What if 200 engineering deans are thrilled by the futurist Industry 4.0, but nobody has the courage to adapt the curriculum?

Mid October 2017 over 200 engineering deans from all over the world convened the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC) at Niagara Falls to discuss “issues of importance to engineering education”: the exponential change in engineering and technology, its impact on society and engineering education, and the aspect of diversity and inclusiveness in the STEM field (which I will address in another blog). Because we have “to better prepare our  graduates for the fourth industrial revolution, that will continue to transform our world through digital disruption”, as the conference programme announced.

The conference memorised the main goal of engineering education in the second half of the 20th century was to provide engineers for life-time steady jobs in industry. But the 4th Industrial Revolution, replete with automation and ubiquitous sensing, will undoubtedly produce tremendous disruption in economies and the profession of the engineer.

Accelerating growth and development, but not in education

Increasing gap between developments in engineering/technology and society/education (Source: GEDC Industry Forum 2017, p.17)

In many sessions we talked about the exponential change in engineering and  technology. Ron Brown of the company EWI Advanced Automation demonstrated the accelerating growth in human knowledge: “In 1900 human knowledge doubled every century, in 1945 every 25 years, in 2013 every 13 months, and soon with the build-out of the Internet of Things, human knowledge will double every 12 hours.

Dave Wilson, Vice President, Product Marketing for Software, Academics, Customer Education of National Instruments, illustrated the exponential change by remembering Moore’s law of increasing the number of transistors on a chip from 10 million in 2000 to 15 billion in 2017. He showed the accelerating growth in FPGA performance (GMACs) that raised by a factor of 4500 in that same period, the power efficiency of ADC converters that increased by a factor of 2500, and last but not least the internet speed that increased by a factor of 800,000 since the mid eighties.

Have we been fast enough?

Many deans of engineering programmes worldwide shared the concern that their programme is stuck in teaching knowledge and skills that made sense when they had to prepare their students for a job in Industry 2.0 (electrically-powered mass production) or 3.0 (automation of manufacturing). The deans took the blame: “We have missed the quality revolution and information technology in the past. And until now we have missed this next revolution, simply because our research universities have moved so far away from our stakeholders, industry and society. We are not not at all ready to adapt our curricula to the impact of this fourth industrial revolution, and the change is incredible”.

“We have to make our curricula much more agile to be ready to accommodate shift when we need it. And the “when”is now! Many of us see that young academic staff and students are a new breed who are aware, that if you want to change the world, you have to  be taught differently. We have to put the hope for change on them”. The deans underlined more than once that the lasting lack of incentives for educational performance and innovation in academic career paths is the threatening barrier and easily kills any will for change. But that at the same time the deans feel incapable to change this dissatisfactory system they have made themselves.

“To change the world, you have to be taught differently”

I also heard positive noise and satisfaction, maybe even some complacency. “We shall not forget the good news we have. In the past 15 -20 years many of us have implemented project-based or problem-based education, online education, flipped classrooms, and developed makerspaces. So we are not static and have made lots of progress already.” But, the echo in the audience was “Has it been fast enough? Are we up to speed for further change? Do we know what to change, and if so, how do it?” These were the pressing questions at the conference and I am not sure they were elaborated enough.

Where will we go from here?

Mind-blowing presentations with futurist forecasts for the next 30 years showed world scenarios filled with smart body implants, zero-size intelligence, internet-connected smart textiles, quantum control, nanotechnology, universal translators, avatars and robotics, virtual holidays to exciting imaginary places and effectively in any body, for instance using it to experience another gender or to be young again, holoportation (virtual meetings via holograms), thought police (thought recognition technology to prevent crimes before they happen), superhuman abilities (exoskeleton cat suits using electro-active polymer muscles), space tourism, supersonic trains. On my flight home they encouraged me to read the fascinating book “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly, that outlines the twelve trends in technology that affect how people will work, learn and communicate in future. Kelly concludes his book with the Beginning: we are on the brink of the construction of a planetary system that connects all humans and machines into a global matrix.

The deans did not doubt that the impact on society and the work of the engineer of these developments will be tremendous. A McKinsey impact assessment of Industry 4.0 by industry indicates a 20-50% reduction of time to market, >85% increase in forecasting accuracy, 45-55% increase of productivity in technical professions through automation of knowledge work. “Open your eyes what’s already happening. The rapid change imperils the way we think. The world rushes to embrace the products and services of the four GAFA titanic corporations: We rely on Google for information, we shop with Amazon; socialize on Facebook; turn to Apple for entertainment. These firms sell their efficiency and enable an intoxicating level of daily convenience for the citizen and customer of today, and for the designer and engineer of tomorrow. Do we prepare our students sufficiently to commit to this GAFA life?” (referring to the book: World Without Mind by Franklin Foer). Do we prepare the students in our classrooms sufficiently for the hyperconnected world? Are we ready to educate “comprehenivists”: specialists with deep knowledge in a specific field are needed in the 21st century, but engineers with a higher level and broader understanding of multiple field will be needed as sytems become more complex?

The futurist views were exciting, sometimes overwhelming. But I found them very technically driven. It seems as if engineering becomes, or maybe already is, the centre of society. Should not we expect that future society may also be driven by other concerns and developments than these technological developments alone?

The changing impact of engineering on society, and vice versa

In the opinion of Durban University of Technology the position of engineering in society is changing. Society has to be made the centre of engineering, and no longer should engineering and technology be the centre of society. Engineering and its education will rapidly change from mainly physical towards a technological-social-behavioural-economic discipline. This opinion was underlined by Venkatesh Narayanamurti from Harvard: “Engineering is developing into a central discipline nowadays and a bridge between almost all disciplines. And so engineering is becoming the ultimate liberal art”.

“The university of the future will derive its right to exist primarily from being active in the world and by producing knowledge for the world”(quote prof. Bert van der Zwaan in his recent book Higher Education in 2040 – A Global Approach)

Society and the human person need to get a central role in engineering education, because human behaviour, policies, politics or economics will increasingly override disciplinary expertise when designing solutions for complex problems. I heard an echo of this a month later at the CDIO conference at the Sunshine Coast when Amanda Yeates of the Australian Department of Transport and Main Roads illustrated local as well as international examples, where “the best engineering solutions are not always the best solutions for society or more local communities”. It’s all about societal impact which makes the difference, no matter whether we are talking about civil engineering, energy, biotechnology, robotics, health or aerospace. And it is well proven that it is these connections with society that attract women to STEM disciplines.

Panoramic view of the Niagara Falls from the conference hotel

Changing our engineering education

Two industrial sponsors Quanser and Dassault Systemes mentioned that today’s curricular frameworks are centred around modelling, computing and designing. Today’s engineers don’t solve so many differential equations but design solutions for technical and societal problems, in a business environment that is rapidly changing. “Being competitive is no longer about developing hardware at competitive prices. Increasingly it is about adding a”layer of services” to the hardware, especially software as a service”, Ms. Vittadi, Executive Vice President Head of Engineering at Airbus Defence and Space says in the Industry Forum Report. And so engineer’s creativity, attitude, decision-making, and execution abilities become more important than mere technology.

Wrapping up the sessions on Bio-innovation, Energy, Smart cities and Circular Economy, I believe that engineers who are suitable for the emerging industrial revolution that is enabled by Industry 4.0, will need a QR code of:

  • rigour of technical fundamentals of 21st century engineering
  • deep skills in data science, data analytics and cybersecurity
  • designing products and processes for the environment
  • life-cycle systems engineering knowledge
  • commercial awareness
  • protection of products, IT and industrial frameworks
  • empathy for sustainability
  • ethical framework: powerful technologies will lead to unforeseen impactful consequences.

In the session on Advanced Manufacturing the panel discussed its concern that the current knowledge and skills level at Master level is insufficient for employment in an environment of advanced manufacturing engineering. Manufacturing technologies become a leading-edge technology but are hardly educated in today’s engineering curricula. Bachelor and Master curricula in any engineering discipline shall be upgraded to accommodate the learning of :

  • next-generation robotics
  • additive manufacturing
  • smart materials
  • artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • the Internet of Things (IoT)
  • predictive analytics
  • augmented and virtual reality technologies

Last week the industrial Advisory Council of my Faculty of Aerospace Engineering in Delft also stressed the need to go deep on automation, artificial intelligence, robotisation, computer modeling and (VR and AR) simulation techniques.

The GEDC also discussed the value of adding the dimension of Mindsets to curricula, in addition to the Intended Learning Outcomes of Knowledge and Skills. Examples of such Mindsets could be Growth, an Employer’s perspective, Innovation, Entrepreneurial, Circular Economy, Society as the Centre of Engineering. Mindsets are supposed to provide convergence and integration in student learning.

Many of the above statements are in agreement, or had specifically been prepared at the GEDC Industry Forum 2017 in Fontainebleau near Paris in June 2017. The Industry Forum Event Report “Designing the Future of Engineering Education” is available online  here.

Who has the courage to change?

It is great that over 200 deans developed some awareness of the urgency to change: “If we are not going to change soon, we are going to loose”. The presentations at the conference were overwhelming and the discussions inspiring. But when I left Niagara Falls I wondered what impact all these futurist forecasts of engineering and technology may have on our engineering education.

It reminded me to the book “Don’t even think about it” by George Marshall. Its subtitle is “Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”. It made me realise that thinking about climate change and educational change is strikingly similar: It’s not that universities don’t want to think about educational change. They often decide not to think about it because they doubt the effect of the changing world on their education and therefore chose to place it in the future. It is so abstract, distant, invisible, disputed, and, so uncertain.

I know many academic staff around me who say “I don’t know anybody who is important to me, who is worried about the impact of the fast changes in technology and society on my education. So it can’t be very important”. (rephrased sentence from the book “Don’t even think about it”)

Students as the change agent

New universities that are built “from the ground up” with completely new curricula, as well as forward-thinking schools of engineering have often the courage to engage students in curriculum development. It is never too early for students to contribute to their own learning and to the development of the engineering programmes. The University of Toronto presented their set-up of first-year undergraduate projects which are either client-proposed or student-defined and developed by teams that have at least 30% foreign students. Just like the European Conference of Engineering Deans in Munich in 2017 (my blog), the GEDC deans have high expectations on the new breed of students as the change agent.

Industry 4.0 is on the threshold

The message I bring back to my university in Delft is the importance and urgency to integrate the new high- demand knowledge and skills in all engineering curricula. They emerge from the revolution that is enabled by Industry 4.0 and cover the spectrum from data science, data analytics, cybersecurity, to next-generation robotics, advanced manufacturing technologies, smart materials, the Internet of Things (IoT), predictive analytics, AR/VR technologies and are applicable to any discipline in design, engineering or sciences! At TU Delft I see an initiative this year to incorporate an introductory course in Python programming in those engineering curricula that have missed the Third Industrial Revolution of Digitalisation over the past 25 years… It goes without saying that an introductory Python course is only a drop in the ocean of what is needed to prepare our students for the digital age.

On page 29 of my report “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” I wrote that digital literacy, a catch-all for many aspects I mention above, has to become a basic literacy in higher engineering education. In business an exponentially widening gap between product performance and customer demands would lead to sleepless nights for many CEO’s. Is not it fascinating that academia can live so long in their own bubble, disconnected from the revolution that takes place in the way we engineer and design in engineering business?

The deans at Niagara Falls were thrilled by the stories about rapid developments and futurist forecasts in technology. But I missed the sense of urgency to change. Time will tell who ramped up the investment in particularly the digital literacy skills, to ready their graduates for the next technological age of Industry 4.0.

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How to benefit most from digital co-creation in a rapidly changing world

Embracing the future today

Digitalisation, technology and innovation have advanced industries in ways that previously could not have been imagined. The world is in a perpetual state of change and flux and, as a result, the world of engineering faces a number of questions. These include: What is the biggest change in the engineering industry? How and with what tools can all stakeholders adapt and benefit? How will this impact co-creation with clients?

Royal HaskoningDHV’s Corporate Director Human Resources, Cindy Meervis had the following interview with me.

What is the biggest change for people working in the engineering industry?

“Being an engineer or working with an engineer has changed significantly in the past twenty, even ten years. The biggest change is that hierarchies that once existed both within companies, and between companies and the public, are becoming flatter – particularly in relation to clients. The internet provides a platform for immediate feedback where once there was none, creating a transparency which heightens the need for quality, consistency and innovation.”

“The future engineer will want to enhance society. I can see that Royal HaskoningDHV has this purpose driven workplace” (quote Aldert Kamp, Co-Director of the CDIO Initiative)

Do you see a change in how consultancy firms work with new technologies?

“In engineering, new technologies are constantly emerging. We can already see Royal HaskoningDHV have utilised virtual reality via Hololense technology to bring their designs to life. The tools we put in the hands of young engineers are far more advanced than many could have hoped. It’s for all to benefit from it and speed-up the go-to-market process.”

What do clients and engineers need to embrace to more efficiently co-create?

“Besides the fantastic tools already mentioned, all involved need to boost their knowledge too. Big Data is a vital part of the future of engineering. These vast swathes of data reveal patterns, trends and associations – giving us unparalleled insight into human behaviour”, says Aldert Kamp, adding:

“Increased knowledge of data allows us to predict patterns of behaviour. These detailed insights are already leading to a sort of hyper-tailored design that replaces designs traditionally informed by assumptions or past-experience. Good examples are intelligent machines, such as the Google self-driving cars that are networked in the cloud to machines of their own kind and learnb from each other. ”

Aldert explains more big impact trends that not only speed-up the go-to-market process, but more importantly result in more efficient and lasting impact on society. “Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation also offer us a great deal of potential. It will, I’m sure relieve the burden of the mundane, time-consuming aspects of engineering processes. But it will also require us to design differently to accommodate a growing shift from human labour to automation. And a challenge in terms of education: How do we ensure that engineers of the future are motivated to learn the basics of engineering, if the likelihood is that AI will make these skills redundant?”

“The human factor is increasingly crucial; students now are driven by purpose, not necessarily by profit. The future engineer will want to enhance society. We need to create the space for them to achieve their purpose. The tools and trends that are emerging could be huge stepping stones to more dynamic and effective engineering solutions! I can see that Royal HaskoningDHV has this purpose driven workplace.”

Virtual Design Construction

VDC offers a unique method of applying integrated design to construction related projects such as roads, buildings, and civil structures. (source: Virtual Design & Construction, RoyalHaskoningDHV)

To better understand how Royal HaskoningDHV works using the latest technology, Cindy asked Kees van IJselmuijden, Senior Bridge Consultant Royal HaskoningDHV, about some of the other innovative tools the company is using.

Kees: “A great example is our Virtual Design Construction (VDC) approach, which we created in partnership with TU Delft and Stanford University. VDC makes use of our iRooms (dedicated rooms built to provide a great design workspace) and our live and interactive 3D modelling – which brings a workflow of tools that communicate in a single programme.”

What is the main benefit for the client of using VDC?

“We are able to get the design project team into an iRoom and produce strong sketch designs in a fraction of the time, while also spotting clashes early. This is huge for our clients as they have working designs faster and it saves them time and money. We have already used the approach on the design of two viaducts in the Netherlands and are consulting on another project, scaling up to ten viaducts.”

Further reading

This interview was published in the November issue of Connect, the open online magazine of RoyalHaskoningDHV with the theme “Co-creating innovations in the era of change” available here.

RoyalHaskoningDHV is an independent, international, engineering, design and project management consultancy with over 130 years of experience. Their 7000 professionals deliver services in the fields of aviation, buildings, energy, industry, infrastructure, maritime, mining, transport, urban and rural development and water. They address the challenges that societies are facing: the growing world population and the consequences for towns and cities, the demand for clean drinking water, water security and water safety,  pressures on traffic and transport, resource availability and demand for energy and waste issues facing industry.

The international engineering and project management consultancy has strong ties with TU Delft in education as well as research. In my explorative research on the future of engineering and technology, its impact on education, the search for future professional engineering needs, including the discovery  of specific innovation competency needs, and the value of distinctive engineering roles for engineering graduates, I have consulted RoyalHaskoningDHV several times for input and reality checks, with inspirational discussions with their HR and technical directors, for the benefit of both parties.

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What are the successful professional roles of the future in engineering?

In my August 2017 post about professional profiles and engineering role models I discussed the difficulty of their incorporation, as well as the development of a good representative image of engineering practice in our curricula. The real world is even more complicated. In less than twenty years we have transformed the way we work, communicate and do business, and these trends will only accelerate in the future. In other words: how future-proof are the professional roles I described in my previous blog?

Solving problems and designing solutions these days require at least a multi-, often interdisciplinary approach. Engineering shifts from almost purely physics and technology to a melting pot of these with social, behavioural and economic aspects as well. Many people still say the prime role of an engineer is designing the society, but I am of the opinion that engineering shall no longer be the centre of the society, but society shall become the centre of engineering. Engineers must  learn to optimise not just efficiency but also social impact. And thus 21st century employers are increasingly looking for people with both in-depth working knowledge and human-centred skills.

“Engineering shall no longer be the centre of the society,
but society shall become the centre of engineering”

The questions that have kept me busy in the past couple of years are: are we educating our students with these sorts of skills and aptitudes, do we train them to be agile enough to adapt to the rapid changes, do all students who chose a certain specialisation have to learn the same thing, and how will this look like 15 years from now?

Think Tank

As a Co-leader of the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education, together with my colleague and educational consultant Renate Klaassen,  we raised the question “What  should engineers learn in the future and why should they do it?” In an attempt to explore how particularly Master programmes in engineering might be adapted to meet 21st Century needs, we set up a “Free Spirits Think Tank” with 14 members of academic staff, students, Valorisation Centre. Over the course of five workshops we tried to answer the following  questions:

  • What sort of student should we be educating?
  • What will be the major changes facing students in 2030?
  • What ‘added value’ can TU Delft deliver in terms of educational content?
  • What learning processes are needed to prepare the future engineer?

Design Thinking

Using ‘Design Thinking’, the Think Tank explored trends in engineering, science and society, established the most pressing needs within the engineering sector and developed ideas based on possible future worlds. The results identified the following important points:

  • Definition of a career route should start early in the higher education process, either at the point of admission or during the Bachelor programme. This means that the educational institution should aim to identify motivated students who can excel in key scientific areas, are focused on personal development, can approach their subject matter from multiple perspectives, can cope with freedom of choice, are able to take the initiative and are self-regulatory in behaviour. Moreover they should have well-developed analytical and creative skills, and a talent for realising change.
  • Introduction of ‘flexible personalised learning paths’ – by modules tailored to help students acquire the specific skills and specialist knowledge necessary to excel in their chosen prospective career direction.
  • Education based on real-life cases, projects and research would give students a taste of collaboration, experimentation, failure and working with the outside world, and so introduce them to the key values of “passion, purpose and play”. Working on projects at interdisciplinary research or design institutes would enable students to forge links with the professional market in the engineering market.
  • Preparation for innovation would enhance the reputation of TU Delft, already strong in producing engineering graduates who can apply creative working solutions to society’s problems. Increased contact and collaboration with external partners, including those outside the world of engineering, would help prepare students for future innovation.

These insights helped identify three new challenges:

  1. How do you create an engineering education programme in which personal development plays an important role, yet is academic enough to satisfy the accreditation bodies awarding Master degrees?
  2. How do you create more tailored personalised programmes that also form a coherent set of studies within the Master degree course?
  3. How do you create purposeful engineering profiles and programmes that will be useful to society in the future?

Hypothetical scenarios

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future, but by looking at current trends, we can imagine possible scenarios. If we then consider the sort of knowledge and skills needed to survive and thrive in those situations, we can also help prepare the future engineer to face the needs of each potential future.

The next phase of the Think Tank’s process was to look at current trends within society and engineering and then ‘ideate’ hypothetical worlds based on combinations of these so-called ‘megatrends’, such as Climate Change, Big Data-Smart Data, Robotisation and the Internet of Things; Bio-engineering, Energy Transition, Safety and Security. Combining extreme hypothetical versions of these trends and then imagining the skills and knowledge an engineer would need in each of these worlds, led the Think Tank to ask the same question I had before: “Why do we teach all students the same thing? Could not we do better and train different types or ‘profiles’ of engineers whose knowledge would extend beyond engineering, science and design?”

Four distinctive professional profiles

The Think Tank came up with the  concept of four specific engineering roles in particular contexts that provide the opportunity for differentiation. They partly overlap the professional engineering career tracks that are  identified in the CDIO book “Rethinking Engineering Education – the CDIO Approach” by Crawly, E.F. et al.

Each type of engineer tends to play a different role in projects and work environments, as they start with a different heuristic question:

  • Specialist: “How can I advance engineering knowledge and optimise technology for innovation and better performance by research?”
  • System Integrator: “How can I integrate disciplinary knowledge and subsystem expertise for a complete solution?”
  • Front-end Innovator: “How can I apply knowledge and use technology to develop out-of-the-box solutions that cross disciplinary boundaries and create value for society?”
  • Contextual Engineer: “How can I exploit diversity-in-thought in developing realistic and acceptable solutions that create value in different cultures and contexts?”

In practice each engineer combines any of the four profiles but has a dominant profile as a whole. Each profile alone cannot realise a technological solution without the others.

Taking a closer look

The Specialist: who is able to use specific scientific knowledge to improve and develop complex technological systems and at the same time, is able to work with non-specialists in order to integrate that knowledge into system and product development. The Specialist needs a more T-shaped, with a more holistic engineering mind-set to understand the impact of the interfacing levels and innovate at the fringes of their specialism. Specialist training within a Faculty or Department would be complemented by multidisciplinary project work, which broadens the specialist’s more human-centred skill-set.

The System Integrator: who is system-oriented and has a helicopter view of technological fields but can look beyond technology to understand the importance of a broad range of issues from restricted budgets and regulatory frameworks to public safety impact and the ethical aspects of engineering. To design systems or processes that can perform as components of large-scale complex enterprises, they also have to consider the characteristic of the enterprise in which the system will operate and the context in which the system is developed. As with the Specialist, the System Integrator would be educated within the disciplinary department or Faculty, while developing interdisciplinary and interpersonal skills whilst working on interdisciplinary projects with industries or institutes.

The Front-end Innovator: is an entrepreneurial design engineer with a broad knowledge of both engineering and socio-economic factors. Able to work in horizontal flat organisations and work in teams of Specialists, System Integrators, design engineers, business managers, customers and end-users, the Front-end Innovator must have a good understanding of the engineering context as well as a good awareness of the user and client environment. They are capable solving complex adaptive problems and feel comfortable to follow agile methodologies with cross-functional team work, rapid iterations, rapid prototyping, continuous user involvement. The Faculty would provide the specialist engineering education, and the innovation-business components would be learnt whilst working on interdisciplinary projects together with students from the humanities or social sciences sectors and professionals with a different background than engineering.

The Contextual Engineer: excels at understanding dynamic technological change within different socio-cultural realms. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) envisions the workplace of the near future as one of dynamic technological change that requires engineers to understand complex economic, political, cultural, global, and professional contexts. Development teams within multinational companies make use of the diversity of cultures and socio-economic environments to benefit technological innovation, product design and engineering business. This is where the Contextual Engineers come in. They need strong intercultural communication and collaboration skills, along with an open-minded approach to operating in differing cultural contexts. Technically adept, the Contextual Engineer understands constraints and consequences from the ethical, judicial, disciplinary and policy perspective.

What works?

The four profiles have stirred considerable debate, across TU Delft and at the 2016 CDIO Annual Conference in Turku. Diversification of the future educational portfolio and differentiation in Master profiles have now been included in the TU Delft Vision on Education for further discussion and are the leading theme in TU Delft’s Education Day 20 December 2017.

Within the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education we have decided to further explore the profiles. In the past half year I discussed the profiles with industrial partners while Renate Klaassen produced numerous workshops in different engineering environments with interdisciplinary populations of Master and PhD students to find out whether the profiles are recognized as valid ways to coin engineers on top of their disciplinary major.

Most people recognize the value of deep disciplinary working knowledge in all profiles. Some participants are afraid to be pigeonholed, but appreciate the spiral learning by looking at the same problem from different perspectives. They would rather consider the profiles as an optional role that could be played in different engineering contexts. Playing the different role makes people uncertain and let them step out of their comfort zone. About half of the people are in favour of embedding the concept in engineering education.

What’s next?

Over the past four months we have teamed up the project to develop a more foundational theory derived from additional design research. Reframing Studio has been asked to conduct a number of reframing steps and deliver workshops for:

  • reframing the engineering profiles by redefining the goal of these future roles in terms of
    • what they should contain exactly in terms of competencies;
    • what the most advanced concept could be that is in good balance with our present stage of skills and mindsets and not more advanced than what we, university and job market, are able to accept and embrace, known as the “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable” (MAYA) principle;
    • in what way these engineering roles can be ideally embedded in higher education.
  • discovering the competencies and the minimum levels that future generations of engineering students will need at graduation to deal with innovation and enable a fast upskilling in their job. These competencies and levels differ per profile, as each profile is associated with innovative engineering activities its own way.

In the past month we produced three workshops, two of them at the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven , and one in the Teaching Lab at TU Delft, with extremely interesting results. Keep an eye on my blog. More workshops will follow in the coming months and I will keep you informed about their progression.

The text in this post is partly based on a flyer published by the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education in 2016 and the paper “Impact of global forces and empowering situations on engineering education in 2030”, presented at the 2016 CDIO Annual Conference, available here.

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Russia’s catching up on active forms of engineering education

As the Co-director of the CDIO Initiative I was invited for a Russian national conference 25-26 October at a place that was not directly on my mind: Surgut, city in northwest Siberia on the Ob River, about 400,000 inhabitants and home to two of world’s most powerful gas-fired power plants that produce over 7,200 megawatt (which is five times the biggest Eemshaven power plant in the Netherlands) and supply the region with relatively cheap electricity. Approaching the city from air leaves no doubt: Surgut’s economy is tied to oil and gas production; it’s “the Oil Capital of Russia”.

Surgut State University, a 24-year young university with 7500 students and 700 academic staff, invited me to join the conference “CDIO Global Initiative in the Russian Educational System”, to learn about the CDIO-related educational reforms in Russia, welcome the participants on behalf of the CDIO community, share my vision on taking engineering education to 2030, and discuss about my experiences in transforming curricula with the CDIO methodology in mind.

The university is one of 16 Russian universities that are involved in reforming  their engineering education to active forms of learning and teaching in accordance with international standards. These universities have decided to implement project education and modernise their bachelor programmes in line with the CDIO methodology. They have to make a big mind shift and major change in hierarchical culture. Do they have the will and possibility to catch up? I was surprised.

The modern building of Surgut State University. It includes a library, theatre, labs and educational spaces. On the right the university’s Temple of the Holy Martyr Tatiana (private photo).

“CDIO in the Russian Education System”

The goal of the conference was to pave the way for a platform where Russian universities share their experiences and discuss common difficulties they face in reforming their programmes to active forms of learning and teaching.

Need for continuous change

The discussions between the approximately 40 participants from six Russian universities taught me that the problem of the widening gap between university education learning outcomes and the professional needs is characteristic for the whole world: wherever we are, the academic community lags behind the rapid developments in technology and society.

I received this confirmative feedback on my keynote speech about the exponential change in technology and the need to adapt academic staff, students, organisation, curricula and learning outcomes accordingly. In this speech I stressed that curricular reform is not a one-off thing. Continuous upgrading remains necessary, also after havig completed a radical change to adapt to the CDIO framework, to stay aligned with changing needs and changing attitudes of new breeds of students.

Taking part in the discussion via the interpreter (left) and (right) serious listeners to my keynote “Taking Engineering Education to 2030” (Photos resource: Surgut State University)

“Student life and our educational programmes have to be based upon engineering fundamentals, but in balance with active learning such as research and design team-based projects, that are connected to authentic problems and opportunities in industry and institutes” said the president of the Russian Association for Engineering Education, Head of the Department of Organization and Technology of Higher Professional Education of the Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) Yuri Poholkov.

Out of the Russian comfort zone

During the engaging and interactive expert seminar on the first conference day the participants established a set of criteria that can be used to benchmark the implementation level of project-based education in their university. After José Carlos Quadrado of the Polytechnic of Porto (ISEP) and I had shared the positive as well as critical experiences at our western universities, the participants made a discovery for their own institute what hindered the transformation process and how these obstacles could be overcome. It must have been challenging for some participants to discuss not only the successful, but also the painful and critical issues in all openness, and come up with bottum-up ideas rather than follow directives from hierarchical leaders.

“We still deliver far too much a “theological” type of engineering education: Have the faith that you are going to use at least once in your professional life what we teach you” (quote José Carlos Quadrado in Surgut)

In his speech about the importance of Interdisciplinary Education, José Carlos Quadrado initiated a thrilling “social crowdsourcing of idea generation and discussion”. One-liners about hindrances of interdisciplinary education, written by each participant on a single card, were exchanged multiple times, discussed, compared, graded in duos and written on the card (the sum of the two marks being 10) in less than a minute. Repeating this cycle five times created a very lively atmosphere where everybody met new people for a short moment and discussed arguments for one-liners they had not written by themselves. The session was concluded by adding up the grades per one-liner. In no time the crowd thus had created a ranking of hindrances for the implementation of interdisciplinary education. Most importantly, the social crowdsourcing had broken the ice between the participants.

Engineering education and more

“I consider the outcome as an important result of comprehension of the CDIO standards,” said Sergei Kosenok, rector of the University of Surin State University. “Although CDIO was originally proposed for the development of engineering education, it now becomes clear that the ideology in question can also be applied in the training of specialists of any other discipline. The gap between learning outcomes of academic education and the needs of professional practice exists in many branches of the real economy, not only in engineering. Authentic design and research projects for students of whatever discipline should therefore not only address their own discipline but become an integration of technical, social and economic disciplines”.

The modern interior of Surgut State University’s main building (left) and the library (right) (private photos)

CDIO as the main toolbox for educational transformation

Many Russian universities adopt the CDIO framework as the international standard and choose the methodology as a toolbox for the transformation of their curricula. The World Bank in Moscow, also present at the conference, stimulates universities to innovate and adopt this uniform approach, for reasons that I wrote in my blogpost discussing the ready-to-use framework. I also learnt that Russian universities have a tradition of on-campus and distance education and see an increasing demand for online education. About 20% of all students in higher education take some online education.

Although the Russian higher education system changes slowly, every year more universities are included in international rankings. They not only enter the QS World University Rankings: BRICS, but make relatively rapid progress towards the top. Among Russian universities TPU (Tomsk) occupies the 11th place in this QS BRICS ranking. The numerous papers about educational change, presented at CDIO conferences in the past, and the interactive role and professional attitude in the expert seminar at the conference by professor Yuri Poholkov and Kseniaya Zaitseva, manager of international projects at TPU, demonstrated the open and innovative culture at this university. Also has TPU, together with Skoltech, been the frontrunner in the development of online material about the CDIO standards on the edX platform.

Skoltech as a special case.

Skoltech, founded in 2011 with its mission to accellerate innovation, has developed Master programmes to bridge from science to innovation and educate young people to become leaders and agents of change. Their programmes are fully based on the CDIO principles and link research to innovation. Twentyfive per cent of their programmes are dedicated to innovation and entreneurship. Clement Fortin explained that a recent assessment showed that the impact their education has on society is 30 times the combined impact of the research achievements and innovation.

The curricular structures in their Master’s are based on six-week blocks of topical learning, followed by one-week summative assessment, followed by one-week intensive project to use new knowledge, build a structure of knowledge and develop self-efficacy. These projects  carry learning outcomes on personal and interpersonall skills and their assessment.

Trends in Russian higher education

The second day of the conference was fully devoted to presentations and discussions of practices of Russian universities. Andrey Zolotarev, expert of innovations of the World Bank  in Moscow opened the meeting. He presented an overview of international trends in higher education, which Russian universities, regardless of location and status, should take into account to be competitive. He referred to the increase in the openness and globalization of education, the decline in financial state support and the transition to competitive finance, the changing values and demands of students, the active introduction of new technologies, the development of new pedagogy, and the changing competences that a student must acquire while studying at a university. His presentation seamlessly complemented mine the day before.

Innovative advancements and setbacks

The formal setting at the beginning of the conference (Source: Surgut State University)

Speeches from representatives of the Siberian Federal University (Krasnoyarsk, 3000 km east of Surgut) addressed the problems that arise when curricula are transformed from a traditional curriculum to a CDIO compatible framework. Frequent problems are the lack of readiness of the organisation and facilities, resistance of teachers in particular, to change from transferring knowledge to also developing and tutoring design projects. All western universities encountered exactly the same issues 10-15 years ago. What’s new?

Alexander Arnautov, senior lecturer at Siberian Federal University, presented how they transformed the first-year Bachelor course “Introduction to Engineering” from lecturing abstract knowledge to a programme with a complementary network game where 120 students from three different disciplines play engineering and entrepreneurial roles. The students choose their team which represents a fictitious engineering company. Using basic knowledge they design and analyse a product or system for the real world and take customer needs into account. After a while the teams c.q. companies “trade” and compete with each other in an online game.  In this very early stage of their study the students have to acquire additional knowledge, find solutions independently, integrate theories and learn to understand the different languages of the three disciplines: Their lifelong learning has started!

Freezing temperatures and a very warm welcome

Honestly speaking I had some doubts when I received the invitation to attend the conference in Surgut, a remote location in Siberia. I could not have been more wrong.

I was taken aback by the perfect organisation and logistics, the interpreters, the city tour, the food, the punctuality of the conference schedule, the excellent and brand new university buildings and facilities. Together with students the conference participants enjoyed the very impressive and emotional theatre play about War and Love by the Student’s Theatre of Surgut State University “Grotesque”. It was the kindness and devotion of the staff and students of Surgut State University and the conference participants that made this a memorable conference to me.

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Can Virtual Reality enhance our education?

“VR/AR will prepare students for Industry 4.0”; “Engineering education cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology”; “We don’t know what the implications are of VR/AR technology on teaching and learning”; “VR/AR is the next frontier in education”; “Teachers are known to be skeptical about the value of VR”, and “Placing avatars in a scene to interact with the students poses a formidable challenge”.

These are just a couple of statements I collected from a number of papers and articles I read about the use of Virtual and Augmented Reality in education. Every time I immerse myself in a virtual reality or watch a demonstration of VR technology I am engaged and fascinated by the amazing possibilities and rapid developments. Call me an average layman in this area, I summarise the above as follows:

“There is little doubt that VR/AR engages and stimulates the senses of our students. But does it improve learning?”

VR Orientation and Onboarding Day

The 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education organised a so-called VR Onboarding Day with the theme “Using Virtual Reality in Engineering Education”. The venue for the 60 participants was the monumental Paushuize in Utrecht.

The day was kicked off by inspiring keynotes by Pierre Dillenbourg, professor of Learning Technologies at EPFL in Lausanne (Switzerland) and Head of the CHILI Lab (Computer-Human Interaction for Learning and Instruction), and Max Louwerse, professor Cognitive Psychology and Artificial Intelligence of Tilburg University, and head of the Mixed Reality DAF Technology Lab.

Dillenbourg discussed the fit of VR/AR technologies with education and the relevance of VR/AR for better learning gains. His presentation had the title “VR/AR/AW“, where AW stands for “After Wow”.

Louwerse addressed the difficulty of moving education to implement this new technology. Particularly engineering education has been reluctant and slow in accepting new technologies for learning. He stated firmly that the magic of VR will not come from the computer scientists or software developers but from the users. Teachers in academic education find it scary, want to understand the possibilities and need evidence first. But the only way to discover  what works is to experiment, measure and reflect. And so we should not be overly optimistic.

What is VR about and what can we do with it?

Dillenbourg summarised the attractiveness of VR/AR as follows: It can show, demonstrate and immerse people in phenomena that otherwise cannot be shown or experienced. In brief VR is about:
• Making the invisible visible
• Making the impossible possible
• Making the complex simpler

Louwerse started his presentation by asking why we still don’t have the answers why students like playing games but don’t like going to a classroom, why society has so much changed but the educational system has not, and why people like to be engaged in dialogue but students do not like to be talked to. Is it the lack of engagement, and could VR technology be the solution for all this?

VR/AR is increasingly used in industries

The professional work environment increasingly uses VR technologies. Its motivation are multiple: lower development cost due to virtual prototyping, faster and better design decisions, higher precision, better product quality, and the use of digital twins that allows the analysis of a product’s current status and performance over its life cycle. The technologies empower new creators on the market such as game developers and movie makers. VR could transform into an Ultimate Empathy Machine that uses a new grammar for storytelling and emotions (travel, museums). Since most advanced experiences with VR/AR  are in industries, the universities should use their relationships to extend their view on how the technologies work in engineering practice.

Airbus has developed “connected glasses” for technicians to wear on the A330 final assembly line. The glasses enable precise positioning (Source: Airbus)

A Goldman Sachs report forecasts that creative industries using VR/AR in gaming, live events, video entertainment and retail will grow to a $95 billion market by 2025. Learning technology plays a negligible role and is not mentioned at all in this forecast.

How can the development of VR technology for education ever catch up with the rapid developments in the game industry, knowing that the Millennial generation of students is very much used to high-performance games? As I have suggested in previous blogs, I expect it will be the students who will be the change agent. They will choose what education fits best. We should therefore involve them actively in the development of the future educational landscape.

How do we know what works in education?

There is still little evidence about the benefits of VR/AR in engineering education. Little is known about the perceived value for the students or the teachers, or what the consequences for the organisation are. The workshops showed experiments where VR/AR in the classroom are applied to support the understanding of complex concepts through interdisciplinary collaborative work environments that cannot easily be re-created in the physical world. Where teachers use it to expose students to real-life learning situations beyond daily reach. Various experiments were addressed to increase memory recall, enhance performance in complicated social and engineering skills, and stimulate creativity. Obviously VR  is not a solution provider but an enabler.

Will VR/AR technology revolutionise education?

The keynote speakers as well as the workshop producers tempered the expectations. History has shown that most ICT technologies have thoroughly changed society but not yet fundamentally changed the educational landscape. Many big implementations of ICT in education have failed. Most participants therefore do not a expect a VR revolution in education in the short term.

What do students and teachers need to learn about VR/AR?

Emerging technologies are expected to better prepare students for the Industry 4.0 labour market since the skills to handle these technologies are in high demand.

It is a very different question how teachers could use VR in their education to support learning, for instance in the training of professional collaborative and interpersonal skills?

What have we learnt so far?

Three paradoxes

In the keynotes and workshops I heard three interesting paradoxes: There is no doubt that VR technologies engage the students. We all know that deep learning requires student engagement. In VR engagement is achieved by immersion. But, as Dillenbourg pointed out, the immersive experiences in the virtual realities may lead to such strong engagement that students make decisions impulsively without rational thinking. He made the statement that we may even have to disengage students to achieve thoughtful learning in a VR learning environment. Evidence of engagement levels may be measured by eye tracking, intonation, gesture, position in space and brain activity. And so, Louwerse told us, in the near future personal behaviour measurement in the classroom might guide for personalised learning paths.

Most of us believe that learning is related to the media richness of the study material, Dillebourg said. “The more similar it is to face-to-face, the better it is.” We always want more and better. But does that help? Movies are not always better than pictures, video is not always better than audio, and 3D is not always better than 2D. The VR hypothesis is that “the more similar it is to reality, the better it is.” But, as Dillenbourg explained, if VR is close to reality but not close enough, a lower fidelity may do a better job. This is known as the “uncanny valley”. The level of fidelity required in a VR environment depends on what we need for learning, and this is not a trivial problem. Lower levels of fidelity require imagination by the students!

The higher the cost of a VR solution, the lower the genericity of the solution is (Roy Damgrave, University Twente).

Engagement in the “classroom” of the Mixed Reality Lab of Tilburg University (Source: Tilburg University DAF Technology Lab)


Students using VR applications have to reflect and predict, explain, justify, reformulate and compare intermittently in order to achieve learning. Immersion is not enough: they gather an abundance of information but don’t learn effectively. Learning remains mainly a cognitive effort, and engagement by immersion can only partially influence.

An Integrated Scenario using VR Simulation (Source: presentation Pierre Dillenbourg at 4TU.CEE VR Boarding Day)


The impact of the social dimension in learning, also in a VR environment such as collaboration with peers and teachers, should not be underestimated. Optimum learning is achieved by integrated scenarios of lecturing introductory knowledge in the classroom, individual work to develop hypotheses, followed by team work using VR simulations, completed by a debriefing in the classroom. Effective learning is all about dynamics, creativity, interactivity and feedback, and diversity. This approach is further explained in Dillenbourg’s book “Orchestration Graphs – Modeling scalable education”.

Experiments in Tilburg University and University of Twente have shown positive experiences in Mixed Reality Labs where students are partly immersed in a virtual environment but remain aware of the physical environment and have face-to-face contact at the same time. Students and teachers dislike the use of Head Mounted Displays and other wearable VR instrumentation because it is distracting and prevents people from acting normally.

Interaction between human and intelligent machines

Louwerse mentioned that it is the interaction between the human being and the intelligent machines that will determine progression of emerging technologies:

  • Inventions in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly come from new ways of applying AI, and not just from developing new AI algorithms.
  • People will increasingly work with technology, and not just using technology. Understanding technology will become increasingly important, and not just applying it.
  • Perspectives on technology will become increasingly important alongside developments in technology.

The above statements do not only apply to a VR/AR but to technology and engineering as a whole, and describe their impact on society and our engineering educational programmes.

Provisional experiences in Tilburg University indicate that VR/AR simulations pay off more when applied to abstract statistics and schematics than when simulating system designs, constructions or physical phenomena.

Communication and collaboration

In the workshop about the Virtual Reality Lab and Smart Industry Lab at University of Twente, Roy Damgrave demonstrated how they integrated VR in their curricula as a trigger for discussion in distributed teams, as an expression for creativity (daring to try new things), and as a try-out of the future. He mentioned a number of challenges of VR in education: The teacher has to lower the threshold for the students and communicate that they don’t need that much ICT skills to use VR. It is not the development of VR, but the use of VR that is assessed. Students have to see the benefits and potential of VR before they decide to use it.


VR/AR technologies will impact education profoundly but slowly. They engage and motivate young people, but the benefit is only an advantage for learning if the activity is well aligned with what is to be learned. We have to discover what works in engineering education by experimentation.

VR is no magical box. It’s a means to an end but not an end in itself. It’s a tool and not a solution. The magic of VR will not come from computer scientists and software developers but from the users.

Tilburg University builds the Mind Labs where minds, media and technology will meet. Soon we will have intelligent avatars who will respond to questions and behaviour of students. October 16, 2017 the 7 million euro VIBE project (Virtual Humans in Brabant Economy) got approval. The project will develop avatars for training purposes. The avatars will learn natural conversations, human characteristics, with spoken input and output, and may serve as virtual intelligent assistants who enable more personalised learning.

Recommended further reading:

Emerging technologies in Engineering Education: Can we make it work? by Pieter de Vries, Renate Klaassen, Aldert Kamp, Proceedings of the 13th International CDIO Conference, University of Calgary, June 18-22, 2017, Calgary, Canada.

Tipping your toe in the “Emerging Technologies” pond from an educational point of view; by R. Klaassen, P. de Vries, M.G. Ioannides, S. Papazis, Proceedings of the 45th SEFI Conference, 18-21 September 2017, Azores, Portugal.

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How to transform disposable fulltime lecturers into innovative power?

Research universities have put the primary focus on the quality of research already for decades. Scientific staff is encouraged to research and publish. Appraisal cycles and career advancement rest on research achievements, with teaching achievement playing only a marginal role, as Ruth Graham shows in her study “Does teaching advance your academic career?“. It’s no surprise many scientific staff have difficulty in finding a balance between their research and the demanding activities of teaching, upgrading of courses and didactic upskilling.

When universities decide to give so much more value to research than education, why then don’t they use more full-time lecturers, for instance for the production of courses in the first years of study that have to be delivered to large numbers of students and require intensive teaching and tutoring, or for the innovation of education as well? They could make intensive classes sustainable, take education to a higher level and bring a great relief to the researchers.

It is short-sighted that many universities have a steadfast belief in the mutually beneficial relationship between teaching and research activities of their academics and keep on recruiting scientific staff for combined research and teaching functions only. Also TU Delft’s new Vision on Education document states “We believe that in a flourishing academic community, research and education go hand in hand”. It cannot be more than a belief indeed, because I have seen many quantitative studies from all over the world that show zero, or negative correlation between student learning and the research – teaching nexus.

My Faculty has 5% or so teaching-only staff. A recent survey under academic staff in this Faculty shows that this small group of teaching-only staff has low job satisfaction. An article in the Dutch magazine THEMA for higher education management with the catchy title “From disposable lecturer to innovative power” caught my eye.

Low job satisfaction

A survey under employees in 2015 showed that the group of teaching-only staff has the lowest job satisfaction, in spite of the fact that these people are highly motivated,  passionate about teaching and working hard. Discussions I had with colleagues in this group after the survey results had been published, taught me that they have the perception they don’t get the credits, are not respected for their work, often feel as third-rate employee, do not feel part of the community (TU Delft statistics for instance do not include fulltime lecturers as scientific staff), get temporary contracts only, have little chances for promotion and professionalisation, and lack any career path. Some of them characterised their position as a “commodity”. And it’s all true.  The November 2017 issue of the HR Plan of my faculty shows talent development schemes for our assistant- and associate professors, career paths for tenure trackers (aspirant assistant professors), but not a single word about development or promotion schemes for full-time lecturers.

This is not a one-off situation. The article in the Dutch magazine for higher education THEMA  (2017 vol.2, p. 62-66), written by staff from VU University Amsterdam, addresses the same issue and uses the provocative term “disposal lecturers”. And a recent (11 August 2017) blog by ScienceGuide (in Dutch) expresses the concern about the absence of career routes for professionals in higher education in the Netherlands.

Adding value by excellent fulltime teachers

My Faculty recruits teaching-only personnel on a temporary basis, for three or four years at most, and only when all other options are exhausted. It can lead to situations where an excellent fulltime lecturer, who played a successful role over three or four years in a high-risk course in the first year of studies, is discontinued and replaced by a young assistant professor, who has hardly any experience in teaching large classes or has not yet completed the basic training in University Teaching Qualification. Whose first priority is achieving excellent research results, writing papers and generating funds to assure contract renewal, because he or she is still in the process of obtaining tenure. Are we then taking education, or more specifically study success, serious enough?

If we are serious about study success and aim for continuous education innovation, there must be ample opportunities for teaching-only staff, who are highly skilled in pedagogy and didactics and able to inspire and coach students and support the scientific staff in lecturing, and who can take the lead in educational innovation projects.

“Study success, student inspiration and motivation in the first year of studies is why excellent teaching matters!”

But, the Delft survey as well as the VU University Amsterdam article demonstrate that increasing the capacity with full-time lecturers alone is not enough. Professionalisation and career routes for these professionals must be in place as well to make it a success.

Professionalisation of teaching staff

VU Amsterdam developed a suite of professionalisation activities for teaching-only staff, structured in three course pathways:

  1. academic practice
  2. pedagogy and didactics
  3. personal and professional development.

Most learning takes place on the job, in practical situations of challenging projects that require the trainees to step outside their comfort zone, and always work in close collaboration with the scientific staff. With workshops, masterclasses, peer-learning (between fulltime lecturers mutually, and with senior professors in the departments), and a personal coach who knows what fulltime teachers are aiming for and understands what problems they may encounter during training and practicing.

I don’t know the details of the Amsterdam professionalisation suite. I hope that also educational research is part of it: only data-driven innovations can teach us how to improve in education. For technical universities I would also be in favour to add “engineering practice” to the pathway  of “academic practice”, and transform “pedagogy and didactics” into “pedagogy and didactics in an engineering context”. Teaching engineering and technology is not necessarily the same as teaching social sciences or humanities.

The professionalisation route gives these lecturers the perspective to obtain tenure in a role of fulltime lecturer or education innovator. In case they leave the university, they are well prepared for a career in lecturing at universities of applied sciences or in schools for secondary education, as a trainer for continuous professional education in companies, or as an educational policy maker.

Integrating these figureheads

I see these professionals as the future figureheads for our education who lead by example!

It could be interesting to place 20 or so, high potentials of these teaching-only staff in a university-wide pool and put them on secondment to different faculties and departments during their career. Thus they develop in all-round educational professionals while teaching and supporting the scientific staff in the development of new or reconstruction of existing courses or programmes in various engineering domains. In the secondment positions they learn how teaching and tutoring practices differ over a university, familiarise with the different engineering languages, and acquire the latest advancements in engineering and technology. By crossing the boundaries of the disciplinary faculties and departments they help pave the way to more multi- and interdisciplinary learning, which is gaining prominence in many engineering universities.

“An important success factor will be that the educational professionals speak and understand the language of the engineer”.

Such pool of “Principal Educators” (in the academic medical centres in Amsterdam and Groningen this function already has existed since three or four years as the equivalent for Principal Investigator in research), not only provides a buffer of highly qualified teaching capacity, but mainly give an innovative impulse to education. The pool may also create a sense of belonging for all teaching-only staff. At TU Delft the new Teaching Lab would be their obvious physical home. 

Impression of the Teaching Lab of TU Delft (source: Willem van Valkenburg, TU Delft)

Undoubtedly the scientific staff of disciplinary experts and researchers will have to get used to the role and added value of teaching-only staff, the Principal Educators in particular. Although many scientists find it hard to juggle their research with the pressures of teaching, they still feel overly optimistic about their available time and skills, and express their superiority for research in the same sentence as for education.

The VU Amsterdam established a group of young fulltime lecturers in their Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences. They are positive about the first experiences. The fulltime teachers are respected by the scientific staff and play important roles in improving and innovating education, with activities such as curriculum analysis, development of skills and study guidance, e-learning materials, masterclasses for pre-university college, and developing transparency of career perspectives.


Many universities put very high pressure on their scientific staff to excel in research, generate funds, teach, and more. For sure, educational innovation is not a priority. In the first years of engineering studies, excellent teaching matters much more than the nexus between research and teaching.

A pool of highly-qualified fulltime lecturers with tenure, Principal Educators, who are all-rounders and prepared for different career routes in higher education, could be a welcome and highly-skilled resource for supporting educational activities of scientific staff, and leading data-driven innovations in engineering education.

If we are serious about weighing teaching excellence and leadership in education on par with research excellence and leadership in research, let’s move on from just discussing it, and change the system many of us dislike but we have made ourselves.

“Dare to be yourself”
(quote Andre Gide, Nobel Prize winner in Literature 1947)

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If you can’t change your curriculum fast enough with innovation and entrepreneurial skills, try a complementary programme

After the CDIO Annual Conference in June, an icewalk on the Athabasca glacier, a visit to Lake Louise with its vivid turquoise waters, followed by a hike to Lake Agnes in the Banff National Park, and spectacular views of the impressive 140 m deep Helmcken Falls and the 20 m deep but broad Dawson Falls that crashes down a rough bed of lava rocks in the amazingly quiet Wells Gray Provincial Park, I arrived at the Okanagan’s brand new campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Kelowna.

Not just to say hello. I was invited to join an in-depth think session with the UBC development team of an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum that will complement monodisciplinary study programmes at our universities and so better prepare the students for a career in innovation activities. I am excited and enthusiastic about this curriculum because it is all about innovation, entrepreneurial and collaborative skills. All Master graduates of any engineering studies will need the mastery of these skills for a successful career in tomorrows’ world.

Integration or addition?

The training of innovation, entrepreneurial and collaborative skills is underexposed in many of today’s Master programmes. That is why TU Delft has put them higher on their educational agenda, the Dutch 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education has prioritised the research, training and assessment of these skills in their activity plan, and I was invited to share my thoughts with the team.

UBC Okanagan’s brand new campus.

The deficiency in Master education is actually much broader than just the missing entrepreneurial and innovative behaviour. I know so many engineering programmes that are struggling with the training of the academic and professional competencies: asking the right questions, collaborating in an intercultural context, communicating solutions, thinking visually, thinking out loudly, autonomy, systems engineering, project management, qualitative modeling of problems, and many more.

Most of us know the most effective way is to integrate the education of these skills within the existing disciplinary courses. But we also know by experience, how difficult this is to achieve in the disciplinary context and organisation of our research universities. That is why UBC has taken the initiative for a complementary programme for professional and career development to fourth-year undergraduates and first-year Master students of disciplinary studies.


The programme has got the name Interprise. It stands for Innovation, Interrelation, Intercultural, Interdisciplinary, Entrepreneurial, Enterprise. Its goal is to complement disciplinary study programmes with employable skills by an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to being entrepreneurial and innovative in practice. It includes:

  1. Group dynamics and leadership
  2. Communicating with different audiences
  3. Appreciating social and economic context
  4. Using quantitative data intelligently
  5. Managing projects
  6. Behaving entrepreneurially

The UBC development team has many disciplines onboard: arts and sciences, engineering, management, philosophy, education, and creative and critical studies. At the meeting I noticed a very open and positive team spirit, which is the basis for successful team teaching. All members are eager to learn about the different ways of thinking, the different perceptions, and the interrelation between arts, sciences, technology and management.

The outcome of the think session

Below I describe the raw outcomes of the think session, with interesting insights in the discussions and trades that we made. There is still a lot of fine tuning, planning and development to be done before the kick-off in May 2018.

Learning objectives and volume

The most important aspect was the volume of the Interprise programme. Starting from the set of high-level learning objectives that had more or less already been agreed upon, the team proposed a 20-25 ECTS programme (ECTS is the standard of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System that expresses the volume of learning based on the defined learning outcomes and their associated workload). The study programme will run over a period of four months from kick-off till completion, although not fulltime all the time.

It is composed of a 4-5 ECTS Preparatory Module, a 12-15 ECTS on-campus phase with an intensive and challenging Interprise Foundations Super Course and the Integrated Capstone project, and a 4-5 ECTS Wrap-up and Reflection Module with reflections on team and personal behaviour and performance. The subject of the Integrated Capstone project resonates with the disciplinary backgrounds of the students. The project culminates in a report and plenary presentation event on-campus.

Residence time on-campus

One of the most important discussion points was also the residence time on-campus. To make a teaming up of Canadian and non-Canadian students possible, the schedule has to be aligned with the Canadian and Western Europe academic calendars (which are not uniform either). The development team considers five to six weeks on-campus with face-to-face education as the bare minimum to develop a cohort, given that the student population is very diverse with respect to level (Canadian undergraduates and oversees’ Masters), disciplines and nationalities.

Possible concept for the Interprise curricular structure.

Blended delivery

These two ingredients lead to a blended delivery of the programme: both the Preparatory Module and the Wrap-up and Reflection Module are partly individual/online, partly team-based/online through collaborative eLearning. E-moderators stimulate human interaction and guide the students in their online learning activities.

Project-centric curriculum with spiral teaching

The programme is “project centric”. The student teams feed their knowledge about their own discipline and the foundational content taught in Interprise, into the capstone project that runs simultaneously with the on-campus teaching of the Interprise super course. The subject of the capstone project resonates with the subjects of the disciplines, and is about the sorts of challenges that are faced by internationally connected enterprises and involves both multiple academic disciplines and industry.

The lecturers apply “spiral teaching”, which means that students will see the same subjects through a different lens, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing previous learning.

Social psychology as the binding element

The disciplinary base of the super course is the foundation, with the subjects communication, ethics, data management, project management, entrepreneurship and innovation. Social psychology of intergroup relations will be taught as an integrating course and will be the guiding principle. It has its emphasis on communication across disciplines. Students will learn to ask the right questions with concepts and knowledge from different fields, disciplines and experiences, and to think from alternate perspectives and learn to apply professional standards to conduct and action.


Obviously, the Interprise programme demands the participating students to be ambitious, highly motivated and persevering. They have to start working part-time through individual and collaborative eLearning in June and complete the programme in September. Which means  it covers periods where students probably also have other obligations at the home university in parallel. Obviously agile students in study programmes that accommodate a substantial volume of 20 to 30 ECTS freedom of choice are best positioned.

Subject matter

For those of you who want to get a better flavour of the content of the Interprise super course as it is in the minds of the development team (it’s a flavour and for sure not definite or complete):

  • Hands-on experience about interaction with different audiences, the awareness, use and interpretation of body language, how to pitch ideas and projects, and how to collaborate in a creative workplace.
  • Exploration of the social and economic context through a focus on policy issues related to human and economic development.
  • Basic research methodology and statistical analysis to help students be intelligent consumers of data.
  • Project management, including initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing projects. Managing the scope, costs, schedule, risks, and human resources in projects.
  • Entrepreneurial behaviour in small enterprises and organisations, including appreciation of the challenges associated with creating a new venture.
  • Theoretical and methodological issues within the domain of intergroup relations.



We live in a world where the current breed of students increasingly demonstrates a Do-It-Yourself ethic. They look for study programmes that offer substantial flexibility and freedom. They want to establish a coherent Master programme by themselves, that combines deep working knowledge of engineering fundamentals with education that aligns with personal needs, ambition and interest. In combination with the rise of E-learning it leads to a demand of unbundling curricula into separate modules, online courses, micro-credentialing of MOOCS at Master level and so on. We will soon see a market with personal coaches and brokers of accredited courses.

Interprise has the potential to become a winning concept in this world. Most, if not all students of Master engineering programmes have to prepare for innovation activities that are aimed at the development of new and complex products, processes, systems and technologies, in a social context that is highly interdisciplinary, hyperconnected and global.

From spoon-feeding to teaching what is needed

When you are a follower of my blogs you may remember what Richard Brandson said about entrepreneurial and innovation skills’ training at universities in my blog “Why entrepreneurial behaviour is a must for all young engineers“. In that blog you also read the following quote:

“Entrepreneurial behaviour no longer in the margin of a Master curriculum or as an extra-curricular course for the happy few, but as an integrated competence development pathway for all”.

Many Master’s in engineering do not come up to the mark in this respect. In the past 30 to 40 years we have been teaching what we think is best to teach.  In the next decade education will be more demand-driven, i.e. what students need for successful employment. It would be better if the traditional slowly moving universities anticipate to this change and choose either to integrate the development of these academic and professional skills in their Master curricula, or create sufficient space to accommodate complementary accredited programmes or courses that students take off the shelves from other universities, institutes or organisations.

In April 2017 the European Council of Engineering Deans forecast that it’s not university higher management but students who will become the change agents for higher engineering education. Increasingly they will refuse spoon-feeding by rigidly structured curricula but choose what really matters.

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Do professional role models or profiles enable students to jump head-first into the world of work, get the job they really want, and achieve results?

Why do so many students begin an academic study in engineering? Often it is the promising good employability! Is n’t it surprising then that many students in academic engineering studies start thinking about their future career at a late stage in their studies, sometimes make thoughtless decisions on their first job, or even delay the final thesis assessment on purpose, because they feel insufficiently prepared for life after graduation. The perception that students have of engineering, the possibilities they have and the skills they need are often based on their own intuition. That is the outcome of the recent study “Mind the Gap” by TechYourFuture, a collaboration between two Dutch universities and industries.

Embedding employability: are we getting it right?

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Toekomst van hoger technisch onderwijs in de maritieme sector

Stilstaan gevaarlijker dan meebewegen met onzekere verandering

Vinden afgestudeerden met een academische opleiding in de maritieme techniek over tien tot vijftien jaar nog steeds gemakkelijk een baan? Of zijn de kennis en vaardigheden die worden aangeleerd in hedendaagse curricula tegen die tijd achterhaald? Ik heb mij als directeur onderwijs (luchtvaart- en ruimtevaarttechniek) de afgelopen 2,5 jaar verdiept in de snel veranderende wereld en een visie ontwikkeld op wat de ingenieur van morgen zou moeten kennen en vooral zou moeten kunnen, en welke impact dat kan hebben op het bachelor- en masteronderwijs.

Het is moeilijk voor te stellen hoe de werkwereld van de ingenieur er over twintig tot dertig jaar zal uitzien. ‘Voorspellen is moeilijk, vooral als het om de toekomst gaat’, zei Niels Bohr al eens. De manier waarop we werken, handelen, kopen, communiceren, reizen en zaken doen verandert razendsnel onder invloed van globalisering en technologische vernieuwingen, het platter en sneller worden van organisaties en netwerken, en de verschuivingen in de sociaaleconomische wereld. We zijn een tijdperk binnengetreden dat internationaal wordt aangeduid als VUCA, wat staat voor Volatile, Complex, Uncertain, Ambiguous. Die vier aspecten zullen de komende decennia verder intensiveren.

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My “A” in STEAM is all about street theatre

Reading my blogs and reports, you have maybe got the impression that the development in engineering education is the most important think in my universe. I cannot deny this subject has kept me quite busy since 2014 when I started my orientation and vision development about engineering education in 2030. It has been the focus of my work and has taken quite some leisure time as well.

I reassure you there is more in my life than this future of engineering education with its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) alone. In my leisure time I use arts to spark my imagination and creativity. Continue reading

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A workshop about worldwide innovations in engineering education. Be inspired or confused.

What if 86% of the employers in your country would say they have difficulty in recruiting people with the right skills? You think it is unrealistic? It is not. A recent study (2016-2017) about talent shortage  by ManpowerGroup shows that 86 % of the employers in Japan are screaming for young people with more talents and better competencies. It’s a value that applies to the complete job market, from nurses and brick-layers, engineers and lawyers. Maybe you say “That’s Japan. It’s much better in my country.” You are probably right. But still, the ManpowerGroup study shows that the global average of talent shortage is 40%. Hong Kong scores 69%, Singapore 51%, the US 46 %, Australia 38%, most West European countries between 20 and 30% range, the Netherlands 17%, and China is in an outlier position at a remarkable 10%. Blue-collar workers are the hardest to find, directly followed by IT Developers and Programmers (second position), sales representatives (third) and Mechanical, Electrical and Civil Engineers (fourth). The difficulty is caused, ManpowerGroup says, because young people have insufficient levels of technical and workplace competencies. Continue reading

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Different ways to include Global Engineering Preparedness and Entrepreneurial Mindset Learning in engineering programmes

In my role of the TU Delft academic liaison for the Global E3 university network I attended the Global E3 Annual Meeting in Bethlehem (US) 22-26 May. This city is home to Bethlehem Steel, famous for its historic huge steel ovens and factories that were closed in 1995 and are now a cultural heritage and arts and music venue.

The impressive Bethlehem Steel plant, now a cultural heritage and arts and music venue

The Global E3 consortium is a network of 72 universities, 33 US and 39 non-US. Its mission is to stimulate the exchange of students between US and non-US countries in particular. Not seldom the relations within the network form the basis for bilateral agreements for exchange between universities.

At the annual meeting the universities discuss operational and strategic issues related to influencing engineering students and programmes to accommodate student exchange. Each year parts of the meeting are spent to somewhat boring but important administrative issues like grade conversion, equivalence of courses, conflicts of curricular schedules and safety on campus. This year the theme of the conference was “Innovation in Engineering”. The Lehigh University, host of the event, and other universities in the network shared their ideas, experiments and successful implementations of shifts in pedagogy, technologies for global engagement, integrative projects and interdisciplinary multi-cultural programmes.

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If you can invent a second wheel, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, do you?

“The guy who invented the first wheel must have been an idiot. The guy who invented the other three was a genius”.

Two wheelsReinventing wheels

This quote by Sid Caesar illustrates that (scientific) discoveries in technology need further development to raise their Technical Readiness Level (TRL) before it is ready for the industrial or consumer market. The quote underlines that it is often more effective and efficient to build upon available knowledge and combine available prototypes that have demonstrated their performance, i.e. inventing the other three wheels, than inventing new concepts from scratch, i.e. reinventing the wheel.

I know from personal experience in engineering education, we are keen in reinventing wheels. Often have we already the solution in mind before we have a full understanding of the problem. Which for instance leads to technocratic solutions for problems in study or teaching cultures that are not solvable by such solutions alone. I do not pretend I can change this “tradition” of working with this single blog post.

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What trends and developments do 70 engineering deans in Europe care about most?

Deans of engineering programmes face a wide range of rapid developments. Interdisciplinary engineering research and education are gaining momentum. Yet, teachers and researchers are struggling with the boundaries that are created by departments and faculties, and current metrics for performance do not appraise interdisciplinary work. Universities are being confronted with large increases in number and diversity of their students, both in terms of culture and motivation. Yet, resources do not increase accordingly, and selection is not always accepted. There is the question to unbundle complete curricula to create dedicated knowledge packages instead for on-demand training. Emerging technologies are picked up for the support, production and assessment of courses. The societal digital transformation with the rise of MOOCs and other online education put the future of campus education in a new perspective.

Seventy deans of engineering faculties across Europe discussed these themes. It was one of the rare occasions where I sensed a shared urgency to change and a concern about a lack of willingness to change.

“Universities are at risk; we are insufficiently engaged with the external world and focus too much internally;

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Why entrepreneurial behaviour is a must for all young engineers

At some point in their careers, most, if not all engineers, will move to positions of technical or engineering leadership. That ranges from becoming a leader of a project team to a  leader of an entire technical enterprise. Or simply taking responsibility of the own career. Take the example of tenure trackers at university, who not only have to do excellent research but all of a sudden have to take on a role as an entrepreneur to secure their own employment by the acquisition of new projects by writing proposals. Should not we pay more attention to entrepreneurial education in our engineering programmes?

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What makes social scientists think engineering students should not learn how to design?

“Can engineers design? Social science easily proves they cannot”. This is the first line of Bauke Steenhuisen’s essay in the independent university magazine Delta of TU Delft March 2017. In his essay he questions design and design education. Bauke is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Technology, Policy & Management and wrote the essay at the invitation of the TU Network Design Education.

Let me begin to say that I have been a design engineer all my life, so the first line of his essay sounds quite provocative to me. Continue reading

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Evidence-based innovation in engineering education? This is why and how.

What do we learn from trial and error?

Curriculum innovation cycleInnovating curricula is about designing effective learning and teaching environments in continual cycles of educational practice and research. That’s what I have always learned in theory. But I have been curious why the professors and lecturers take very different approaches when they do research in their field of engineering or in their education. The structured process they follow when they aim to advance engineering knowledge and understanding through defining research questions, identifying hypotheses, collecting information and data for the purpose of making decisions, and testing those hypotheses, seems gone when they investigate how to enhance their teaching. The structured methodology is then often replaced by an unstructured trial-and-error process by producing prototype courses and improving them on the run. While we all know it is important to think systematically about teaching, learning and student success.

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Teaching interdisciplinarity in field-specific disciplinary programmes involves more than just 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:

  • How can we enable students to make meaningful connections between natural and engineering sciences and humanities and social sciences?
  • How can we support graduates who want to create bridges between business, science, technology and society?
  • How can we create an environment where these worlds can meet, and what are the obstacles that often stand in our way?

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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.

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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. 

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