferring breakthroughs from one field to another. That requires interdisciplinary thinking, innovation capability and creativity. Take the examples of the enlargement or optimisation of the operations of an airport, or the construction of a wind farm. Engineers working on such highly complex projects must be able to debate with representatives from government and convince financiers and environmental organisations. But learning about such societal, environmental and entrepreneurial contexts, and acquiring and practicing the required social competences, is not strong enough in our engineering programme and do not meet the needs of the future engineering profession.”

What will be the important engineering skills of the future?

“Automation, mass-robotisation, the use of artificial intelligence, 3D-printing and mass personalization of products are strong trends in industry. Around 2030 artificial intelligence might have developed into avatars as a personal assistant, sitting on the shoulder of an engineer and asking questions like: ‘Did you consider this or that solution?’ ‘Shall I consult an expert or look this up in the literature for you?’ What impact would such robotic assistants have on the critical thinking, the lifelong learning and the ethics of our engineers in their profession?”

“There can be no doubt that such developments will have a major impact on our education. If you think about what still distinguishes humans from intelligent machines, you get to creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, collaborating, taking into account ethical considerations and thinking about the bigger picture of a problem −so called systems and holistic thinking. These will be among the key skills for the future.”

“We have to integrate these skills into the classes and projects that we produce. Which does not mean that fundamental engineering sciences or expert knowledge in technology is not important anymore, but other skills are gaining prominence. And thus we may have to re-balance our curricula.”

How do you think the faculty should teach students those new skills?

08122016 © Thierry Schut Fotografie Delft, TU L&R diverse foto's TU DELFT GS

Hands-on learning in physical labs is appealing for their sensing, visual and active learning.

“I am dreaming of a sort of an innovation backbone throughout our curricula. How exactly to implement this, is still an open issue. I already said earlier, engineers have to do shop work to learn how analytical approaches can be combined with engineering practice. Engineering students bring ideas to life and share their passion for making and testing things by building and experimenting in lab spaces. Hands-on learning in physical labs is appealing for their sensing, visual and active learning. On top of that the learning of entrepreneurial behaviour and personal and interpersonal skills is so much steeper when my students mingle with engineering practitioners from industry and young entrepreneurs. It is also known that working in labs and makerspaces create a strong sense of belonging. Engineering is so much more than what engineers do. We often forget that engineering is a very social activity.”

What labs and makerspaces are we talking about?

“Let me give two concrete examples of projects our faculty is already developing that fit perfectly in my ideas about educating entrepreneurial behaviour that will be a survival skill for the engineer of the future. An excellent example is the Innovative Airport-project. Here the idea is that researchers of TU Delft can use part of the Rotterdam/The Hague Airport as a Living Lab. I would like to involve as many students as possible in this project, also from other engineering disciplines than aerospace, and also students in social sciences or humanities. For all of them it will be a great place to learn to collaborate not just with researchers, but also with people from industry, government and various authorities.”

Airplane kit

The first plane that will be assembled by Master students in the new Aircraft Manufacturing Lab of TU Delft faculty of Aerospace Engineering. To learn how to work in an aircraft manufacturing setting, how to perform the project and certification administration according to industrial standards, and how to develop a safety culture and quality assurance system of manufacturing aircraft. And of course to learn lots of tacit knowledge about engineering practice and professional skills such as communication,  collaboration and leadership.

A second example, and the one most relevant in the context of the renovation of our experimental facilities in the department Aerospace Structures and Material, is the multi-year project to construct with our MSc students a set of real, certifiable, 2-person airplanes. The idea is that teams of students work in a kind of relay: every team spends a couple of months on building the plane and then hands over knowledge and experience to the next team. Within two-and-a-half years or so the airplane will be ready. The first plane will be constructed from a kit of commercially available components. This project is ideal for students (and our supervising staff) to learn about the complexity of building an aircraft. It will teach them the skills of manufacturing engineering and all those key skills that are becoming increasingly important in the profession of an engineer. In a second phase of the project, parts of the plane will be modified and developed in house and integrated with the plane to experiment on full scale. That is also the phase in which industry may come in and cooperate with our researchers and students. Our new laboratory facilities are crucial for making the step from constructing a real plane based on a commercial kit, to building a real plane based on our own TU Delft innovations.“


In my vision universities will transform from “Centres of Knowledge” to “Centres of Connections” in the very near future. Students come to our campus to meet face to face, to feel connected. Millennial students want to experience the purpose of their work. They want to experience more and more the links with engineering practice. Last week Jet Bussemaker, our Minister of Education, Culture and Sciences announced she will make 10 million euro available for more industrial doctorate studies, to stimulate PhD studies in close collaboration with industrial partners. Also this emphasises purpose and stronger connections between students, universities and industries.

Important capabilities that make our graduates a Delft engineer, are their hands-on mentality, their communication and collaboration skills, and the fact that they have learnt how to engineer. Nobody can learn these skills online. That is only possible on campus by collaborating in project spaces, experimenting  and practicing in labs and studios, and developing and building in makerspaces. I don’t believe we will ever be able to educate Delft engineers by online education only, just as I don’t think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram  can give me a social life. Online education can never be the be-all and end-all in engineering education. It will also be difficult, if not impossible, to educate Delft engineers in outposts far from our campus. We cannot simply make an outpost in Brussels or New York like Starbucks does. The intensive use of experimental facilities in our educational programmes makes the brand of Delft quite unique.

This post is a more comprehensive version of the interview that has been published on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the Aerospace Structures & Materials lab 27 January 2017. The epilogue is new. The original interview, contained in a colourful brochure together with the interviews of my colleagues about Lighter and more flexible aircraft structures (prof. Chiara Bisagni), Accelerating the innovation cycle (prof. Rinze Benedictus), and Designing novel materials (prof. Sybrand van der Zwaag) is available online.

Posted in Future engineering skills, Innovative teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rapidly Changing World: time already for a 3rd revised edition of my book?

A brief post with a humorous undertow.

In June I published the Second Revised Edition of my book “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World“. On page 22 I included the disclaimer “What we do know is that tomorrow’s world will be an intense VUCA world… great advances are unpredictable, future scenarios thus full of uncertainty. We might miss a next revolution…..”

I had not expected that in less than seven months after its publication I already had missed the first revolution. And that our view on the world would shift so much and so fast after the Brexit and Trump’s victory. Fortunately we Dutch have a good sense of humour to handle these rapid changes, and highly appreciate freedom of speech. On January 23 the programme  “VPRO Zondag met Lubach” on Dutch television blew our minds with the funny comedy sketch “America first, the Netherlands second“. We may be a small country, but sometimes have great visions…  Probably most Trump supporters do not understand the jokes and will refer to Helmut Schmidt’s quote instead:

Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen.

I am happy that the changes in our world in the past couple of months confirm, that skills such as critical thinking, strategic thinking, empathy, a global mindset, imagination, creativity, initiative, handling failure, correlating chaos, and intercultural communication are all skills that remain important or are gaining prominence. For engineers as well as other professionals and anybody else. And thus I don’t see the need for a Third Revised Edition of my report on the future of engineering education, because it is all contained already in the second edition. Thank God. But nobody will deny that change is going really fast, and is accelerating!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

You can always write blogposts, but not always make memories

This morning I was engaged in drafting a blogpost about the role  of labs and makerspaces in our engineering education. Until my son and daughter came to me with the best proposal this Sunday: “Let’s see where we can skate”. Since we are living in the Green Heart of Holland, in a former swamp, we have a very green landscape which is rich in undeep waterways that freeze easily. In former times many of these waterways were used by flat wide boats to transport the peat from the swamp area to the city of Amsterdam for heating. Today their main function is water management, to prevent the flooding of our deep polders. And when it starts freezing, they are the place to be if you like skating.


Skating on natural ice on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with the crackling noise of steel on ice. It’s one of the best things in life, and the best way to slow down and make memories.

For me skating on natural ice in the flat polders is the best and most beautiful activity to slow down and take a moment to myself.  So I did not have to think long to answer. “Yes, let’s go”. We found a 2 km long more or less solitary straight track of hard black ice, less than 1 kilometer from my home.

“Memories are the best things in life. Don’t forget to make them.”

It became a great Sunday afternoon, skating with my son and daughter for more than 25 kilometers. And the blogpost about the labs and makerspaces? It will be completed next weekend or so. Completing the draft of the post could never have competed with today’s natural ice skating memories.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Educating engineers for a resource constrained future: do we understand what we are doing?

CDIO_coated_TM [Converted]_jpegHas it ever been different?

“Engineering Opportunities in a Resource Constrained Future”. When I read this theme of the CDIO European Regional Meeting at Trinity College Dublin on 12-13 January 2017 the very first time, I wondered: “Has it ever been different?” Have we ever had an age where we had an unlimited amount of resources in engineering or engineering education? In my keynote “Adapting engineering education to change” I therefore started with the question which resource constrains us most in higher engineering education. Is it the growing number or attitude of students, the number or capabilities of staff, or the facilities to accommodate all students or new pedagogies? In the end of course everything can be expressed in terms of money. But I believe the major constraining resource is TIME: the consensus is that we as engineering educators can’t keep up with the pace of change in engineering knowledge and methods,  the changing needs by our graduates, and the emerging technologies in education.

Do we understand what we are doing?

When I look back on the CDIO meeting, the thread of the meeting could easily have been: “we know a lot, but do we also understand it, and do we know how to apply what we know?” The programme sessions addressed, in my own words:

  1. IMG_4638

    Workshop by KTH in which we learned to create a rapid prototype of a BSc and MSc curriculum, assigning different types of research-oriented activities (the coloured patches in the photo) to the most appropriate lecturing periods, taking interest and knowledge levels of the students into account. Ranging from lecturing about your own research, or research from elsewhere, to research-tutored activities such as inviting guest lectures, learning to write essays or discuss papers, doing research-based projects, knowledge construction and learning about research methods, to the learning of existing insights (new to students) and discovery-oriented work (new to the discipline).

    understanding engineering design processes better, by instrumenting and modeling such processes, in order to understand how to accelerate innovation processes, and how to teach that;

  2. understanding creativity better by modeling it as a multidimensional construct, and using metaphors, in order to better embed creativity  in our education;
  3. understanding that the same motivating factors are perceived very differently by students and teachers, in order to make teaching and learning more rewarding and successful by using the motivating factors in a more sensible way;
  4. understanding how research methods and results in engineering and technology can be embedded more effectively and in a structured way in our curricula;
  5. understanding the complexity of large-scale change in engineering programmes by using a comprehensive heuristic, developed by Maartje van den Boogaard (on behalf of the Dutch 4TU.Centre fore Engineering Education), using real data from major curriculum reconstructions in the universities of Delft, Eindhoven and Twente,whose report is available here.
  6. awareness that Blockchain technology (currently primarily known for its Bitcoin) might in future be adopted by universities as an integrated database application that cannot be corrupted and can be used for personised learning, accreditation, administration, registration, and lots of other educational matter: the development of a global higher education Blockchain is already on its way.
  7. awareness that the changes in society and technology create enormous amounts of questions and challenges for (engineering) education.

Keynote presentations about Design process and Innovation, Creativity, and Adapting Education

In the keynote “Instrumenting the design process and nucelating regional ecosystems to acceleratie innovation”, Dr. Ade Mabogune of Stanford University pointed out that the ultimate resource for future engineering is group work, human interrelation and character. His message was that engineers and designers will only succeed in their career if they master strong collaborative skills. He elaborated on the metaphor that teams do not behave as particle theories but electromagnetic fields. Social connectivity has always been important but will gain prominence to generate money, share knowledge and thoughts, and fuse innovations. He demonstrated how he had been able to “measure” design processes and use that knowledge to better organise and coach design teams by developing and communicating through a language of symbols that tells the story of engineering design thinking. He also said:

“Innovation happens when ideas have sex. If we want universities to be leaders of innovation we should create more brothels in universities.”

Which, by the way, reminded me of another quote from MIT professor Slocum, quite some time ago, about innovation:

“Innovation can’t be structured. It is like love making. If it has to be efficient, it won’t work”

Anyway, innovation is hot and sexy nowadays. Also in my own keynote I made the statement that Innovation is one of the three cornerstones for a successful and future-proof engineering curriculum.


The beautiful campus of Trinity College Dublin where the CDIO European Regional Meeting 2017 was held.

The keynote by Kathryn Jablokow of Pennsylvania State University was about “Rethinking the metaphor for design creativity.” She stressed that, in a future with increasingly limited resources and expanding requirements, there will be a premium on cleverer and better ways of delivering products and services. Engineers and designers who can manage the creative process well to deliver those products and services will be in high demand. She said that it is therefore essential to better understand creativity, and try to model it for success and failure prediction of teams (or even married couples). She explained different models for understanding and managing creative processes more effectively. She broke the multidimensional construct Creativity down into Opportunity, Motive, Creative Level and Creative Style. In many cases creativity in teams could be significantly enhanced when the diversity in individual creativity styles and levels would be explicitly addressed, appreciated and better exploited. These look interesting insights to me, and I wonder how we could  make engineering students better aware of this?

In the plenary panel session all keynote speakers and the provost of Trinity College Dublin talked about “Educating technologists for a resource constrained future.” The thread in this discussion was the development of the interdisciplinary E3 Institute at Trinity College Dublin, where E3 stands for Engineering, Energy, Environment. It will become a majore place where students will learn the develop interdisciplinary skills. Also here it was addressed how difficult it will be to achieve change by changing the traditional minds in the faculty who are used to traditional thinking in monodisciplines. “We have to start a new breed of faculty,” one panel member said. “We should hire more aliens as faculty”, said another.


The panel expressed its doubts whether research universities, mostly arranged in mono-disciplinary silos, would survive the near future when they neglect the trend to more multi- and interdisciplinary engineering and science. The panel expected that more or less “context free” teaching of abstract engineering sciences will soon be pastime. Strong links with the authentic world will become a necessity . The panel also noticed a positive strengthening trend about engineering: the engineering discipline is appreciated as a “house of safety”, considering the terminologies of financial engineering, stress testing of banks, etcetera. But I feel I have to make a side remark here. Are not it engineers, “rocket scientists”, the so-called quants, who develop algorithms that are used in the trading robots on the stock markets, that are so far beyond the layman and can only be understood by nobody else than themselves? That aspect was nót mentioned by the panel.  It remembered me to my visit to Dassault Systemes in Paris a couple of months ago, where my attention was drawn by the above poster, relating regulations in aviation to banking.

My keynote speech on behalf of the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education (4TU.CEE), about “Adapting Engineering Education to Change”, addressed the VUCA world, the impact on the engineering profession, the Millennial generation of students, the impact on engineering education, different engineering profiles and possible ways to add more DIY (Do It Yourself) ethic in programmes. From the reactions I concluded the presentation was well received. “A thought provoking presentation on millennial and 21st century curriculum in engineering education”, is what tweets said. Emails and requests for the slides or visits to come and inspire staff, mentioned “A great synthesis work and coherent visions, excellent work”. I have made the slides available here, on the website of 4TU.CEE where you may find other interesting practices and theories as well that you may use for your benefit.Dublin presentation

Workshop on Motivation

I found the workshop session about “Designing Courses for Motivation” by KTH Stockholm particularly interesting. From available literature and ongoing research at KTH I learnt that big differences exist between what teachers and students think, about what factors motivate and demotivate students to learn. In the session we also discussed Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” after watching [youtube video “The surprising truth about what motivates us”]. Everytime I see this video I wonder why so-called bonus points, that many of our lecturers tend to award to stimulate students to perform an activity in a course, still seem to do their job. The session also highlighted the so-called Temporal Motivation Theory, relating the factors that make up Motivation:

Motivation = (Expectancy of success * Value)/(Impulsiveness * Delay), where Value is a measure of purpose, Impulsiveness of how easy distractable a student is, and Delay a measure of the effect of a delay of reward, i.e. if there is no repercussion then the motivation to act drops. Motivation can thus be manipulated by controlling each of these factors in education or profession.

Further interest?

Should you have an interest in a specific subject of this CDIO European Region meeting programme, do not hesitate to contact me. On your request I can establish the contact between you and the session leader. The workshops on Online Learning in Engineering Education, Change Management in Engineering Programmes, and my keynote and panel session contribution were all supported by our 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education. Further interest? Please contact!

The next event of the CDIO network will be the 13th International CDIO Conference in Calgary, Canada between June 18-22, 2017.  The theme will be “Engineering Education in the Digital Age”. More information is available here. Everybody, CDIO member or not, is invited to join this inspiring event.

Posted in Continuous professionalisation, Curriculum development, Future engineering skills, Innovative teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Vision on TU Delft Aerospace Engineering Education 2020

A new Long-term Vision

Mid November 2016, my faculty of Aerospace Engineering published its long-term vision in the form of the online magazine “Long-term Vision of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering TU Delft 2016 – 2020: ‘It’s all about connections“. In this vision the (former) Dean, I as the Director of Education, and the departmental directors, theme organisers, project leaders and others address in personal interviews the question of how the faculty can make an optimum contribution to society at a time when everything is increasingly revolving around connections. Clipboard02

Since many of my blog followers have no affiliation with TU Delft but do share, I presume, my interest in the vision on engineering education, I have copied the full text about the Bachelor and Master Education into this blog post. A complementary vision on education, more specifically on Online Education, was established by my colleague Renee van de Watering and is available here.

Vision on Bachelor and Master Education 2016-2020

The faculty is currently in an enviable position; it has more students and prospective students than ever before and graduates are finding jobs with ease. According to the Director of Education Aldert Kamp, this doesn’t mean that it can now sit back and rest on its laurels. “If we want to maintain this position for the next ten or fifteen years, we will have to keep our teaching up-to-date and follow the trends in society”, he says.

The faculty of Aerospace Engineering made major changes to its Bachelor´s programmes between 2006 and 2010. It also saw additional measures introduced during the years that followed, as part of the university-wide ‘Charting a course for study success’ programme. As Aldert Kamp remembers it: “The basic premise in 2006 was to find ways of training better engineers”. The updates proved successful, as demonstrated by the accreditation inspection in 2013. “The Bachelor’s programme was deemed world class. The committee was also positive about the Master’s programme, but it didn’t score ‘good or very good’ like the Bachelor’s. So we tried to find out why. What are the requirements for future-oriented Master’s teaching?”

Big data

Big-data2“Developments in society and technology are more complex than ever, and are interwoven with developments elsewhere in the world”, he continues. Kamp is referring to developments such as robotisation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, which have far-reaching implications for the field of aerospace engineering. “We should be preparing our students more for the importance of these factors during their future careers. If I were a Master’s student today, I would want to know more about big data, for instance, which is set to change the way we design products, provide services or maintain systems.” This is an area for special attention for both the faculty and TU Delft as a whole. Kamp is currently heading a project group within the faculty, charged with revitalising the Master´s programmes in the light of ongoing global developments.

They have already identified a number of concrete action points for the next few years. One of them is making the programme more flexible. “More and more students are adopting a do-it-yourself approach. They take an online subject with MIT, for example, and then apply for exemption even if the content isn’t exactly the same as ours”, says Kamp to illustrate his point. “Our degree programmes currently have a fairly rigid structure, partly because the Board of Examiners has to comply with strict rules and regulations. Our students need more leeway, certainly during the Master’s phase but perhaps also during the Bachelor’s.”

Gap year

This brings us to the subject of the gap year. Kamp: “Increasing numbers of students are searching for a deeper meaning to life. Many of them take a year out before starting a Master’s programme. They travel the world, do an internship or try their hand at something completely different.” In principle, this is a positive development. “We see that students who have taken a gap year are generally better students: they have more experience of life and a clearer idea of what they want.” The question is: how far is the faculty prepared to facilitate this? “Should we try to keep a lid on this? If students have already done an internship with Airbus they obviously don’t want to do it again, even if it is a compulsory part of our Master’s programme. So should we cater to this development, and if so, how?” The intake of Master’s students is also becoming increasingly diverse in terms of nationality, previous education and interests. “In the past, students simply continued from our Bachelor’s programme to our Master’s. These days, 60 percent come from other universities. Our teaching will have to be designed to take more account of the wide range of previous education and ambitions of the students.”

Capping the Master’s

One thing is clear: this increased diversity in intake is not without its problems. “The risk of dropping out has also risen. For example, some students are perfectly capable of learning for the exams, but unable to work independently on a research project.” Greater flexibility in the programme could provide a solution. “We could perhaps offer special training clusters, according to previous education and country of origin.” A system of capping is being considered for the international Master’s intake, limiting the number of students and aiming for a good mix of origins and backgrounds. Specific regions or universities will also be targeted for student exchange projects. “The emphasis will be on talent selection. The main thing is that students are up to the programme.”

But as Kamp correctly comments: “Intercultural education is more than simply attracting international students.” This is why the lecturers – in fact all colleagues – should be properly prepared. “How do you prepare for students from India, China, the Netherlands, Germany, America and Africa, each with their own cultural background, all being in one group?” One of the ideas being explored is organising workshops about cultural diversity for academic staff. This concept will be expanded in the years to come.

Bachelor students engaged in aerospace design project work

Student selection for the Bachelor’s

A start has already been made on selecting talented students for the Bachelor’s programmes, when the draw system was discontinued in 2016. In 2016, the draw system was only implemented for half of the available places. An experiment with decentralised selection was conducted for the other half. Prospective students were assigned points for various components, including a mini-MOOC ‘Introduction to Aerospace Engineering’, a motivation test, tests in maths and physics, and a written self-reflection assignment. The process has been fully computerised and if things go according to plan, it will be rolled out for the entire intake in the years to come. An analysis of the effects of selection on student pass rates will be made for the 2016-2017 academic year. This is the perfect cohort, as half of the students were allocated places after a draw and the other half were selected. “We think that we’ve got it right, because only well-motivated students actually get through the selection procedure.”

So that’s the intake side of things. What about the graduates? Kamp has regular meetings with potential employers and other external parties such as Airbus and the Aerospace Advisory Council, as well as internal parties including the Delft Deltas Infrastructures and Mobility Initiative and the Delft Robotics Institute. “They all agree on the importance of teaching students to work within a multidisciplinary team. There is room for improvement in this area.” Multidisciplinary does not simply mean that researcher in aerodynamics is able to have a discourse about a design problem with an expert in lightweight structures. They must also able to communicate with people who have no idea about what engineers do, such as economists or psychologists. “We obviously need to keep training specialists, but we need to look outwards too”, says Kamp. The Bachelor’s programmes already provide this flexibility in the shape of a series of design projects and practical lessons, but students in the Master’s phase spend nine months working individually on a graduation project. “If we want to train our students to operate in the society of the future, we have to give them more choices and let them work more in teams.” This is currently being investigated as part of the Master’s revision project.

Personal, Professional and Career skills

Kamp has his own ideas on the subject. He thinks graduates should be trained for different profiles, for example. “We train most if not all our students to become research specialists. But most of them end up in industry. We should give the students who have already made this decision more scope to develop the professional skills they need for their intended career and ambitions.”

Spectrum of roles

In the Master’s we train most, if not all, students to become a researcher or specialist, while there exists a whole spectrum of professional roles for our graduates.

The students who want to continue in research can expand their theoretical knowledge and develop their research skills. “And then there’s another group who are thinking about starting their own company. Give them a chance to include entrepreneurship in their Master’s programme.” Kamp would like to see more focus on careers after graduation. “Everyone should experience working as a part of a multidisciplinary team during the Master’s programme, as well as working solo. And teach students to think harder about the career they want and to make choices regarding their profile, by preparing them to apply for jobs, etc.” There are plenty of isolated activities for practicing job applications, but Kamp wants a more structured approach that would include all graduation students. The most important message, however, is that rather than remaining static, the world is changing more and more rapidly and education must change with it: “This applies to both our teaching methods and the content of our programmes.”

The implementation

In future blogs I aim to discuss the implementation of this vision and the debates about new unforeseen developments that will undoubtedly take place in the coming years. Particularly the exploration of the Master’s that offers more space and flexibility for students who have specific interests, ambitions or career prospects and who have more a Do-It-Yourself ethic, is high on my agenda and will be revisited in one of my blog posts soon. Meetings with project groups have already produced some conceptual ideas that have to be designed into scenarios on the drawing board. The real challenge will of course be to find the consensus and capacity to develop and implement the changes.

Posted in Curriculum development, Future engineering skills | Tagged , | Leave a comment

An innovative educational framework that lies on your doorstep

Most curriculum innovations fail

As a board member of the Educational Leadership Course that is organised under the sponsorship of Erasmus University, TU Delft and University Leiden (LDE), I reviewed the application files of the 17 candidates for the course in 2017. An important component in these files is the plan for the individual education innovation project. These projects are supposed to be the “mental organiser” for the participants during the 1-year course. Reviewing the files I noticed that quite a number of innovation projects at the three universities are about an upgrading or restructuring of Bachelor or Master curricula. Each one will be a challenge, because we know that most curriculum innovations fail, don’t we..?

Why not start from an existing framework?

Innovation projects always start with an in-depth problem analysis, which is followed by an exploration of different scenarios for a better curricular framework. Rationality, experience, intuition and political debates in this phase go hand in hand. Evidence is not always available. Why not start from a framework that has already been adopted by hundreds of engineering programmes worldwide, and then adjust it to your own wishes and needs? I would expect a proven concept enhances the chance of success.

CDIO_header_coated_TM [Converted]

Since 2001 the CDIO Initiative has developed such framework specifically for engineering programmes. Its principles can also be applied in medicine, humanities and social sciences programmes but then need some tailoring. In 2011 TU Delft faculty of Aerospace Engineering was more or less invited to join the global CDIO Initiative, an international network of universities that have adopted an “innovative educational framework for producing the next generation of engineers”. The reason for the invitation was our reconstructed bachelor curriculum. It happened to be very much in line with the CDIO framework, although none of the curriculum designers had ever heard about CDIO. In the past five years I have played an active role in this network on behalf of TU Delft, disseminating our experiences, and bringing back lots of inspiration to Delft. It culminated in a great European Regional conference in Delft January 2016 and to my appointment of Regional Leader for Europe last summer.

 What is CDIO and what could be the benefits of a membership?

CDIO is:

  1. an idea of what engineering students should learn, now and more so in the future;
  2. a methodology for engineering education reform involving 12 “Standards”;
  3. a community to learn together and share experiences in engineering education.

The idea of what engineering students should learn is described in a syllabus. It summarises sets of knowledge, skills and attitudes at different proficiency levels that alumni, industry and academica desire in the future generation of young engineers. You can  take it as a useful reference when you plan to redefine the intended learning outcomes for knowledge and personal, interpersonal and professional skills. The syllabus is an excellent starting point, not prescriptive.

The methodology involves 12 “Standards”. Because many of us may be somewhat allergic to norms and standards, I’d rather use the word Facets instead of Standards. In my world the most important and discriminating facets are:

  • the philosophy that technology, engineering and design, building, testing and operating should be the context for all engineering education in the programme;
  • the integration of personal, interpersonal and product design and building skills and other professional engineering skills that I have described in my vision document (see my latest blog post of December) in the disciplinary courses;
  • a substantial introductory course in the engineering domain that provides the framework for the practice of engineering to the young students;
  • two or more design and build projects in the Bachelor curriculum, and authentic practice in labs, workspaces or internships in the Master’s;
  • integrated learning experiences where engineering, design and professional skills are learned in partnership in courses and projects, where active learning is the norm;
  • faculty development in engineering practice as well as in teaching and assessing personal, interpersonal and professional skills within their disciplinary courses.

Last but not least the community is the most valuable aspect of the CDIO Initiative. The 164 universities, of which more than 60 are located in the European region, make it a very rich resource for sharing practices, do’s and don’ts in engineering education, sometimes with, sometimes without full evidence. Each year the global community convenes twice (June, November) and the European region once (January or February).

 The framework is on your doorstep already, and the opportunities to learn from experiences are free and plentiful.

Further reading

Further details are available at www.cdio.org, in the book “Rethinking Engineering Education: The CDIO Approach”, by Edward F. Crawley,Johan Malmqvist,Sören Östlund,Doris R Brodeur,Kristina Edström. Or feel free to consult me.

The next meeting in the European region is 12-13 January 2017 in Dublin. It has the theme “Engineering Opportunities in a Resource Constrained Future”. With interesting workshops about “Change Management in Engineering Programmes”, “Designing Courses for Motivation”, and keynotes such as “Future Scenarios for Engineering Education” and “Experimentation on-the-go, Learning Analytics and Blockchains: 3 Transformative Technologies for Education.” You are more than welcome.


Posted in Continuous professionalisation, Curriculum development | Tagged | Leave a comment

Preparing for change before it happens

“The chief characteristic of the modern world is the scope and speed of change” (Tony Blair)

Front cover 2nd Revised Edition

Last summer I published the 2nd revised edition of my vision on engineering education of the future. With this vision I call higher management, educational leaders, programme coordinators and lecturers  to dare look beyond their discipline specialisation at the ever faster changing outside world. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand and refuse to see that both technology and society are fundamentally reshaping the engineering profession.It is obvious that many curricula do not keep up with the changing needs of the job market, no matter whether it is the academic, industrial, or new ventures market.

We are proud of the reputation of the Delft engineers. They are internationally well known for their specialist knowledge, their ability to cooperate in the global world, and their open mind. We are strong in educating research scientists. We can be happy with the education we have, but we also have to think how future proof it is. Young engineering graduates often need stronger skills in for instance creative thinking, systems and holistic thinking, entrepreneurial behaviour, interdisciplinary thinking, and algorithmic thinking. These skills are gaining quickly in importance.

In the past thirty to forty years engineering education has become increasingly engineering science driven. That is a worldwide trend. Ideally speaking, the analytical approaches of engineering science and engineering practice should be balanced and stimulate each other in our education. The trend, however, is that the engineering science component has become much more important than engineering practice and design.This makes that graduates of engineering programmes are not always optimally prepared for their future job and may encounter problems in future when they have to adjust to the fast changes by lifelong learning.

Since 2013 I have immersed myself in the future developments of higher engineering education with a horizon of 2030, at programme level at the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, at institutional level, the four Dutch technical universities, and as a thought leader in the global CDIO network.

Welcome to my blog. My aim is to inform you at regular intervals about developments in higher engineering education and society, and events in my neighbourhood that strike, inspire and fascinate me, and keep me busy in my rethinking of engineering education. Probably they will keep me more than busy, because I expect that we may have to change engineering education more profoundly and rapidly than we have done over the past 40 years.

I hope you will also enjoy the photos I have taken of beautiful sceneries that I will randomly change in the header of my blog.

Posted in Future engineering skills | Tagged , , | Leave a comment