Release of book “Navigating the Landscape of Higher Engineering Education”

June 18th 2020 was a date, engraved in my mind since more than half a year. It was supposed to be the day of my farewell party of TU Delft, and I had planned to use that party to launch my new book “Navigating the Landscape of Higher Engineering Education – Coping with decades of accelerating change ahead”. Corona decided differently. It postponed my farewell party, but did not stop me completing and printing the book.

Hand-over of the first hardcopy to Renate Klaassen, my loyal ally in 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education (private photo)

When all of a sudden colleagues surprised me with an invitation for an intimate farewell party on behalf of the Delft section of 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education, without compromising the 1.5 m social distance, I decided to take this opportunity to release the book, on June 18th, and here it is.

Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World

In 2016 I had published my book “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World”. It portrayed the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, its impact on engineering education, and a personal vision on the changes that are needed for future-fit higher engineering education and an argumentation that each academic engineering programmes should be based upon three I-C-E cornerstones in order to be aligned with future demands and meet future expectations by society and the world of work: Innovation, Community and Employability.

About 1500 hardcopies and a multiple of that number of downloads found their way to programme coordinators, educational leaders, teaching staff, students all over the globe. The report stirred considerable debate across and beyond TU Delft and is being used by many universities worldwide, as an inspiration for educational leaders and teaching staff to rethink their courses and programmes. I had not expected the report would make me a thought leader in engineering education.

Widening gap

For me that book could not be the end, with the reaching of my legal retirement age in mind, and a head full of ideas and thoughts. My personal motivation to write a new book has therefore been to clear my head, and make my vision, experiences, thoughts and ideas available to others for use and inspiration.

As a Director of Education I have, more than my colleagues, felt responsible to be like an antenna, looking out for signals of change that might impact our educational programmes. In discussions with higher management, and in my day to day advisory work in and outside of university, I have noticed a scary widening gap between the visionaries and thought leaders on the one side, and the majority of academic staff including higher management on the other side. There is so much skepticism to upgrade programmes that have survived unaltered for decades. There is so much complacency with the status quo.

Release of Navigating the Landscape of Higher Engineering Education – Coping with decades of accelerating change ahead

Navigating the landscape of higher engineering education

The new book aims to complement the vision in Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World with new insights and offers a forward-thinking perspective on higher engineering education. It discusses the greater responsibility students have for their own education and learning process, the importance of professional skills, and the integration of the digital transformation and responsible engineering in curricula. It looks at the essence of impactful education, the need to upskill staff, and the impact of the vastly altered population of learners, mainly Generation-Z students.

Release of Navigating the Landscape of Higher Engineeering Education (private photo)

Bridging a gap

To bridge the gap between me as a thought leader and the academic teaching staff on the shop floor, I have made descriptions of frameworks, concrete examples and guiding principles for relevant subjects, such as the changing roles and skill sets in the engineering profession, the shift in focus from teaching to learning, learning as inquiry, diversity in the classroom, diversity in the educational portfolio, the learning, unlearning and relearning of staff competencies, the strengthening of university-industry collaboration, and about empowering leadership.

It discusses the greater responsibility students get for their own education and learning process, the need to integrate the digital transformation and responsible engineering in curricula. It looks at the essence of impactful education, the key aspects of challenge-based education and agile programmes, and the impact of the vastly altered population of learners, mainly Generation-Z students. Last but not least, for those who are really interested in long-term thinking with no box, the chapter about reframing engineering education will be of special interest.

A compass and 24 recommendations

I have written the concluding chapter as a compass for educational leaders. It has four compass points: Skillsets and mindsets for 21st century engineers; Pedagogical and technological innovations in education; Continuous/life time education: continuous upskilling and relearning; and Educational strategy and leadership. In these compass points I give 24 recommendations for the development of educational vision and strategy and their implementation in organisations and curricula.

Enjoy reading

The preface by Robert F. Mudde, Vice President of Education at TU Delft reads “The timing of the book, now that the world is in turmoil due to corona virus couldn’t be better. Changing times, that’s what we are facing. And we have to find answers to cope with this. In this book you will find food for thought and inspiration from one of the current thought leaders in engineering education.”

The book is available free of charge. Please find its link, and links to other documents and presentations about future engineering education that may be of interest, at my private website.


Due to my retirement I will stop writing blogs on this TU Delft weblog page now.

If you don’t want to miss any updates about my work on future-fit engineering education, please subscribe to my blog at the website of my private business Aldert Kamp Advies.


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The third stage of life of SCIAMACHY 2&8 Breadboard model

The SCIAMACHY Breadboard Model on its way from Delft to the National Space Museum (private photo)

Hundreds of people who entered my office for the first time over the past 10 to 12 years, wondered what the big black and red 1 by 1 m massive looking “engine block” was, protected under a Plexiglas cover. Proudly I explained them it was an important heritage of my former life in space industries”. It was the Breadboard model of the Optical Bench of the SCIAMACHY instrument, a highly advanced atmospheric sensor that had flown on ENVISAT and that was developed by a joint team of space industries and institutes from the Netherlands in the nineties. I had been a leading member in that team.

Last Friday February 5th I donated the full-scale authentic model to the National Space Museum in Lelystad, the Netherlands.

Read the full story in a post on my new personal website

Mid summer 2020 I will retire from my job as Director of Education at Delft University of Technology. I will proceed as a parttime freelance Young Active Pensioner (Flemish people abbreviate it as “Jagger”).

Please read my future plans and future blogs at Since TU Delft will probably remove my blogposts within a year after my retirement, I have transferred them to my personal website, and will publish new posts on my new website from now on. I hope to meet you there.

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Entering into the “Transition Twenties”

For my blog followers 2019 must have been disappointing, with only three blogs in the past 12 months. I put my available time instead in writing a paper for the CESAER university network Engineering Education for 21st Century Europe, and giving presentations and workshops in Scandinavia, North-America and Singapore, to inspire people and prepare engineering education for the “Transition Twenties” (Volkskrant 27 December 2019): In the next decade education will be about creative thought and leading technology.

From the Roaring Twenties to the Transition Twenties

An early 2001 OECD report about 21st century transitions suggests that the daily life by the third decade of this century will seem radically different when compared to the last decade of the 20th century. The socio-economic developments of the 21st century will put educational institutions into a very different context from their origin in the industrial era, with institutions undergoing significant changes in adapting to the contexts and needs of learning societies.

Although many of us still think 2st century sounds futuristic, yesterday already 20% of that century was gone. The third decade has started. In the Roaring Twenties of the 20th century human knowledge doubled every 50 years or so. The industrial machines ate electricity. In todays’ Transition Twenties of the 21st century, with the rise of the Internet of Things, machines will eat data, human knowledge is doubling every 12 hours… In the next decade our western society will increasingly change into a Smart Society by technological breakthroughs. They will bring us cashless payment, smart body implants, internet-connected smart textiles, self-driving cars, virtual holidays, personalised medicine, domestic robots and intelligent virtual assistants, functional food, in a post-truth and post-privacy world. These will be interesting times for our universities indeed.

Navigating the landscape of higher engineering education

In the past couple of months I used the CESAER discussion paper as the stepping stone for a more comprehensive 80-page report Navigating the Landscape of Higher Engineering Education – Coping with decades of accelerating change ahead, to be published as a free online open-access report in spring 2020.

In this new report I aim to complement the vision in my 2016 report “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” with new insights and offer a forward-thinking perspective on higher engineering education. It addresses my view on the changing roles in the engineering profession, the shifts in mindset and various kinds of literacy in engineering curricula. It discusses the greater responsibility students have for their own education and learning process, the importance of professional skills, and the integration of digital transformations and responsible engineering in curricula. Last but not least, it looks at the essence of impactful education, the need to upskill staff, and the impact of the vastly altered population of learners, mainly Generation-Z students.

My aim is to help bridge the gap between visionaries, thought leaders and those on the shop floor by describing frameworks, and by providing concrete examples and guidelines for a number of relevant subjects, such as challenge-based education, makerspaces and agile programmes. If you are interested in long-term change,  a chapter about reframing engineering education 2050 may be of interest. I conclude with 24 recommendations in four compass points for educational leaders, for the development of educational vision and strategy and their implementation in organisations and curricula.

4TU.Centre for Engineering Education new initiatives

In the second half of 2019 the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education started interesting new initiatives. Below you read some of the new initiatives at TU Delft. Or read the 4TU.CEE Strategic Plan 2019-2021 here.

Engineering Roles

In a comprehensive study we have tried to discover what the engineering profession will look like in 20 to 30 years by working out what engineering roles might be expected and desired by society. We built a picture of future context by gathering as much information as possible about a specific future, and then “working backwards” to the present-day, identifying policies that would get us to that desired future. The result of the study is a ground-breaking concept in which the drivers for curricula are no longer the engineering disciplines, but the engineering behaviours that are expected by future society. It has resulted in a comprehensive report and a flyer. A research project is planned to investigate the implementation of the roles in master education.

Joint Interdisciplinary Project

From September till mid November we delivered the second pilot of the Joint interdisciplinary Project with 50 students from all faculties, in nine different challenges. The range of the subjects was wide, from Game changers in Green Air Transport (Airbus), the enhancement of geothermal energy in the Netherlands (Well Engineering Partners), Nature inspired urban development (Arcadis), the development of a new generation industrial fresh food chain in subtropical urban regions (FresTeq China), and more. This year we will evaluate, improve, scale up the project to 200 students, professionalise the organisation, and implement this challenge-based education as a sustainable curricular element for master students.

Responsible engineering

One of the current challenges in engineering education is the integration of ethics education in engineering programmes, as part of training for engineers and designers. We have started a research project that addresses this important challenge. It will develop an overview of needs of engineering design programs and best practices and approaches on how to meaningfully integrate ethics education in such programs. This will provide for important insights for the 4TU universities.

Collaborative Design Lab

At the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering the 4TU.CEE supports the implementation, organisation and development of a Collaborative Design Lab. It is a state-of-the-art facility equipped for joint distributed teams who work with a network of computers, multimedia devices and software tools. It allows a team of students, academic staff and industrial experts from several disciplines, distributed all over the world, to design complex systems and advanced machines by applying the concurrent engineering method.

A research project will address the impact of the lay-out and use of such physical space and its collaborative elements on deeper learning gains, and what educational space are most efficient in different phases of the problem solving process?

Quantum education

A ‘Quantum Education’ project aims at teaching the basics of quantum computing and skills in quantum programming to students of the engineering disciplines. Quantum computing is an emerging technology that has the potential to change the way we will be solving computational problems in the future (exponentially) faster. Getting started with practical quantum computing is difficult, since it is based on a completely different mindset (reversible in-memory computing). The available hard- and software tools are very much premature. Writing a quantum computer program today comes close to coding numerical algorithms with the aid of punched cards in the 1950’s.

Education of the forward compatible engineer who is aware of the potential and able to apply quantum computing has to start today. This requires knowledge of quantum computing principles and practical experience with creating domain-specific quantum computing solution. In a  combined research and development project we aim to enable end-users to explore the world of quantum computing on the basis of pre-implemented quantum algorithms and building blocks that can be easily combined like Lego bricks to create new algorithms.

Moving forward in rewarding teaching excellence

Earlier this year the 4TU.CEE facilitated a Teaching Cultures Survey among 4TU lecturers to gather their views about the status of support for university teaching at their university. The Teaching Cultures Survey was developed by a global partnership to explore and track the culture and status of teaching in universities. It stems from the Teaching Excellence Framework by Ruth Graham, an open-access career framework to help universities evaluate and reward the teaching achievements of their academic staff. The Teaching Career Framework is now being applied in the Netherlands on national level (VSNU). The survey will be repeated in 2021 & 2023.

33% of the lecturers responded. 2678 members of the 4TU academic community took part in the survey, ranging in seniority from PhD students to senior university management. The results show that survey participants were positive about the existing support for university teaching but would like to see greater recognition of teaching within the academic career in appraisal and promotion. Here are five interesting findings:

  1. Professional development: the majority of staff values pedagogical training and development as a regular part of one’s job (86%). The 4TUs provide a supportive learning environment opportunity to develop and improve teaching practices (67%);
  2. Teaching is undervalued: over 50% feels that teaching is a career limiting path, and only 23% feels teaching provides a positive impact on career progression;
  3. Prioritising teaching excellence: over 50% of staff would like university teaching to be very important in promotion opportunities. The support is largest among university leadership;
  4. Commitment to rewarding teaching excellence: academic staff feels there is a low commitment towards rewarding teaching excellence; 18%.
  5. Teaching deserves more attention in the annual appraisal: only 25% stated substantial interest was shown for teaching activities during the annual appraisal. One does feel supported in developing and improving teaching practices (67%).

There is no doubt the Transition Twenties will be interesting times for universities. I am looking forward to the adventures the Twenties will bring.

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Integrated-learning-in-context as a holy grail?

After the MIT/Olin Colloquium late April, I took the chance to learn more about the highly praised teaching and learning method at Olin College. Its keywords are integrated learning in context, design thinking and intrinsic motivation. At Olin the students develop a broad view of innovation, about feasibility (engineering and science), viability (economics and business), and desirability (psychology, humanities, arts).

“A traditional approach to higher education may be actually preventing us from producing innovators!”
(Quote Olin College President Miller).

Olin College

With about 350 students, Olin College is small in size but large in impact. “Learning things that matter; learning in context; learning in teams. Envisioning what has never been and doing whatever it takes to make it happen. Do that 20 times and you will be employable forever,” says Richard Miller, President of Olin College of Engineering. In Ruth Graham’s report “Global State of Engineering Education” Olin is cited for its “multidisciplinary student-centered education that extends across and beyond traditional engineering disciplines and is anchored in issues of ethics and social responsibility.”

We were immersed in the Olin College educational environment in a one of their classrooms (private photo)

Think of Olin as a lab school and a professional learning center. It’s education is not only different, it is also intended to be an education laboratory. Enthusiast students guided us over the campus and showed us the learning spaces. We saw the students highly engaged in one of the 25-35 design-build projects they conduct ($55,000 company funding per team).

Olin begins with hands-on challenges from day one, and it culminates with a two-semester Corporate Capstone project (SCOPE) where teams engaged on impact projects with corporate partners, government research labs, NGO, and startups. “21st century Innovators require more than specialized knowledge! No amount of emphasis on narrow specialized courses will produce the innovators we need,” says Miller. Education for the innovation economy is not just about knowledge and skills, argues Miller. It’s about mindsets, collaborative, interdisciplinary, ethical, empathetic, entrepreneurial and global.

No need for a complete Engineering Body of Knowledge?

Students told us that Olin education is education in the post-Google era. What replaces narrow, specialized courses? Miller advocates for more global, complex, multidisciplinary challenges. It is important to learn the basic fundamentals of engineering sciences on a need-to-know basis rather than a full framework of maths, physics and engineering sciences. It is more important to learn how to build upon the fundamentals, how to ask the right questions and acquire van validate new knowledge from the abundance of information that is available on the internet, from YouTube to Instagram to online courses on the EdX platform.

Many Olin graduates end up in start-ups and project management careers. They are recognized for their creativity, teamwork and risk taking.

Almost all classes are project-based, not only academically interesting, always adding value to companies, organisations or communities. The feedback culture is very strong, and the small scale of the programmes make freeriding not an option. The educational programmes are very human-centred, with high  customer involvement, lots of collaboration, empathy and talking.

Integrated learning in context

During the campus tour I was immersed in Olin’s teaching and learning methods for just an hour. I  learnt that visual thinking, discussing and debating have a prominent place, and that all learning spaces easily facilitate this approach.

Creative learning spaces at Olin College (private photo)

Quantitative engineering analysis on your own alternates with reviewing a number of random assignments of other people to check if you understand the concepts involved, reflect on your own work, learn to give feedback, get inspired by the work of others, and together get the big picture by writing on the whiteboard what key concepts you feel comfortable with, and which remain confusing.

I was also confronted by their introductory approach of a design solving process of an engineering problem. Collaboratively finding out what choices have to be made when and why. Learning how to decompose big fuzzy questions into more concrete sub-questions that each admit one or more strategies for answering them. Then work in groups on the whiteboard to create a question decomposition map, and then take the time to decide together what strategies should be pursued and in what order. The most important things we learned in that hour? Asking the right questions to each other!


At Olin College:

Education = Knowledge + Skills + Mindsets

  • Collaborative Mindset
  • Interdisciplinary Mindset
  • Ethical and Empathetic Mindset
  • Entrepreneurial Mindset
  • Global Mindset
  • Growth Mindset (Dweck, Stanford)
  • Grit (Duckworth, U Penn)


After the immersion at Olin College, I continued my trip to Fort Worth. At Lockheed Martin I met the supervisors of our Delft interns and had a visit to the impressive F-35 assembly line. Brief discussions with quality assurance staff and leaders in the innovation department struck me, because within just a few minutes, each of these discussions resulted in concerns about the readiness level of young graduates of higher engineering schools and universities for their job.

“In the near future talent, more than capital,
will be the limiting factor”

The final assembly line of the F35 (photo Lockheed Martin)

The industrial experts and leaders in innovation found the knowledge and skills of most graduates not broad enough. “Many young graduates who enter our workforce after their study at a university have a good theoretical understanding of the fundamentals, but little idea how business works and what engineering practice is about”.

Even more striking was their fear about the readiness of the new generation of graduates for the digital transformation that is taking place at an enormous pace in their hi-tech company. More and more engineering work involves sensor technology, connecting things, data and analytics, digital system management, networked manufacturing, network programmability, system security, etcetera. The experts expressed serious concerns that many technical universities all over the globe run the risk to completely miss the fourth industrial revolution in their education, while this is expected to have a massive impact on the engineering profession.

Prepare for the 4th Industrial Revolution

My final destination was a keynote for the Mechanical Engineering Industrial Board of a private research university in Dallas. Also here the main topics of discussion between management and the Industrial Board were how to assure high-quality and relevant education for an age of accelerating change, in which the labour market and the engineering profession will change radically. Faculty management discussed the development of new courses on vision-based sensor technology, bio-instrumentation, 3D printing,  and machine learning.

Agile enough?

Can we changing fast enough? Is the academic staff equipped and capable to transform the education as we know it? Are we ready for “Flexication” (Flexible Education)? Are universities prepared to put more emphasis on innovation, and less on fundamental research? These were just a couple of questions that were stuck in my mind during my flight home, after an intensive week overseas of colloquia at MIT, the immersion in a different educational approach at Olin College, brief meetings with industrial leaders and experts at Lockheed Martin, and a discussion in an industrial board in Dallas.



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A colloquium to influence the global state of engineering education

Late April 2019 an illustrious cohort of 76 creative, passionate, and engaged educators, thought leaders, educational entrepreneurs, directors, administrators, students and change makers from 16 institutions from around the world gathered at MIT and Olin College. Their purpose was to get a common understanding of what needs to be done to educate engineers to be prepared for the next 20 years, and identify the main items of leverage.

The programme for the two-day meeting: Mapping the future 20 years from now – Identifying strategic themes – Co-designing safe-to-fail pilots.

The Global state of the art in engineering education

In March 2018 Ruth Graham released the report on The Global State of the Art in Engineering Education, commissioned by the MIT NEET (New Engineering Education Transformation) Program. It triggered conversation across the globe. It provides a snapshot of the cutting edge of global engineering education and a horizon scan of how the state of the art is likely to develop in the future, and includes in-depth case studies at four institutions that had been identified as being the “emerging leaders” in engineering education by 50 global thought leaders. TU Delft was one of them.

The Delft crew for the colloquium on the global state of engineering education at MIT (private photo)

One year later after its publication the MIT NEET Program and the Olin College of Engineering invited the 16 institutions that had been named as the leaders in engineering education, to send representatives for a first-of-its kind Colloquium on the Global State of the Art in Engineering Education. Together with seven higher educational management colleagues of TU Delft and two students I joined this cohort.

Mapping the future 20 years from now

In the first mapping session, the participants came forward with a wide spectrum of topics. More than I had expected were related to educating “the whole” engineering student. It means teaching should not be limited to the traditional mono-disciplinary technical proficiency. It should also be about the development of life skills, about a mindset of social responsibility and the UN Sustainability Design Goals (UN SDG), about the study climate with attention for health, well-being and performance in the engineering educational system. In brief, developing learners into “human engineers”, always grounded in engineering fundamentals to be prepared to design solutions for problems in the real world and have a solid basis for lifelong learning.

Other trending topics focus on empowering the students. To develop them “from empty vessels” into independent learners, encourage them to be conscious and teach themselves what they need to know in the face of ambiguously defined problems. Many ideas were brought forward to make the students the change agent for innovations in engineering education or even strategic faculty development. Major related issues are the emerging needs for much more individualised learning paths and the associated demands for coaching, tracking and assessment of achievements.

Shuffling and categorising the many challenges (photo MIT/Olin College)

20 years from now?

After the facilitators had reshuffled and categorized the dozens of topics that were brought forward by the participants into 12 main challenges, I had a moment where I wondered if these were indeed the main challenges that would be a key drive to prepare engineering education for the next 20 years. I had the feeling that most of them should already be addressed today. I had expected we would have to grow very different subjects in engineering education to be prepared for the next 20 years.

It shows the enormous variety in educational systems and cultures worldwide, even among the leading institutes in engineering education. Some universities are in the process to develop experiential learning and global experiences at scale, some universities are mainly concerned about enjoyment and engagement in classes, and others about the removal of barriers for minority groups to get access to engineering programmes and integrate diverse populations for equity and justice. Not all challenges are equally important for all universities.

The future as a linear extension of the present

Many of the trending topics that were mentioned already apply, or at least should apply, to today’s challenges in education, or say within five years from now. I was surprised that most participants seem to consider the future of 20 years as a linear extension of the present. Should not we expect that in today’s rapidly changing world, where the pace of change technology and bioscience is ever accelerating, in 20 years we will live and work in an environment we can hardly imagine?

The impact of the Artificial Intelligence for example on education could be massive. Its challenge will be to get users to adapt and adopt to AI as an emerging technology in didactics.  It will enable the automation of teacher’s routine tasks, optimise group formation for learning objectives, personalised learning. It will help students and graduates highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and anticipate job market demands. It will shift from the stop-and-test model to continuous learning cadenced by virtual coaches and tutors.

In the engineering profession we shall not underestimate the impact of working symbiotically with intelligent and learning machines and its impact on ethical aspects in engineering sciences and technology either. How will smart robotics, autonomous vehicles, computer vision, natural language recognition, virtual assistants impact the design, engineering and manufacturing processes? But how to prepare our students in today’s classrooms?

The lively poster market at Olin, where all pilot projects that had been created, were presented and reviewed (private photo)

Self-chosen design teams

In self-chosen teams we created pilots for 12 main challenges, that were discussed in plenary reflections and a poster session in which each team presented its narrative.

Socially responsible engineering

Pathways to socially responsible engineering, including the integration of the UN SDG in curricula, turned out to be the hottest topic that had high interest of many universities. Universities are facing a moral imperative to pursue the UN SDGs as institutions. “Currently, we believe that there is not sufficient social awareness and a lack of ownership of the consequences of their work among engineering students and hence engineers”. “Society needs people who can break down the disciplinary silos, engineers who DO care about social responsibility.”

Three teams elaborated concepts to integrate social aspects, ethics and service learning throughout higher education and careers, for instance by delivering socially oriented interdisciplinary courses, projects or community engagements and internships. In which engineering students interact with students, professionals and user groups who have a background in different engineering disciplines as well as humanities and social sciences, and external stakeholders.

An important facet of successful programmes will be the leverage of existing courses and modification of their emphasis to also include social responsibility. Some of the participating institutions put already a lot of emphasis on the role of the UN SDGs in their curricula. Aalborg University for instance is introducing so-called Megaprojects in 2019. These megaprojects address sustainable development goals by engaging large numbers of design or research projects in curricula across all faculties (engineering, medical, humanities, social sciences) that all target the accomplishment of the goals of the overarching megaproject.

Socially responsible data science

One team conceptualized an introductory course in social responsible data science and artificial intelligence (AI). The aspirational goal is students to become aware and appropriately skeptical citizens and consumers, as well as responsible producers and users of data science and AI tools. In the course students should learn to describe problems that are addressable by AI, to apply tools and methods, to discuss potential benefits, limitations and risks, and to articulate and discuss societal impacts and ethics related to data science and artificial intelligence.

Changing staff and institutional structures

Many design teams indicated faculty development and changing institutional structures and systems as critical to the success of innovation in education. “We identified two aspects of the current state: students as passive learners, and faculty as embedded and acculturated in the legacy system.” To develop socially responsible engineering students, we need socially responsible engineering staff, who are involved in teaching classes that are more technology centric. There was a broad consensus that we should not have specialist faculty who teach ethics, sustainability or social responsibility. Faculty should be applauded and rewarded when they reconstruct their courses or develop new learning experiences to include aspects of socially responsible engineering.

Student centredness

Brainstorming in another group led to a prototype for a student-only global colloquium to discuss student-driven and student-directed educational change in engineering. Student-centredness is the keyword. The goal envisioned is the empowerment of students to find agency, ownership and autonomy in the co-creation of the engineering education systems and curricula of the future. In the next decade the empowering of students becomes increasingly important, as change agents of their education, and as future job crafters. It is in the DNA of the new Generation-Z students who are entering our classes today.

Many ideas, concepts, comments on each of the proposed pilot projects (photo MIT/Olin College)

The rise of individualised education

There is therefore little doubt this will lead to a steep growth in the need for individualised education in engineering. To assure the requirements of national degree goals and accreditations are met, “individualization by choice” is preferred to unlimited free choice. Offering a limited number of pre-defined thematic variants in master curricula of partly common for all, partly compulsory for subgroups, partly elective for individuals, but always containing at least one challenge-driven cross-disciplinary project, will make the choice manageable for students, staff and administration, and enhance the sustained motivation and ownership of learning to the students.

Holistic transcript of competencies

In the slipstream of individualised learning a team conceptualised a tool to capture customized competency-based learning gains from intra- as well as extracurricular activities, and link them to a holistic transcript. This mechanism of assessment should empower the students by enabling the agency, curiosity and flexibility of the individualised learning experience. Outstanding questions include the responsibility of the institution to evaluate in-house or outsources.

Plenary session to wrap up and reflect (photo MIT/Olin College)

What’s next?

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has invited the participants to develop and publish a set of short papers from each of the sixteen institutions participating in the MIT-Olin Colloquium. A specials issue of Advances in Engineering Education will make the results of these projects, including local case studies, accessible to the greater engineering education audience.

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15 Books that help you become your own futurist in education and work

The beginning of a new year is always a time when planning for the future comes to our minds. Every now and then people ask me which “visionary” books I read to anticipate trends in education and work in science, technology and engineering. They are the books I synthesise and use in my presentations and workshops to inspire the educational leaders in my academic and industrial networks to think about the massive impact of the digitalisation, hyperconnectedness and accelerating societal change on education, continuous professionalisation, students, young professionals, academic staff and company trainers respectively.

Many Bachelor and Master programmes have been conceived and constructed  in the eighties and nineties. We must expect that most of the Bachelor programmes have been updated with programming, teamwork and communications skills. And of course scientific staff will have regularly updated the expert knowledge of subject matter in the Master programmes to reflect the current state of science and technology.

Many of these programmes do an excellent job, but they prepare engineers for the twentieth century, a world that no longer exists.

15 books to enjoy this year







I have made a list of 15 books in random order that have inspired and influenced me most in 2017 and 2018. I have no stakes in any of them. Pick one of them up and let it lead you to another. Synthesise your readings, share your ideas and develop a personal vision of the future of education at your institute.

  1. Higher Education in 2040; A Global Perspective by Bert van der Zwaan
  2. The Great Acceleration: How the World is getting Faster, Faster by Robert Colville
  3. Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee
  4. Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving In An Age of Accelerations by Thomas Friedman
  5. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will shape our Future by Kevin Kelly
  6. WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly
  7. Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press) by Joseph E. Aoun
  8. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux by Cathy N. Davidson
  9. Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  10. Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  11. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
  12. Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century by Gideon Rachman
  13. The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures, by Erin Meyer
  14. The Global State-of-the-art in Engineering Education (MIT School of Engineering) by Ruth Graham
  15. The Future of Universities Thoughtbook. 40 Perspectives on how engaged and entrepreneurial universities will drive growth and shape our knowledge-driven future until 2040 by Todd Davey, Arno Meerman (Ed) et al.

Little Soldiers

I have started 2019 reading the book “Little Soldiers – An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve”  by Lenora Chu. It’s a funny and personal story of a parenting journey inside China’s school system that is designed to weed out and filter students. It is an extreme contrast with the Dutch egalitarian educational system with its emphasis on inclusiveness and individual desires and therefore makes me think about the up- and downsides of these very different educational systems.

Yesterday evening I reached chapter 4 “No Exceptions to the Rule”. Reading “Little Soldiers” makes the Dutch system suddenly feel impossibly soft…

Some weeks after publishing this blog I reached the end of the book. Maybe the hybrid of Western and Chinese education systems is a good convergence in for what a 21st century student should look like…



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Lifelong learning is exploring and enjoying

In my blog “Success in study and career highly depends on grit” I wrote “21st Century skills sound to me as a hollow phrase.  Many of these skills have been important since ages!” Lifelong learning is such a skill that is not unique to the 21st century, neither for students nor for employees or persons who are self-employed, although it is obvious that  learning how to manage continuous change and uncertainty is a key qualification in modern life. Everybody will face challenges in many facets of his or her work and life.

The model of “learn at school” and “do at work” is no longer sustainable. Reskilling and lifelong learning is a way of life at work. Has it ever been different? And would not it be boring without lifelong learning?

Lifelong learning in the early 20th century

A watercolour painting I made 45 to 50 years ago of the traditional thatched roof stolp farmhouse, my parental home (private photo)

My parents were a traditional farmers family with only 15 dairy cows, 7 ha of meadows and an apple and pear orchard. It’s less than 50 years ago. They managed to adapt their life to the revolution of mechanisation and the mass production of goods that had a massive impact on transport and food production. Suddenly it became possible for them to consume and use goods that were produced far away. They adapted to the revolutions of electricity and telephone communications, and they just touched upon the initial signs of the digital transformation with the rise of computers and  automation, before they died after a rich and fulfilled life. They could never have imagined that this digital transformation would lead to a globalisation where businesses cross borders to combine high tech with low wages. Nor could they have imagined that farming would transition into an agricultural industry I see every day in the ultramodern farm of my current neighbour in the Green Heart of Holland. This farmer owns hundreds of hectares of grasslands and more than 800 dairy cows that are milked by robots and fed by an intelligent system that computes food composition and quantity for optimal milk quality and production on the basis an algorithm that takes cow vital statistics, food ingredients, environmental data and lots of other information into account. Where will we go from there?

From university study to engineering practice

I can’t think of any lifelong learning element in my aerospace curriculum in the late seventies. Still, I and hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers with me, have been able to move on from computing numerical solutions of engineering  problems by using a slide ruler, via the rapid evolution of pocket calculators, punch cards, terminals connected to mainframe computers, the internet, personal computers, to laptops and apps with data and software stored on servers or in the cloud. Without having heard about lifelong learning, I moved from a study in mainly aeronautical engineering with its focus on aircraft design, structures and manufacturing, into the engineering business of spaceflight, where I learnt designing satellite systems, satellite testing, managing design, development and verification processes of spacecraft systems, and finally systems engineering of highly advanced space instruments in an intercultural and interdisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and agencies.

Lifelong learning: Without any prior experience in oil paint and brushes I learnt to paint this scene Waves after less than five foundation course lessons from a skilled instructor: lifelong learning beyond the world of work (private photo)

From engineering practice back to the academic world

After 21 years of engineering practice I returned to TU Delft where it had all begun, to teach my experience in space engineering practice to the young generation. I not only had to acquire didactic skills, also to upgrade the in-depth theoretical knowledge about electro-optical instrumentation. When I took the lead on the five-year reconstruction project of the Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering I had to acquire skills about leadership of academic professionals. Last but not least I switched early 2014 to an in-depth investigation and synthesis of the impact of the rapidly changing world on higher education in engineering, science and technology. This was a completely unexplored area for me, the subject matter as well as search as such.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?

My amazing result after two and a half hour of dry-brush painting without previous experience but with the right instructions (private photo)

The above demonstrates that lifelong learning is from all times and not unique for the 21st century. My life has been full of learning, upskilling and unskilling for more than forty years already. The combination of experience in the industrial and academic world has resulted in a rich personal history I use to reflect upon. It enables me to develop a view on the future of higher engineering education, in spite of the highly uncertain scenarios in technology and society. The more I know and understand, the more I admire the knowledge, insights and perspectives of the people around me. Young people of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations simply can’t imagine the value of that richness yet. They will maybe build up an even more diverse richness, as they will face more challenges and changes in their work than I have experienced as a Baby Boomer. They will probably make demanding choices and change jobs more often than I have done in my whole life.

“I keep on making what I cannot yet do, in order to learn how to do it” (quote Vincent van Gogh, 1885)

Lifelong learning makes life engaging and enjoying

In two and a half lessons I was surprised and proud I had completed my first Apple oil painting (private photo)

Lifelong learning reaches beyond the world of work. A bike ride on a sunny Sunday in October to an Arts Route in De Kwakel, a small village in my neighbourhood, inspired me to discover my talent in oil painting, while I realised I had zero experience in oil paint or paintbrushes.  It seemed an exciting way to me to create art and visualise how I see the world around me. It would be so different from the abstract thinking, problem solving, designing, engineering, planning and writing of texts and reports which I have doing since many decades.

To discover my own style I have started a foundation course in oil painting at Artstudio Linda in Amstelveen six weeks ago early November. My trainer and coach Linda teaches me the painting techniques of the Old Masters Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Singer Sargent, on the one hand about mixing colours, using different mediums and types of paint and brushes, working paint up from thin to fat. On the other hand she gives me tips and tricks about perspective taking, painting light and shadow, round sizing and building depth with layers.

Learning to paint using the Old Masters techniques (private photo)

Thus I develop a new awareness how I actually see the physical and artistic world around me. The course not only shapes my painting skills but also my taste. The lessons make leisure days more purposeful and enjoying, and charge the batteries for my regular work of developing a vision of the other world and transforming higher engineering education.

Attempting new things

Lifelong learning is not a necessary evil. Having the courage to go off the beaten track and attempt something new, makes life engaging and enjoying.

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How the pilot of the Joint Interdisciplinary Master Project fell into place

In my June 2018 blog about the Joint Interdisciplinary Project I presented the background and first steps in the development of a 10-week full-time interdisciplinary project for second-year Master students at TU Delft, under the auspices of the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education. From early September till mid November, 13 Dutch and foreign students spent their available time to this project. Highly motivated industrial experts of the international, engineering, design and project management consultancy Royal HaskoningDHV and the Dutch companies Huisman Equipment and Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards coached and supervised the teams.

What did we learn and where will we go from here?

The framework of each project

The projects are a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary and holistic work, beyond „engineering bricks“, in which students discover that interdisciplinary problems are often  so complicated that it is impossible to know everything one needs to know to fully understand them. The projects welcome the students as equal participants in problem analysis and solving and knowledge construction. They are about the collaboration between students, industrial experts and academic staff of TU Delft, and aim for the company to find new commercial applications and business models that are inspired by advanced technologies.

Each project uses the same common aspects of innovative engineering and technology in an interdisciplinary mindset, in proper balance with non-engineering aspects such as societal relevance and impact, and ‘out-of-the-box’ business ‘in the niche’ development. The project outcomes are actionable.

Since the projects focus on the learning how to solve societal and technological challenges, they not only demand good engineering working knowledge but also a solid grounding in interdisciplinary and systems thinking, and both knowledge and mindsets of innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour.

The JIP project framework matches very well with my personal view on 21st Century Engineering Education (Source: adapted from Kamp (2016), Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World, 2nd ed. page 67)

Setting up interdisciplinary projects in a mono-disciplinary culture

It is not easy to develop an interdisciplinary educational project in an institute  whose natural state is organised in disciplinary stovepipes, where academic staff is strongly socialised in disciplinary and professional groupings, and for whom educational change is no priority. There are a stunning number of procedures, regulations and curricular constraints that have to be met and apply in each Master programme in its own manner and wordings.

Most important is what I call the Symbolic Frame of a university of culture and traditions, “the way we do things around here”. In my workshop “Curricular Change is not Rocket Science” I deliver annually to educational leaders of the University of Leiden, Erasmus University Rotterdam and TU Delft, I emphasise that, to be successful in educational change, initiatives always have to fit within the culture. As an actor you shall have the courage to colour outside the lines and challenge the regulations and formal bodies.

The development of he JIP pilot would never have been successful if we had constrained ourselves to comply with all applicable limitations, regulations and boundaries. Also could the organising team of the Director of Education of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE), the Director of Education of Aerospace Engineering (me), and a JIP project coordinator only survive by their determination, perseverance and ultimate agility and resilience. The first pilot was a rough ride in a roller coaster in which not only the students learned a lot.

The students

In the pilot 13 second-year Master students took part in four mixed teams. They study aerospace engineering (2 off), mechanical engineering, (1), bio-mechanical engineering (1), geosciences  (3), civil engineering (3), architecture and the built environment (1), technology, policy & management (2). Each team had members from at least three different disciplines, so that the need of crossing borders was incorporated as part of the project: innovative outcomes are often expected on the fringes of the discipline and result from expert thinking, taking different perspectives and complex communication.

The projects and their outcomes

We ran four projects that were challenging, not only from engineering point of view, but especially from the non-engineering perspective such as the wishes from the potential users and the impact on society. To make the projects manageable this first time we decided to cluster the projects around the broad theme of offshore, maritime, civil engineering and geosciences.

Coastal defense of the Netherlands for the future

For a 2-3 m sea-level rise in 2100, the current Deltaplan in the Netherlands is insufficient to provide safety and sufficient fresh water supply. The JIP project involves the technical feasibility and economic viability study and the societal impact assessment of a new coastline, the so-called Holland Dike, 20 km west from the current Dutch coastline. The dike is to be designed with a building-with-nature concept in mind, and combined with a new airport at sea, wind turbines on the dike, a tidal energy power plant, a blue energy plant, and an energy storage lake, all to add value.

Urban mining of earthquake affected structures for construction of new building projects

This project aims to develop a tool that facilitates urban mining of the earthquake affected structures in the province of Groningen in the Netherlands. There is a growing concern and awareness in society about the effect of construction activities on the environment. Coupled with the predicted shortage of raw materials this promotes the need for a process that facilitates urban mining. The project develops a tool that manages all building information available, verifies the data, includes a concept for transportation and optimises the use of building materials for new building projects in the region.

Near-shore Power Solution, connecting anchored ships to the electrical grid

The commercial shipping industry needs to move to renewable and alternative fuels to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment. A significant contribution could be land-based cold ironing, so-called shore power, in ports and while anchored close to the shore, providing electricity to ships at lower cost and less environmental impact than the massive onboard diesel generators. The project establishes a conceptual design for an internationally compatible Near-Shore Power System of an Unmanned Surface Vehicle using wireless charging, and an environmental and added value impact assessment. The  case study takes the Port of Rotterdam (34,000 sea-going vessels and 133,000 inland vessels per year) as the reference location.

Feasibility study of Geothermal Heat in the Netherlands

This project investigates the feasibility of the transition from natural gas to geothermal heating in Dutch households, by assessing multiple parameters for different renewable heating options that differ per geographic location (heating efficiency, ease of implementation, cost efficiency, reliability, social acceptance, environmental impact and safety). The socio-technical analysis reveals that the transition is a complex multi-actor problem, not technological only. The study addresses the institutional aspects and policy level changes for the transition and reveals a severe misalignment in terms of financing and risk vis-a-vis technological development.

The Huisman Geothermal team members  answering questions at the Final Review (private photo)

Flow of activities, deliverables and milestones

The project timeline has four milestones: the Kick-off 3 September 2018, the Problem Statement Review 14 September, the Mid-term Review 12 October, and the Final Review 9 November. Students present their progression and discuss open issues and discrepancies with the experts and critical student friends, and submit a written report.

All reviews, workshops and plenary sessions were kindly hosted by the Buccaneer in Delft, a beautifully restored artillery warehouse in the historic town centre of Delft that accommodates start-up accelerators in the energy, water and maritime sector. The students worked part-time at the university and part-time on the premises of the hosting company, who took them on field trips to the Deltaworks or the Groningen earthquake area to experience the real world where the project is about.

Meeting professionals

The interdisciplinary project work was scaffolded by five half-day lectures and workshops about Interdisciplinary Teamwork delivered by 4TU.CEE, Agile and Scrum by Royal HaskoningDHV, Value Creation by company Huisman Equipment, an online assessment “Back to Basics” by company Huisman Equipment, and Ethics and Engineering by TU Delft. These lectures and workshop introduced the students in interdisciplinary teamwork, working with Scrum, and developed a mindset of client thinking and value adding. The Back to Basics assessment remembered the students that making back-of-an-envelope calculations instead of immediately jumping to Excel spreadsheets or even more detailed simulation models, is key in estimating orders of magnitude and finding the course of action.

Student assessment

I had a strong preference to limit the student assessment to the minimum, i.e. assuring Master level project assignments, monitoring student engagement through peer reviews and feedback from the company supervisor(s), and reviewing the presentations and progress reports at the three milestones. In these interdisciplinary projects the students learn many thing, but is not easy to identify precisely what they have learnt where and when. The variety in regulations of the Maser programmes involved, the obsession of assessment at the university, and the different positions the project have within the individual Master curricula, forced us to make a more conscientious assessment approach of student performance.

We developed a 360-degree peer evaluation by the industrial supervisors, the student team itself, the other student teams as their critical friends, and the academic staff. Within the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education we developed three sets of rubrics, one for each formal review. For each of the reviews we specified attainment targets for respectively Poor, Satisfactory and Excellent level, for each of the 12 facets: interdisciplinary teamwork, interdisciplinary problem analysis, scientific approach, systematic approach, engineering ethics, customer thinking, impactful innovation, vision on viability and operability, communication and presentation, use of multi-media, reports, and self-efficacy.


All students were immersed in a new context and different environment. They had to think outside the boundaries of their own discipline and respect each other’s particular cultures. The complexity of the interdisciplinary projects required openness to other perspectives, seeing the bigger picture and an appreciation of each other’s qualities. They took them far out of their comfort zone, being bombarded with things they had never encountered before. The time pressure, the different expectations of the team members, the different ways of learning, the difficulty of balancing socio-economic aspects with the more familiar technological feasibility, the need for a holistic view, the discovery of who actually the customer of the project is, the limited depth of study that can be achieved when not all students master the fundamental knowledge of the key discipline the project is about, the need to take initiative and adopt a data-driven approach in which each choice is made on the basis of solid arguments, analysis or trustful data.

For some teams it was the unstructured nature of the problem, the lack of oversight due to the high complexity, the time-consuming discussions about the manageable scope for 10-week period, the need to take so many different perspectives to understand certain aspects of events or situations, or their search to the appropriate engineering approach to follow. For other teams it was the problem analysis that remained unresolved till the end of the project: “what exactly is the system you have tried to design? what are its limitations, what are its interfaces?” For many students it was an eyeopener that they had to set their own goals and take initiative and responsibility for their own learning.

The students considered seeing the bigger picture and perspective taking, and that teamwork is key to interdisciplinary understanding as the most valuable skills acquired in the projects. They also highly appreciated the insight they got in the professional employee’s mindset with its way of working in the professional engineering business that was so much different from the much more prepared and structured Master assignments at the university. They learnt that the world itself is the most effective teacher.

One front desk for impactful interdisciplinary projects

The students have been very enthusiast and told us the project was a unique experience to collaborate with company experts at different locations and change perspectives every time they worked with another discipline. Especially the balancing of technical analysis, research and design work with client thinking, economic viability and societal impact has been extremely challenging for all teams of engineering Master students only. For sure these aspects have to be maintained in future JIP project proposals.

For next year the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education will scale up of the JIP initiative and adapt the organisation and project structure to more themes (e.g. aerospace, mobility, robotics, ….) and a larger number of student teams that hopefully will cover all engineering disciplines and various nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Next year’s target is to run about 12 JIP projects with 50 students total. During the recent pilot we have already received many offers and requests for information from various branch organisations and Dutch and international companies in various sectors, the aerospace sector in particular. Companies, students, university staff, please read this as an invitation to join the JIP initiative, and contact us to show your interest?

We will also join forces with an already existing In-house Design Team project at Industrial Design Engineering (so far working with industrial design engineering students only), and support the start up of “JIP Global” with impactful JIP-type projects in cooperation with universities and local citizens in Ghana. We will also connect to the Honours Academy University Leiden. This academy will co-create for the very first time projects with students and staff from the Leiden Faculties of Humanities and of Social and Behavioural Sciences and from the TU Delft engineering faculties, and business and companies.

Thus we aim to develop one front desk for interdisciplinary impactful Master projects.

Spot on the horizon

The spot on the horizon of the next couple of years is twofold:

  1. developing the JIP project into an interdisciplinary collaborative thesis project of 30 to 45 credit points, that will be made available as an option to any Master student of TU Delft, in future possibly also to students of University Leiden or Erasmus University Rotterdam to better include humanities and social sciences aspects
  2. expanding the interdisciplinary project to 4TU level.

The nearest point on the horizon however is the evaluation of the pilot and the adaptation of the organisation into project clusters that link to specific themes. Since success does not depend on regulations, institutes or organisational structures but on people, getting the commitment of more academic staff and a broader range of company supervisors has the highest importance.

We will not hesitate to ask the student associations again as an important platform to enthuse the Master students to enrol in this unique interdisciplinary and intercultural opportunity in September 2019,  where each student will learn knowledge, skills and mindsets in a 10-week period full-time, that cannot be taught within the cocoon of the university.


I would like to thank all colleagues and students for their creativity, inspiration, time and patience that have enabled the co-creation of the first JIP pilot project.

Special thanks to the amazing JIP project coordinator and persistant go-getter Birgit de Bruin, my direct companion Hans Hellendoorn (Director of Education 3mE, Delft), the company supervisors Koen van Viegen (Royal HaskoningDHV), Remco van Ee and Eric Romeijn (Huisman Equipment) and Giedo Loeff (Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards), the workshop leaders Renate Klaassen, Pieter Schreurs and Filippo Santoni de Sio. I also thank Micaela dos Ramos, president of the Royal Netherlands Society for Engineers KIVI, for her enthusiast input during the preparations and valuable feedback at the reviews.

I would also like to give a special thanks to the Buccaneer staff for their thoughts and ideas in the initiation phase and their great hospitality during all plenary JIP events.

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Success in study and career highly depends on grit

September 15, 2018 TU Delft was thrilled by the success of the Human Power Team. This student team won the world speed challenge for women for cycling in the Nevada desert with a speed of 120 km/h. Two weeks later, September 29, the NUNA Solar Racing Team won the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa. They had been able to drive 4030.4 traveled kilometres in eight days.

They are two in a long row of successes of the D:DREAM student team projects (Delft: Dream Realisation of Extremely Advanced Machines). Winning the Solar Challenge in Australia seven out of nine races. Completing the world’s first full race with a fuel-cell powered racing car in a competition with conventional racing cars. Winning the second place in SpaceX Hyperloop Competion. And many more.

The winning Human Power Team with their Velox8 (Photo courtesy of Bart de Meijer)

It is therefore no surprise that the TU Delft Vision on Education 2018-2024, as discussed in another blog, reads that the university would like to create vibrant learning environments where students are challenged in a way that is comparable to, and inspired by, the same way they get inspired by taking part in a Dream Team.

What is it that creates such vibrant learning environment that makes the real difference?

Is it the interest in the hard-core engineering knowledge?

Young engineering graduates will be better off when they have an excellent mastery of the fundamentals of engineering sciences in combination, also in future scenarios that are full of uncertainty. Listening to all the noise we might easily get the impression that engineering is shifting more and more towards skills, and deep working knowledge in engineering sciences is getting less important. The reverse is true. A deep working knowledge is key in understanding the value and assessing the reliability and usability of the exponentially growing amount of information and data in our world.

“Knowledge is not only the subject matter we think about,
it also enables us to think”

Creative solutions for technological and societal problems cannot emerge from a vacuum. They need a broad and ready availability amount of engineering domain knowledge. The more somebody knows about subject matter in his or her engineering domain, the complexer the task he or she can handle and the more they can learn. Obviously knowledge of the fundamentals of engineering sciences is also a prerequisite for lifelong learning.

But knowledge alone is not sufficient for a successful career. This is particularly true when engineering professionals will increasingly collaborate with intelligent machines that do most of the lifting of information.

Is it the mastery of “21st century skills”?

“21st Century skills” sounds to me as a hollow phrase. Googling nowadays “21st century skills” yields 140 million hits. Thousands of web pages describe these skills in many different subdivisions, categories and flavours. But most of these skills must already have been important since ages! Our ancestors must have had excellent 21st century skills when they designed and built Stonehenge 3100 BC, the Colosseum 70-80 AD, or dried the Beemster Polder in the Netherlands in 1612 with windmills.

But  it is true that a limited set of skills are gaining prominence. The ones that come to my mind are the ones that make us unique as human beings, and cannot (yet) be easily programmed in intelligent avatars or empathetic robotic assistants. Modern engineering studies should put more weight on interdisciplinary thinking, systems thinking, innovation skills and entrepreneurial behaviour. Teaching them detached from the engineering domain cannot work.

The real difference

When you ask me “What makes the real difference in being successful?”, my answer is neither the rigour of engineering knowledge nor the mastery of 21st century skills. The difference is the mindset of the students and staff. In Delft this is the spirit of getting things done. It is also the awareness that a difference between getting things done for 99% or for 100% is not a 1% but 100 %: the 1% is the difference between failure and success.

This getting-things-done spirit is strongly connected to a mindset of passion and perseverance, spearheaded by Angela Duckworth in her book “Grit”. It is all about courage, managing the fear of failure, conscientiousness, commitment to go for the gold rather than just show up for practice. It is about endurance, setting (personal) long-term goals, resilience, creativity. Grit is also about excellence, not about perfection. It reminds me of the engineering work in my former life in spaceflight industries, conceiving and designing extremely complex machines that perform under extreme conditions. In these projects of hard work, passion and perseverance, our mindset was “If you want to sink a project, it is aiming for the best”.

It is grit that sets the Delft student and study culture apart. My previous blog reads that longitudinal research in psychology has shown that success in an engineering career depends for 60-70% on passion and perseverance. And so it does in an engineering study.

Mindsets differ from attitudes. A mindset is a perception, a way of thinking,  whereas an attitude is the outcome of the mindset: attitude is the behaviour of an individual towards a particular object, depending upon his or her mindset.

Fostering mindsets in engineering education

So a significant fraction of success in studies and future careers can be attributed to higher order mental skills, mindsets and ways of thinking and beliefs about the world. All-round engineers with these cognitive abilities can only be produced by educational programmes that are enriched to develop breadth, both on a professional and a personal level.

That is why we foster them so much in the Delft study programmes, on-campus as well as off-campus and in the student community. The spirit of engineering cannot be learnt through academic life alone. It is the world itself that is the most effective teacher for knowledge, skills and mindsets. That’s why we have integrated real-world and academic experiences wherever we can in our curricula.

The real world as the most effective teacher.

What can we do to move on from endless debating the embedding of skills and mindsets in engineering courses and programmes? In dozens of keynotes, podium and poster presentations I have seen excellent examples how front runner universities in the US, Western Europe, Australia, Singapore and Latin America are strengthening the learning of these attributes in their education, not as bolt-on activities or additional courses, but well integrated in the acquisition of the fundamental engineering knowledge.

In my example of the TU Delft Bachelor in Aerospace Engineering we don’t start our studies with a death march of maths and physics, but with a substantial course that introduces the freshmen into the foundations of aeronautical and spaceflight engineering to make the students passionate about aeronautics, aviation and spaceflight. In the first months already we let the students conceive, design, build and operate a flying wing, in line with the integrated CDIO approach. In the first and second years of study they experiment in windtunnels and material labs and analyse and argument the results. Research labs and makerspaces (see a previous blog) play a crucial role. It’s where students learn to engineer and innovate, learn the difference between failure and success, and develop passion for the subject.

Passionate first-year students operating their flying wing (photo TU Delft Aerospace Engineering)

We keep challenging the students. In a series of six design projects students learn to design, build, model, simulate, test, operate products and systems. Where they work with growing autonomy and increasing complexity, in intercultural teams so that they learn that engineering is a very social activity indeed, and that they learn what they are like. It is questionable to me if the design projects could not do better in developing courage,  conscientiousness, a strong commitment to go for the gold, resilience and creativity, and mitigating the fear of failure. To achieve these goals, the projects, the much-esteemed capstone project in  particular,  should not only be academically interesting but more impact-focused and relevant for industry and society.

In that sense we do better in motivating many aerospace students to study a semester abroad somewhere in Europe, the US, Australia or more exotic places. They all take a three- to four-month internship at a company anywhere in the world, at Airbus, Boeing, Shell, Rolls Royce, Unilever, etcetera. And we offer the opportunity to our Master students to co-create 10-week fulltime interdisciplinary projects together with industrial and research partners and agencies, about windfarms, coastal defense protection, electric flight, smart manufacturing, innovative airports or geothermal energy (see blog about joint interdisciplinary projects). It is these learning environments that spark the development of grit in the minds of the students most.

Get the heck outside

It is not so much about knowing what to do. The barrier in education innovation is how to do it, and to make it happen. There is little need to invent it all by yourself. Share your questions and experiences, leave your bubble, and take a look at the outside world. It’s never urgent but always important.

“There are no facts inside the building, so get the heck outside!”


Experience shows that the integrated learning experiences that involve industries, agencies and authorities in the real world, have very rich outcomes for students, staff and organisation. The students develop into the best ambassadors for the department and Faculty, and provide a network for the faculty that often leads to long-term contacts for research with international universities and companies.


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The magic of an Unconference on Impact-Focused Education

Mid July I received a personal invitation to join an “Impact-Focused Education Unconference” at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I was skeptic about the unconference with its wordings of “unplanning” and “unorganisation”, but decided to discover new pathways toward innovative best practices in impact-focused higher education, in a group of about 40 educational thought leaders from the US, Canada,  Ireland, Philippines and the Netherlands. “Come and join an illustrious cohort of creative, passionate and engaged educators, thought leaders, academic entrepreneurs, and social change makers from around the world as they engage in a series of conversations and pop-up workshops during the Impact-Focused Education Unconference”, the invitation read.

The unconference changed my mind, was very engaging, effective and unexpectedly successful. I acquired more new insights and more new connections than in many conventional conferences.

What is an unconference, and what did I take home?


Conventional conferences are usually filled with a tyranny of PowerPoint presentations. Most of its content has already evaporated when you are heading home. Whereas an Unconference is supposed to be an intimate and active gathering where creative, passionate and active thought leaders and, in this case, educational transformers share, reflect, learn and create with the aim of accelerate change in higher education. The format allows for spontaneous networking and unstructured learning opportunities.

The Unconference provides an unusual environment. Rather than providing participants with a schedule of  speakers to sit through, the sessions work organically. Lecture-style presentations are replaced with  small group conversations, emergent conversations and partner work. The participants select their topic of interest and exchange ideas, share proven practices, and build new relationships to upgrade their own programmes and organisations.

The discussions in small groups are about themes that are described in vague and empty wordings (e.g. ‘Scaling Faculty Impact” or “Worldly Creativity”) that provoke different perspectives and spark deep personal connections. For each discussion group the organisation appoints one or two conversation leaders  out of the participants who do not necessarily have a strong association with the topic. They structure the discussion and record the headlines on whiteboards or flip charts. Plenary debriefings after lunch and at the end of the day give overviews to everybody.

Venue: the Mountaintop Campus

The event took place inside the former Bethlehem Steel research facilities atop South Mountain, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. In the past, these buildings housed a 500-ton hydraulic press, electron microscopes and thousands of square metres of lab space. Now they are home to an eclectic assortment of equipment. Tables littered with papers, a couple of plants scattered across the ground, a pile of cinder blocks in one corner, sectioned off by cubicles built out of a number of whiteboards. They create a vibrant and unique learning environment for students who have the freedom to pursue answers to open-ended questions in projects while working in, and across all disciplines, and are challenged to acquire information and advance knowledge and understanding, take intellectual risks and learn from failures. This was the venue for the Impact-Focused Education Unconference.

One of the Mountaintop Campus halls that has been transformed from a research lab of Bethlehem Steel into a creative learning space for Inquiry-To-Impact projects and Mountaintop Summer Experience projects that are open for all students. It was also the venue for the Impact-Focused Education Unconference (private photo)

Impact-Focused Education as a leading theme

What skillsets, mindsets, and portfolios prepare students and faculty for impact-focused careers in a rapidly-changing world? What kinds of learning environments do we need to build to prepare the next cadre of scientists, artists, engineers, educators, who are ready to pursue new intellectual pathways and collaboratively address the challenges of our times, and to understand and solve problems that we don’t even know exist? How do we prepare our academic staff to formulate research questions that have a high potential for impact?


The opening took place in the Tower Room of the Iacocca Hall, atop the mountain that was supposed to give a splendid view on the Bethlehem Steel plant in the valley. But thunderstorms, heavy rainfall and fog put us literally in the Cloud right from the beginning. It was a good metaphor for the setting of an Unconference.

We started with three rounds of duo conversations to introduce each other. Discussing reflective questions like “What is a discovery you’ve made about unleashing yourself?”; “What is energizing for you in your role in educational transformation”, “What fears or anxieties do you face in transformation work?”; “What role can your emotions and body feelings play at this unconference?”

In the session that followed we prepared for the mindset “Impact in education”, where I introduced the impact of the VUCA world on education. We learnt

“Impact = Significance * Scale”

and that society demands higher education  to prepare graduates, not for excellence in research, but for Impact and Innovation. People made references to “42 Silicon Valley” – Disrupting Engineering Education, and the book A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. Doubts raised about the impact Generation-Z may have in future because of their shallow depth of knowledge. For impactful innovation deep knowledge is needed, but the classrooms are filled with the Google generation.


We discussed the impact on education by the new breed of students who become more demanding consumers of educational services. We also discussed the impact by the trend that on-demand learning is going to outperform traditional linear curricula in keeping skillsets up to date, and that abstract courses are more and more replaced by “learning experiences” that yield the same, or better, outcomes for the learners. In these learning experiences students not only learn to analyse and solve problems, but learn to solve only those problems that matter for impact and innovation.

With the mindsets of all participants aligned with the theme, the group split. Everybody picked one out of three parallel conversations of between 75 and 90 minutes. The topics of the conversation sessions were about “Scaling Faculty Impact”, “Interdisciplinary Projects”, “Civic Engagement and Inclusive Excellence”, “Faculty Development”, “Making Change Happen” from respectively student, faculty and administrator’s perspective in three parallel sessions, and “Skillsets, Mindsets and Portfolios for Impact”.

Skillsets and Mindsets

Longitudinal research in psychology has shown that success in an engineering career depends for 30-40% on acquired knowledge and skillsets, and for 60-70% on passion and perseverance, so-called grit (book The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth) and other non-cognitive capacities (book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Successby Carol S. Dweck).

Success and impact is all about higher-order mental skills, personal mindsets and ways of thinking and beliefs about the world. All-round engineers with these non-cognitive capacities can only be produced by educational programmes that are enriched to develop breadth on professional and personal level. Everybody agreed it’s not only unfortunate, but also threatening, that most engineering curricula hardly address these aspects.

Teaching and learning is about skillsets, mindsets, and portfolios (Source: Lehigh University)

It can’t be a surprise that most important mindsets in the domain of engineering are critical thinking, holistic and systems thinking, entrepreneurial thinking, interdisciplinary thinking, global mindset and cultural agility, and valuing learning over knowing. These are thinking modes that cannot be imitated by (networks) of intelligent machines and remain unique for people. Other mindsets that are important to nurture in engineering education are design thinking, data-driven approach, coalition building, taking the lead and playing by strengths, or “getting things done”.

Impactful interdisciplinary projects

Two conversations addressed the role and coaching of interdisciplinary projects. We discussed the pros and cons of hybrid programmes, where disciplines are merged and students work at an interdisciplinary level, or in projects where they bring their disciplinary expertise together to solve a problem, where each member more or less limits his or her perspective to their own discipline.

Multi- and interdisciplinary learning opportunities with student-led choices are an important driving force for educational change. These must be full of opportunities for students to personalise their graduation profile and pursue their own ambition and interests. In these projects it is the student who defines his or her personal learning goals and outcomes in relation to these projects. He or she determines how these goals will be achieved and reported in portfolios that stretch out over the full study programme.

For such projects and programmes the alignment of cross-functional teams, mutual respect, common language are key in the building of partnerships between universities, industries and other organisations.

Impactful research and design projects are always driven by societal relevance, real-life challenges,  compelling ideas, and are co-designed by students, staff and industries, customers or end-users. In the US many of the projects are related to Grand Challenges or the UN Sustainability Goals to assure societal impact. The projects are often “generational”, which means next year projects build upon the results of last year.

Portfolios of accomplishments

Conversations at the Unconference about portfolios gave me a different perspective. Staff in engineering and sciences at my university are reluctant, even allergic to portfolios. Only our Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering and Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment use portfolios as a showcase of projects, products or performances. Their use focuses on the admission process.

Establishing a portfolio during a study in Delft is neither the norm nor stimulated. It is supposed to demand a lot of argumentation and persistence for students to compose and write, and for staff to review, give feedback and not to forget, to grade and allocate credits. But that’s all faculty-centred thinking. That is the way we have been administrating since decades. When we are serious to adopt a student-centred approach in our education, we have to understand that we should neither grade nor allocate credits to portfolios.

The portfolios we discussed are Portfolios of Impact, a (digital) platform of expression of somebody’s identity. These are key in student-centred education. They are not just a log of problems solved or a showcase of products etc over time, but a synthesis of what somebody has learnt, what he or she has done, and who he or she is. They include personal growth in and outside the university. In Georgia Tech all students build such portfolio over their four years undergraduate study. They write and rewrite multiple times their individual story of development: “How did I create value during my study?” Alumni highlight the added value of a good portfolio for a future job. The students are coached in portfolio writing, by providing good examples and checklists, and in giving feedback to each other. Peer reviewing these portfolios by students is powerful. Students sometimes choose to split a portfolio in a personal and public part.

The participants of the Unconference expected that portfolios of accomplishments, containing a synthesis of skillsets and mindsets, will soon be equally important as university diplomas as a prerequisite for a job. The job market in the US and large multinationals like Ernst & Young and Google have already started assessing the competency levels of their future employees on the basis of portfolios.

Establishing a Portfolio for Impact during the study is an excellent way for students to learn “job crafting” to market themselves. Not only for their first job, but for their career.

Faculty Development

Taking the innovations in pedagogy into consideration, strengthening didactic professionalism of and trust in a high degree of professional autonomy for teaching staff have to become the norm.  The role of the teacher is changing from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”, to a peer and mentor as an enabler for learning. If staff is not willing or able to think, act and deliver “differently” they may soon be redundant. I heard the phrase “If lecturers can be replaced by a computer screen, they should, and they will!”

The former glory of Bethlehem Steel (private photo)

From the conversations I understood that universities in the Netherlands are well ahead of many North-American universities in pedagogical training of their staff. In the Netherlands it has become a prerequisite for academic staff to complete a 200-hour training about the fundamentals of university teaching to get tenure. An important difference with the US is that we build capacity by training people who are expected to have tenure in a couple of years time, whilst many lecturing staff in the US will not have tenure. In the US PhD students, postdocs, temporary lecturers and late-stage faculty do most of the teaching. Lecturing staff with tenure are increasingly replaced by professors-of-practice who bring 20 to 30 years of valuable experience in engineering practice but miss any didactic qualities. In combination with a lack of incentives, this is a weak basis for staff community building, didactic lifelong learning, or motivating staff to add a “real-world” flavour to the curriculum.

“Do you teach engineering sciences, or do you teach students?”
(Quote in conversation about Inclusive Excellence)

The US participants were surprised to hear my story that TU Delft, in collaboration with Erasmus University Rotterdam and Leiden University, delivers “Leadership-in-Education” training to their future leaders and aspirant higher educational management. It is a more than 200-hour training in one year that includes the subjects of Evidence‐based and Effective Teaching and Learning for and from students at individual and curricular level; Change Management and Change Theory; Innovating Education and Reconstructing Curricula; Assessment and Assessment Policy; Project and (Change) Process Management; Different Styles of Educational leadership, Quality Assurance and Accreditation.

Making change happen

Change is all about culture and leadership, and the thing that can only make the difference in higher education is the people.

In this conversation I not only noticed the differences in culture between American and European universities in managing change, but also the commonalities in problems to make change happen. I found the biggest difference between the North-American and my Western-European context were in decision making. In the US it seems change is often initiated by president’s choices, supported by financial driving mechanisms and recruitment of the right (temporary) people or giving incentives to full-time staff to implement change till the job is done. In my context I am more used to the tradition of bottom-up developments and initiatives by staff on the shop floor, that are supported (or not) by higher management. Consequently they take a long time to reach maturity because urgency and time are not prioritised or budgets are not made available for change.

The tolerance to failure, i.e. “getting hit on student evaluations” after change, is a concern for many staff and often the basis for risk avoidance and complacency. Management should take the courage to create a culture of experimentation and risk taking. Great ideas for educational change and modernisation often hit stumbles by the administrators and formal bodies in the organisation. Working with administrators seems challenging always.

In the discussions we all shared the view that it will be the students and young generation of academic staff who will be the change agents. The threat of being replaced by a computer screen or an avatar is real.

“Re-envisioning our roles in education means we need a culture of upstanders, not bystanders”.

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Can staff competencies sufficiently be enhanced through Kaizen?

Today’s higher engineering education faces an existential crisis. The changing world of work, the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and between industry and academic boundaries, the rise of continuous learning, the evolving globalisation and digital behaviour, and the increasing international competition. They all shift the demand for learning to a very different paradigm. They disrupt the teaching-learning dynamics in higher education .

Throughout the 14th International CDIO Conference in Kanazawa, Japan, in June, we heard the same message: One of the biggest challenges for higher education institutions is the agility and the learning, unlearning and relearning of the teaching staff, and their willingness to co-design together with industries (more) student-centred self-directed expansive curricula, for students and lifelong learners who are much more “consumerised” than we are used to. If staff is not able to think, act and deliver “differently” they may soon be redundant.

Can small ongoing changes reap the major changes in higher education that are necessary?

Outdated educational systems

The education systems in engineering and technology at the present time were designed for a world that no longer exists, the world of the Second Industrial Revolution. That was the first statement made by Teri Balser, Dean of Learning and Teaching within the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University. At high tempo she explained in her keynote that engineering education is challenged by numbers and scale, and by a major change in human needs. Massification (explosive growth in student numbers), diversification (wider range of learners), personalisation (self-paced learners who know what they need) and globalisation (education reaching everywhere) are factors that impact what and how we will have to teach in the next decades.

Emerging technologiesy can only provide part of the solution. Humans will be part of the story as well. The social expectations change. The expectations of Generation-Z, the Post-Millennials, about learning and teaching change. Their needs change also. Good employability needs excellent adaptive capacity. Cognitive abilities, communication, empathy as well as the ability to connect to people are set to play an ever more critical role.

University diplomas may soon no longer be the only pre-requisite for the engineering professional world. Increasingly learners want more control of their learning path, prefer unbundled courses to linear curricula, in order to rebundle them in individual curricula. “12 jobs, 5 careers and 15 different homes in a lifetime is going to be the norm”, Balser said.

The Kanazawa castle (private photo)

Design learning for humans

Teri Balser stressed the need to design learning for humans. Modern teaching will be about training and coaching students in autonomy, self-efficacy, lifelong learning and societal purpose. Generation-Z is driven to succeed, aware, concerned, and accustomed to being treated as a peer by adults.

For too long universities have been “fixing the teacher” in teaching content better, she said. Academic staff are subject matter experts who focus on content delivery. Many of them are stuck in the “mechanised” modes of doing things and are unskilled or uninterested in training, or better, coaching students the more social or psychological aspects of personal development. The higher social skills is where the needs will be in the emerging Artificial Intelligence age of learning machines, avatars, automation and robotisation.

Making Japan the most innovation-friendly country in the world

In the second keynote, Dr. Kazuo Kyuma, Executive Member of the Japanese council for Science, Technology & Innovation, addressed the comprehensive strategy on science, technology and innovation policy, which is not technology-driven but human-centred. He started his speech by saying that the “Super Smart Society”, Society 5.0, will require professionals who master a good mix of physical and social sciences and technology. The traditional focus in engineering on performance, quality and cost shifts to end-to-end systems and service. Understanding of overseas’ worlds, the fusion of different fields, creativity, deep technological knowledge, knowledge about open innovation and business acumen are crucial for an innovative generation.

He expressed his concerns in Japan about the converging effects of the declining volume and impact of research, the weak ICT-based innovation in Japan, the “graying”of the population due to citizen’s longevity and declining birth rate, and the Japanese xenophobia that prevents the immigration of young talents and leads to opportunities that are missed because researchers and educators work too much within the Japanese context: Japanese universities are becoming less international and need more opening up for international students.

To mitigate, the government has initiated Strategic Innovation Programmes to prepare for the “super smart society”. The integration of physical and cyber systems will get the highest priority in engineering education, research and innovation. Schools and universities will put more effort in training students and upskilling staff and employees in ICT. Projects on robotics, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence for intelligent transport systems, food production, health care, disaster prevention will start. Also agriculture will be in the spot lights with the development of smart breeding machines, the use of machine learning, and research for genetically modified silk worms (for producing glowing silk). Engineering and agricultural studies are being transformed to train students specifically to collaborate with both people and intelligent machines and have impact on society.

“To think and not study is a waste.
Thinking without learning is useless”

“To study and not think is a waste.
Learning without thinking is useless”
(from the analects of Confucius)

Constructive Response Tasks

The third keynote by Dr. Satoko Fukahori of the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, Department of Higher Education Research in Japan, addressed the results of OECD’s AHELO project: “Measuring how well engineering students can think like an engineer at graduation”. The study assessed outcomes in generic skills that are common to all engineering students (such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, written communication), and discipline-specific skills in engineering and economics. 23,000 Students were monitored in 17 countries worldwide, representing a wide range of cultures and languages. The AHELO project evaluated student performance at the global level, across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions. The major purpose was a benchmarking of institutional achieved learning outcomes against that of peers.

The results showed that the assessment by Constructive Response Tasks (CRT) required a thoughtful balance between preciseness and open-endedness. The close alignment of a CRT and the very specific learning outcome was key. Many of the CRTs turned out to be more context (discipline, culture, language, politics) dependent than expected. It seemed more challenging than anticipated to establish a test item bench with common CRTs that are usable for different engineering disciplines for universities worldwide .

Dr. Fukahori stated that it was unfortunate that particularly the achievement levels of generic engineering skills were difficult to assess through common CRTs. In the professional engineering world, technical skills can be easily (re)trained and upskilled on the job, whereas generic skills cannot. So these generic skills should be trained well during the academic study. It are these generic skills that are considered so important for ingenuity, innovativess, interdisciplinary thinking and entrepreneurial behaviour, she concluded.

Kaizen enchancing faculty agility and competences

The new Innovation Hub of Kanazawa Institute of Technology where a select group of undergraduate students will enrol in a dedicated programme about learning innovation in an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural environment in collaboration with local community, to revitalise rural areas that experience long-term population decreases (private photo)

Kaizen is a Japanese term phrased from two words. It translates to mean change (kai) and good (zen). Roughly, it stands for “change for better”. It is the process of continuous improvement in small steps and is Japanese key to success. The modern sense of the word originated in the Toyota factories who created effective management systems to generate, capture, and review improvements in never-ending cycles. An important element of the Kaizen culture is that it is perceived as a mindset, a way of life, where it is common practice to share knowledge between members and encourage the development of each. In the Kaizen philosophy all employees are active sources of improvement initiatives.

Needs for learning, unlearning, relearning

Let me say it mildly: there is room for improvement for Kaizen in academia. It’s no secret that most academics are traditionalists. Many teachers lack the methods and competencies to teach content knowledge and train social skills and foster mindsets in a coherent ensemble. Their institutions often don’t feel the need to upskill the staff, because innovative teaching represents a departure “from how things are done”. But the CDIO conference showed, that engineering education is far from static and full of experimentation. Most changes that were demonstrated tried “to fix the teacher” (in teaching content), but some also reimagined the education.

Seeds of change are everywhere. In the paper that questioned if the existing University Teacher Qualification training prepares their staff to become good personal, interpersonal and professional role models, demonstrating engineering approach processes in practice, introducing team theory, organisation theory, professional behaviour and career planning skills. Another paper was about the pros and cons of using the agile Scrum management method instead of the traditional maybe outdated waterfall method in modern project education. Other papers about the training of decision-taking skills in complex rapidly changing environments, or about validating student peer evaluations by academic staff as validated evaluation criteria in student-centred projects. And about Intelligence-Assisted Advising that has been developed by Kanazawa’s Institute of Technology, which is in use as a spine of study support and self-reflection, as a human advisor and self-coaching system for the students, using the interface of IBM’s Watson Explorer and based upon accumulated data of 15,000 students over a 10-year time frame.

Under the umbrella of the Dutch 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education, TU Delft presented their design-based framework of future engineering roles that have their origins in desired behaviour by society of engineers in 15 to 20 years’ time. The framework stimulates policy makers and programme directors to think differently about future engineering curricular frameworks that allow for diversification and adaptation to personalised learning for both students and alumni. Adoption of such framework will require a major reimagining of engineering curricula and unlearning and relearning of staff.

All these examples require staff to think, act and deliver “differently.”

First tentative steps

Some degree programmes make their first tentative steps to adapt to the impact of the avalanche of information and the automation and digitalisation of Industry 4.0. But at the conference I hardly saw examples of educational change that develops the computational literacy the engineering students need to prepare for the technology-driven age. I did not see examples of change that take advantage of the digital skills our students bring to the classroom, who are more advanced than those from the teaching staff. I missed examples of real student-centred learning where students have full control over their own learning process and are no longer subject of the test-obsessed culture. (I have been puzzled for long time why we think that marks of summative assessments inspire learners further understanding and learning).

Can Kaizen reap major change?

Much engineering education will need radical change in the next decades. Staff and leaders have to anticipate and prepare to adapt programmes to changing needs, different structures, changing pedagogy, emerging technologies in the classroom, different roles of the teacher and many more.  Making continuous improvement should always be the norm, but since big steps will be required to transform education, gradual improvement in small steps through Kaizen will not be enough.

Incentivizing academic staff to learn, unlearn and relearn will be one of the most important challenges for higher education institutions.


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Joint Interdisciplinary Master Project at TU Delft: the idea whose time has come.

Thursday 24 May, Buccaneer Delft, the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education, TU Delft staff, students, and industries organised the kick-off of the so-called Joint Interdisciplinary Project (JIP) pilot for about 30 Master engineering students. The location was  special: the Buccaneer, a beautifully restored artillery warehouse in the historic town centre of Delft that’s in use by start-up accelerators in the energy, water and maritime sector.

Interdisciplinary is the new way to go

You  can’t have missed my vision that interdisciplinary thinking is rapidly gaining prominence in the engineering profession, and in many other professions as well. In the near future the most breakthroughs with high impact are expected at the fringes of disciplines. Increasingly the universities of technology have to prepare their Master and PhD students to cross the border of their specialism and to communicate with people who have backgrounds in other technical or non-engineering disciplines. The students have to learn to respect the ideas and ways of working that are common in other disciplines. Soon the days of the solo researcher or solo designer come to an end.

I am convinced that students will also have to emphasise their learning more on how to do what intelligent machines cannot. Intelligent machines for example are not impressive at unquantifiable thinking, cannot yet imagine, synthesise or experience the infinite contexts of the chaos of human life.  In the age of emerging Artificial Intelligence engineers of flesh and blood can only conquer the intelligent machines when they have learnt to think in ways that cannot be imitated by (networks of) intelligent machines.

Although the trend in research and higher education towards the individual mastery of deeper specialisations continues unabated, employers in engineering business cry out for more synthesis and collaborative skills. They increasingly recruit engineers with the capabilities of developing the outline for holistic designs.

“The spirit of engineering cannot be acquired through academic life” (Quote Harris J. Ryan of Stanford, 1920)

Universities can not stick their heads in the sand. We have to teach the bigger picture of engineering and technology, including the economics, politics and other societal aspects. That’s why TU Delft’s new vision on education underlines the solving of societal challenges, which includes a solid grounding in interdisciplinary skills, sustainability and entrepreneurial thinking.

Trigger for change

Professor Rob Mudde, Vice-Rector Magnificus/Vice-President of Education in TU Delft’s Executive Board at the kick-off event (private photo)

This has been the trigger for the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering and the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering to join forces and take the lead in the development of a 10-week full-time interdisciplinary project for second-year Master students. The project is being co-created by academic staff, industrial experts and students of multiple disciplines. The students will work in teams of about five in close collaboration with experts from industry and academics from the university on real-life challenges that have high societal and temporal relevance. Because engineering education in Delft has been driven by the T-shaped professional since decades, with deep expertise and research as the main attributes of the Master curricula, the project will become one of the very few opportunities for students to cross their disciplinary border and work in an interdisciplinary team with professionals.

Not a bolt-on activity

The uniqueness of the project lies in the fact that it will be contained within many regular Master curricula. Considering the short time frame, the large variety in regulations and time-tables, the different set-ups between the different Master programmes, this seems almost a miracle. So far, many other educational collaborative projects in the Master have been mono-disciplinary or  “bolt-on” activities, such as the fabulous D:DREAM student projects.  In some Master programmes the JIP project will substitute the obligatory internship, in some others it will be treated as a big elective course or as an honours project.

Precursor to Interdisciplinary Collaborative Master Thesis

The ultimate goal is to develop the JIP project further into an interdisciplinary collaborative thesis project of about 45 credits (EC), equivalent to a substantial 1260 working hours per participant. Such thesis project will be made available as an option to any Master student of TU Delft. In the near future possibly even to students of University Leiden or Erasmus University Rotterdam to also include humanities and social sciences aspects.

Involvement of industrial  branch organisations

Setting the scene of the Joint Interdisciplinary Project during the kick-off (private photo)

The unique nature of the project lies in the strong interest and support of major industrial branch organisations like the Dutch Employers’ Organisation in the Technology Industry FME, the Netherlands Marine Technology Trade Association NMT, the area of knowledge-oriented companies Delftechpark, the Association of Dutch Suppliers in the Upstream Oil and Gas Industry and Offshore Renewable industry IRO, the Association of Space Companies in the Netherlands SpaceNed and the Royal Netherlands Society for Engineers KIVI.

Student interest

Thursday 24 May we organised the kick-off event with industries, academic staff and about 30 students who have their background in the Mechanical, Maritime, Offshore, Aerospace and Civil Engineering and Geosciences. Also students of the Faculties of Applied Sciences (Chemical Engineering), Technology, Policy and Management, Industrial Design Engineering, and Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computers Sciences showed interest to join. Students from the Faculties of Architecture and the Built Environment also showed interest, but it is not yet sure whether they can adapt their individual programme in time. It is one of the first occasions that almost all faculties are enthusiast and onboard of such interdisciplinary adventure. So it is no surprise that the students who attended the kick-off, all expressed their great enthusiasm. They told me they had been eagerly looking for such opportunity in their Master’s to broaden their scope and better prepare for the engineering profession. Also the Executive Board of the university highly supports the initiative.

“A good engineer must strike a balance between
knowing and doing, between the how-and-when and the what-and-why”

Race against time

The development of the pilot of the Joint Interdisciplinary Project (JIP) is a race against time. Educational developers in consultation with didactic experts are engaged in defining the educational concept of coaching, supervision, reporting and assessment. They refine  the intended learning outcomes I conceptualised about a month ago in my individual capacity. The industries translate the project subjects into open, unstructured problem assignments. Study associations act as the main ambassadors and advertise the project to recruit interested students. The deadline is 1 September 2018 when the students will embark on the project.

The “fair” at the kick-off where the prospective student participants could meet the industrial partners to discuss the project subject (private photo)

Intended Learning Outcomes

The intended learning objectives focus on cognitive abilities that attribute to:

  1. interdisciplinary learning; it is about engaging in perspective taking, integrating knowledge and modes of thinking drawn from two or more disciplines, producing interdisciplinary understanding of complex problem questions.
  2. Scientific and intellectual development; it concerns the analysis of scientific and societal impact of the innovation;
  3. Research and design capabilities, which are about the demonstration of technical skills, creativity and value adding to business or society;
  4. Collaboration and communication in interdisciplinary teams; they are about mindset, ways of thinking, behavioural competences and skills, communication and collaboration skills in an intercultural environment of different disciplines, reporting and presentations skills; also the adaptive capacity to different cultures and disciplines is addressed.
  5. Self-adjustment and reflection capabilities; they are about efficient planning and control of resources and methodology, and about reflection capabilities on personal behaviour and performance; understanding contemporary and societal impact of their work.

Innovative projects

All JIP projects will be innovative interdisciplinary deep integrative design or research projects, and orientated towards  value creation for society.

“The real world itself is the most effective teacher”

Each  project is characterised as follows:

  • Enables the collaboration between students, industrial experts and academics
  • Societal relevance and impact
  • Innovative
  • Advancing knowledge
  • ‘Out of the box’ business development ‘in the niche’
  • Possibly disruptive
  • Addressing engineering and technology, as well as non-engineering aspects
  • Business case
  • Interdisciplinary mindset, i.e. no summation of separate disciplines
  • Actionable outcome

The Joint Interdisciplinary Project candidates

In the 2018 pilot most projects will be related, but not limited to, the theme of energy, water and maritime. In later years we aim for a broader spectrum of themes so that students from any discipline will find compatible subjects that match their needs and interests.

So far eight engineering companies have shown serious interest:

  • Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards / De Voogt Naval Architects, recognised as the world leader in the field of pure custom superyachts;
  • Huisman Equipment, a worldwide operating company with extensive experience in the design and manufacturing of heavy construction equipment;
  • Rolloos Oil & Gas, designing solutions for a more efficient and safe heavy industry (crane safety, cybersecurity, connectivity, data analytics, CCTV systems)
  • Jack-up Barge, developing self-elevating offshore platforms;
  • Allseas, one of the major offshore pipelay and subsea construction companies in the world, operating six specialised vessels that were designed in-house;
  • Royal HaskoningDHV, an independent, international, engineering, design and project management consultancy in aviation, buildings, infrastructure, rural and urban development, and more;
  • Damen Shipyards, developoing high quality, innovative yachting concepts;
  • ISIS, Innovative Solutions In Space, one of the world’s leading companies in the field of small satellites.

The projects range from analysing, designing, developing, simulating or researching scalable solutions to provide power to anchored super yachts, coastal defense of the Netherlands for the future, geothermal energy for two million households, machine learning based on Internet of Things for a dynamically moving fleet, exchange of wind turbine blades, gearboxes or generators offshore in the fastest way possible, numerical simulation of plastic transport and accumulation in rivers, detection systems for plastic and detect accumulation in rivers, to last but not least a suite of miniature space instruments that can be accommodated on really small satellites, based around a common architecture, each optimised for the detection of one specific trace gas in the atmosphere.

Further information

Detailed information about the projects, the assignments and registration procedure for the students are available here. The deadline for application is June 10th 2018.

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Six driving forces that will fuel change in TU Delft education 2018-2024

What kind of university TU Delft strives to be? What changes does TU Delft foresee in its engineering education for the next six years? In January 2018 TU Delft published its updated TU Delft Vision on Education 2018-2024 and Strategic Framework 2018-2024. I have deboned the texts to its essentials, read between the lines, “read the air”, and compare my understanding and interpretation with my “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” (the symbol ∇ in this post refers to it).

In my previous postWill these conspicuous statements in TU Delft’s Vision on Education 2018-2024 fuel any change?” , I discussed the vision statements about study culture, durable skills development, outside-in mentality, innovation and employability. I doubt that these will fuel constructive change in Delft’s education. In this post however I address six forces that will fuel change, but only if they get the support and enforcement from higher management.

Online Education and Open Educational Resources

Open Education Global Conference 2018 (Source: TU Delft)

TU Delft has developed as a forerunner in Open and Online Learning. Over the past six years the lobby at TU Delft to invest time and money in the development of open and online education has been intense and phenomenally successful. The vision documents indicate it will remain strong and probably be intensified. It bears the risk of more robbing of innovation initiatives of on-campus education.

Although it is not stated in the vision documents as such, I sense that something big is going on. I imagine that the university will use the coming period to prepare for a major transformation of its education. Where Bachelor education may transform in student-centred education through a blend of personalised online learning and on-campus experiential learning. Where online Master degree programmes may transform into a delivery for students off campus, anywhere in the world, in addition to the traditional research Master programmes on campus. And where professional education for lifelong learners may grow into hybrid formats of online learning with bursts of experiential learning in special boot camps.

TU Delft strives to publish all course materials under an open license that allows the reuse of courses and course materials for non‐commercial ends. The Open Education Consortium has given the Open Education Award 2018 to TU Delft’s Strategic Framework 2018-2024 for its leading open policy. The university considers open education as its contribution to how educational institutions deliver their public mission.

Teaching staff is increasingly stimulated to develop more online courses and publish all materials under an open license. Indeed there are many benefits and opportunities in sharing educational materials on institutional level. In this area I may be conservative. I miss any incentive for the individual lecturers to make their unique and outstanding educational materials, including intellectual property, freely available to anybody in the world, while taking the risk of falling victim to charlatans who take advantage of the unique content in a new market.

I do see another potential benefit of Open Educational Resources though: fewer commercial study books for the students and fewer costly off-the-shelf eLearning tools and software suites. It is going to reduce the dependence on the commercial publishers.

Interdisciplinary thinking

In the engineering profession, mono-disciplinary expert thinking will shift to more multi- and interdisciplinary systems thinking. Collaboration and multi- and inter-disciplinary thinking that cross the borders of engineering become increasingly important in research, innovation and design of solutions for complex societal and technological problems.

The new vision reads that one of the driving forces for change at TU Delft will be a shift from mostly individual and mono-disciplinary to more multi- and interdisciplinary teamwork in education. “We will train students to apply and integrate knowledge and skills in interdisciplinary tasks and cooperate with students from different disciplines and backgrounds in order to solve multidisciplinary tasks”. “All Bachelor and Master graduates shall have a good mastery design skills and have learnt to collaborate in interdisciplinary and intercultural teams”. The vision announces that the university will create new opportunities for new multi- and interdisciplinary Master degree programmes.

In a previous post I wondered if traditional universities, like TU Delft, structured in monodisciplinary silo’d faculties and departments, will be able to successfully transform within ten years, and deliver interdisciplinary education, without being highly interdisciplinary themselves. It will require a major mind shift and upskilling of staff, higher management and programme bodies.

Challenge-based education

In line with the shift to more multi- and interdisciplinary teamwork, the Vision on Education also gives a direction for “challenge-based education”. The inspiration and engagement of the highly successful student-led but extracurricular “DreamTeams” will be copied into the curricula. Students will be inspired to collaborate in interdisciplinary team projects, jointly with other engineering and non-engineering disciplines (e.g. with the partner universities in Rotterdam and Leiden), and apply and transfer their scientific and engineering knowledge to the infinite contexts of real life. Connective spines of design or research projects in curricula will bring together students and staff from diverse disciplines, hopefully also non-academic stakeholders of engineering business and NGO’s. They will stimulate community building and move towards more outward-facing curricula.

Mindsets in curricula will shift from “Learning knowledge-as-a-thing” to “Learning knowledge-for-purposeful-application”

In case the university succeeds in implementing collaborative interdisciplinary projects and challenge-based education at scale to large student cohorts within the Bachelor and Master curricula, many of the vision statements I wrote in my report pp. 46-51 will be brought to life. Curricula will then transform from subject-based learning into needs-related (problem- and more practice-based) learning. Curricular mindsets will shift from learning “knowledge-as-a-thing” to learning “knowledge-for-purposeful-application”.

Digital skills

“Globalisation and digitalisation” is one of the driving forces in the VUCA world (∇ p. 11-13). Machine learning enables systems to learn from data without being explicitly programmed and get smarter  through the exposure to more data. It means that intelligent systems will be able to discover patterns not easily seen, and improve at predicting future results. There can be no doubt that any engineer shall be data literate, i.e. have a good working knowledge of and skills in algorithmic thinking and programming, statistics, predictive analytics, domain knowledge about smart manufacturing, sensors, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, data visualisation techniques, cybersecurity, etcetera, in order to operate successfully in an increasingly “data–rich” engineering environment (∇ p. 29).

But data literacy is only part of the game. Also technological literacy will get new accents. It will be crucial for every engineer, no matter the discipline, to gain a grounding in computer languages and the basics of computer sciences. The inclusion of these Industry 4.0 related skills will be a driving force for educational change in all Bachelor and Master degree programmes at TU Delft.

Personalised learning paths

My vision ∇ p.45 reads “Student engagement that is currently achieved by following standard curricula, will soon change into more personalised learning, with individual learning plans that ask for high degrees of flexibility.”

Many of today’s Bachelor and Master curricula have rigid structures and leave little freedom of choice for the student. Master programmes train students to become an expert in technical analysis through individual intellectual efforts in ever smaller corners of their discipline. It leads to a lack in holistic thinking and relationship skills and unintentionally prevents talented students from reaching their leadership potential.

A major driving force for change in TU Delft’s vision will be the creation of learner-led choices, opportunities for students to personalise their graduation profile and pursue their own ambition and interests. The professional roles developed by the “Free Spirits Think Tank” (4TU.Centre for Engineering Education activity in 2015) may for instance be used to guide the choice of personalised study paths. These are particularly orientated towards future professional needs.  More conservative programmes may provide study paths that prepare for the role of research engineer, technical engineer or entrepreneurial engineer, or for roles that distinguish themselves by their achievement, i.e. Best product (performance quality), Best cost (operational process), or Best value (customer intimacy). More progressive programmes might explore study paths that match with different types of engineering behaviour in future society, without being connected to specific products or activities (currently being explored by the Delft team of 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education).

Academic careers with an accent on education

It is a bit of a shortcoming that TU Delft’s vision hardly addresses the perspective of the teaching staff. If we want to achieve change, staff will have to change first. I often hear “How do they want us teachers to be?”

Indeed, lifelong learning also applies to teaching staff. They have to routinely update their pedagogy and develop new learning environments based on proven practices. My vision reads on ∇ p.52 “Strengthening the didactic professionalism of and trust in teaching staff has to become the norm.” But reality is obstinate. Educational achievements have been highly undervalued in Delft career promotions since many decades.

In the new vision TU Delft presents the aim to flip the existing culture of promotion on the basis of academic excellence (read research). In the 2018-2024 period the aim is to create a culture and structure in which teaching excellence and leadership in education will be weighed on par with research excellence, and where career paths will be developed for academic staff who have an accent on education. I wholeheartedly support this initiative (see my post about university career frameworks) and hope it will spark a renewed interest for innovating and experimenting in on-campus education.

This could be a driving force for change with high impact. How long will it take to flip the existing academic culture which is loosely coupled and grown in a bottom-up culture with great autonomy and freedom? It will require an enormous perseverance over the next 10 to 15 years.

An active and engaged change-maker

TU Delft faces interesting challenges to remain an active and engaged change-maker in the landscape of 21st century higher engineering education. The university has always strongly focused on equipping students with deep discipline-based knowledge and left the development of the durable and wider professional skills to the early years of the professional career. And that won’t change. But future engineer business increasingly needs talents that combine deep disciplinary expertise with social, political, and economic capabilities, who are able to connect the dots, think holistically, and are culturally agile.

The most important force that will drive educational change in 2018-2024 will be interdisciplinary thinking, also contained in challenge-based education. The Delft vision leaves it vague if only disciplines of engineering sciences and technology will be combined, or that wider social, political and economic aspects will also be taken into account. Such perspective would connect engineering education to the real-world and transfer knowledge to real-life context. A shift to more interdisciplinary teaching and learning can only be successful with open-minded staff who are open to upskilling and prepared to build interfaculty collaborations or cross-university networks in the domain of engineering education rather than research in technical disciplines.

This force of interdisciplinary thinking could very well converge with a couple of other forces for change, such as the inclusion of knowledge and skills that prepare for Industry 4.0, the integration of durable skills, the inclusion of societal and business context, the accommodation of personalised learning paths, and last but not least the increasing engagement with industrial needs and societal challenges. For many teaching staff such radical ideas will require a step change towards cross-faculty cooperation and acceptance of top-down institution-wide change. Leadership by higher management, ambition by programme bodies and flexibility by Boards of Examiners are the prime enablers for such changes.

The developments in online education and open educational resources will for sure have impact on the evolution of the on-campus education. In 10 to 15 years time it is probably way too expensive and time consuming for young students to learn basic content that can also be picked up online through personal learning. Although it’s not explicitly written in the vision documents, I imagine that TU Delft will use the coming period for the preparation of a massive transformation of its education in 2024-2030. Thus TU Delft will prove it earns the reputation of an active and engaged change-maker in the emerging landscape of 21st century engineering education, also in the next decade.

This post and my previous post “Will these conspicuous statements in TU Delft’s Vision on Education 2018-2024 fuel any change?” give you the full picture of my critical review of TU Delft’s Vision on education 2018-2024.

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Will these conspicuous statements in TU Delft’s Vision on Education 2018-2024 fuel any change?

Many factors call universities to make choices on how to adapt their education: the accelerating pace of technological change, the globalisation, the accelerating digitalisation of economy and social interaction, the growth in talent mobility, the student’s interest to go well beyond perceived boundaries of traditional engineering roles, the blurring of boundaries between technical disciplines, the break-through of all kinds of digitally enhanced teaching and learning.

What kind of university TU Delft strives to be? How will TU Delft give its students ownership of their own future? What fundamental changes does TU Delft foresee in its engineering education for the next six years?

Vision on Education 2018-2024

In January 2018 TU Delft published its updated TU Delft Vision on Education as an integral part of the Strategic Framework 2018-2024. The documents are pretty abstract and it’s not a simple task to debone the texts to its essentials. I have therefore also tried to read between the lines and “read the air”.

This and my next post compare my vision statements in “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” (I use ∇ to refer to it) with my understanding and interpretation of the TU Delft documents. In this first post I highlight statements that, according to my expectations, will not have much constructive impact on the education, although they are conspicuous. In my second post “Six driving forces that will fuel change in TU Delft education 2018-2024I focus on driving forces that, I am pretty sure, will fuel change to the education.

Not so much has changed

Updated strategies and visions build upon existing values and culture. A first reading of the new Vision on Education 2018-2024 gave me an impression “not so much has changed, we are proud of it“. Every page in the Vision and Strategy Framework is peppered with the clichés “world-class”, “excellence”, “top-level” and many lines describe the way how we do things.

The main characteristics of the Delft academic study environment are its egalitarian culture, the rigour of disciplinary knowledge and scientific foundations of engineering, their practical application, the design-centred learning, the self-starting and can-do culture with hands‐on mentality, the leadership in getting things done, the rich pallet of extracurricular activities for the students, the unconditional nexus between education and research, and the highly valued academic freedom for staff and students.

Ambitious students

“Engineering education has to be engaging, compelling and motivating, and create a learning community that stimulates all students to discover their talents” is what I wrote on ∇ p.46. In their vision TU Delft aims to educate students who have the ambition to make the most of their study period and develop themselves academically as well as personally. The vision emphasises “stimulating and supporting ambitious and enterprising students”. No longer does it focus on training students with an excellent academic performance alone.

Although this sounds as an interesting shift,it has the risk to deteriorate in a rat-race study culture for students who strive for the best career perspectives, taking on too much. A couple of days ago the “Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg”, a national umbrella organization for university student councils from different cities in the Netherlands, expressed their concern about the rise of more ambitious study cultures in the Netherlands. They are worried about the higher stress factors during the study, a steep rise of burn-outs for students and the expectation that academic studies will increasingly educate zombies rather than critical well-educated citizens.

Durable skills development in extracurricular activities

On p. 22 my vision reads “academic engineering education does a poor job of helping engineering students think about their own lives, their career goals, their desire for intimacy, or their plans for a productive and meaningful life”.

Unfortunately TU Delft seems to be in line with the above. The vision documents read as if the the societal engagement and development of durable skills are left up to the student and are mainly placed outside the engineering curricula. Students have to take control of their own development and learning process. For sure this has a positive effect on the student’s entrepreneurial attitude, but it sounds as an omission.

Let’s call it human literacy. It is one of the most important skills in engineering, and will be  even more so in the emerging age of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Every university should equip its students for the social milieu. It seems a poor job when a university more or less enforces its students to participate in extracurricular activities (social, sport or cultural activities in the city, student clubs, student project teams) for self-development, in order to acquire the most essential and durable skills they will need in the future profession to survive and thrive.

Low outside-in mentality

Engineering has always been a practice-based profession (∇ p. 48). The professional workplace is the environment in which the impact of technological change is felt most strongly. Universities should therefore address those strategies employers are seeking to accomplish and ways technology changes the shape of the industries. Students have to experience the real world of engineering and get a taste of genuine research, engineering and design by learning-by-doing, meet their academic role models from universities and practitioners from industry. That requires a strong and enduring partnership between industry and academic staff to ensure that curricula are not only aligned with the latest developments in research and science, but also in engineering practice.

The TU Delft Vision on Education or the chapter Students and Education of the Strategic Framework address the relations with industry or the enhancement of employability skills in engineering education to a minimum. May be they are already sufficient? Particularly in lifelong learning models of the future, I expect that universities will have to co-design curricula and courses in close parnership with employers and students. This will demand (much) stronger ties with engineering business than exist nowadays.

It is also common practice that the templates for recruiting academic staff are getting narrower and narrower (see post about future trends and developments in Europe). Taking this all together, I cannot help expecting that the current scarce opportunities for people with a non-academic background to bring their experience, tacit knowledge, role models and achievements in engineering practice to the classroom, will diminish even further in the coming years. Which is the opposite of what I expect students need to integrate the real-world experienes with academic learning, and prepare for their future profession and employability.

Are we missing something?

My vision is a loud call to make subjects like globalisation, diversity, world cultures, cultural agility, global ethics, leadership, business acumen, empathy and emotional intelligence equally important as maths and engineering sciences. Indeed, the TU Delft vision documents expect that the students will master these competences at graduation. But where will they learn them? The vision documents do not mention any driving force that would give these skills a more prominent place in the curricula.

What about Innovation and Employability?

In my vision (∇ pp. 59-63) the three cornerstones for future engineering programmes are Innovation, Employability and Community. The first two are anchor points for future curricular structures and subject matter.

Many accreditation standards baseline  innovation as the leading theme in Master programmes. The habitat of almost all engineering graduates is in innovation, where understanding the customer and truly care about their experience is essential. It strikes me that most Delft Masters fully focus on the acquisition of deep discipline-based knowledge and research, They forget about innovation. At best, creativity, entrepreneurial and customer thinking, enterprise systems engineering, etcetera are in the margin of the Master curricula, but often absent at all and available in extracurricular activities. The university does not indicate a tailoring of its education to these changing needs of today’s workforce.

The same applies to employability. Young graduates who have never been in contact with industry, are insufficiently prepared for the world of work. The vision documents miss supportive statements about employability skills for education and students. It does not necessarily mean they are not part of faculty policies. But the narrative tells that employability, like innovation, will not become a driving force for educational change in Delft in the coming six years. This could turn into a risk when employers become dissatisfied with the work-readiness of the graduates and favour graduates from more interdisciplinary, practice-based approaches with stacked learning models. It is something in which other universities may be moving ahead of TU Delft.

What about Community?

Community is the third cornerstone for tomorrow’s programmes (∇ p.61). The TU Delft vision documents address the importance of creating a sense of belonging on the campus for staff and students. They aim to create an inclusive atmosphere and ensure the integration of Dutch and foreign students, while maintaining the unique Delft’s identity and cherishing the roots in the Dutch cultural and scientific heritage.

The university is going to  develop a new vision for its campus “UniverCity Delft”, taking into account that knowledge is increasingly available online, student communities mainly connect through social media, and the academic community is individualistic and loosely coupled in silo’d faculties and departments. The modern campus has to offer added value in attractive learning spaces that evoke the teaching staff to implement effective ways of teaching and coaching, and support students in their collaborative and applied learning process, by enabling a transfer of knowledge to the contexts of real life.

I expect the nature of our education, with applied learning and hands-on work in makerspaces and research labs, will remain a leading element on the future campus. Whether or not the new campus vision will develop into a driving force for educational change, very much depends on its content that is still to be defined.


The vision documents are high level guidelines about what kind of university TU Delft strives to be and what and how they foresee the preparation of the graduates for fast-changing professional careers in engineering. Since decades the university has focused on equipping students with deep discipline-based knowledge and left the development of the wider professional skills and the preparation for good employability to the early years of their professional career. The narrative in Delft’s vision documents clearly shows this will not change in the next six years.

It remains to be seen whether that is the right choice for preparing graduates for a future, where artificial intelligence will increasingly take over routine and non-routine cognitive tasks from the engineering professionals. I foresee a need to educate our students to think and act in ways that cannot be imitated by intelligent machines, and to prepare them to do what machines cannot. We have to liberate the students from career models that will soon be outdated. And have to complement our traditional education that focuses on the mastery of deep technological knowledge and understanding of what technology can do, with more experiential learning to understand what technology cannot do.

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Only a consolidated body of knowledge enables professionals to connect the dots

Post written by Birgit Pepin, 4TU.CEE leader of TU Eindhoven

“To navigate through such uncertainty, students will need to develop curiosity, imagination, resilience and self-regulation; they will need to respect and appreciate the ideas, perspectives and values of others; and they will need to cope with failure and rejection, and to move forward in the face of adversity. Their motivation will be more than getting a good job and a high income; they will also need to care about the well-being of their friends and families, their communities and the planet.”

Position paper OECD and engineering education

If you think that the above quote comes from our recent university documents, you are mistaken. It is from the OECD document “The future of education and skills- education 2030- the future we want” – a position paper by the OECD (based on first investigations of their project). If you think that this paper relates to higher education, you are mistaken – it is meant for education from pre-school to higher education!

In this blog I summarize the document (which I recently read) by highlighting some of the thoughts that I found most valuable for us in engineering education, and with the view to the “engineer of the future” and engineering education 2030.

In the foreword the director of the ‘The Future of Education and Skills 2030’ project, Andreas Schleicher, outlines the underpinning questions of the project:

  • What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today’s students need to thrive and shape their world?
  • How can instructional systems develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively?

How to deal with future challenges

The background to the project is that, so he claims, we are facing “unprecedented challenges” -social, economic and environmental – and problems and uncertainties that we cannot anticipate, “it will be a shared responsibility to seize opportunities and find solutions”. He predicts that in order to “navigate through such uncertainty, students will need to develop curiosity, imagination, resilience and self- regulation. They will need to respect and appreciate the ideas, perspectives and values of others. And they will need to cope with failure and rejection, and to move forward in the face of adversity.

Moreover, he is certain that their motivation (for education) will be “more than getting a good job and a high income”, but they will also need to think about, and care for “the well-being of their friends and families, their communities and the planet”. In order to reach these aims, he states, “education can equip learners with agency and a sense of purpose, and the competencies they need, to shape their own lives and contribute to the lives of others”. In short, and translating these aims to engineering education, we (as engineering educators) have to help our students to become “active, responsible, and engaged citizens” as engineers.

Learner agency and co-agency

Attending in more detail to his vision, key features are (1) “learner agency”, and (2) “co-agency”. With reference to (2) he explains “co-agency” as “the interactive, mutually supportive relationships that help learners to progress towards their valued goals”. In such a context there are no instructors on the one hand, and learners on the other, but everyone should be considered a learner: students, teachers, school managers, parents and communities. Concerning (1) learner agency, in his opinion there are two factors in particular that help learners enable agency: (a) a “personalised learning environment that supports and motivates each student to nurture his or her passions, make connections between different learning experiences and opportunities, and design their own learning projects and processes in collaboration with others”; and (b) a solid knowledge foundation where “literacy and numeracy remain crucial”. In terms of literacies he emphasizes that “digital literacy” and “data literacy” are becoming increasingly essential.

Innovation through co-operation and collaboration

What caught my attention most were his elaborations on knowledge and competence development. He predicts that “disciplinary knowledge will continue to be important. It is the raw material from which new knowledge is developed, together with the capacity to think across the boundaries of disciplines and “connect the dots”.

Interestingly, he divides knowledge into:

  1. epistemic knowledge (knowledge about the disciplines), e.g. knowing how to think like a mathematician, historian or scientist. It enables students to extend their disciplinary knowledge and is conditional for lifelong learning;
  2. procedural knowledge, which he assumes can be acquired through “practical problem-solving, such as through design thinking and systems thinking”.

Of course, students will be expected to apply their knowledge in “unknown and evolving circumstances”, for which “they will need a broad range of skills, including cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (e.g. critical thinking, creative thinking, learning to learn and self-regulation); social and emotional skills (e.g. empathy, self-efficacy and collaboration); and practical and physical skills (e.g. using new information and communication technology devices)”. In terms of innovation, he presumes that “innovation springs not from individuals thinking and working alone, but through co-operation and collaboration with others to draw on existing knowledge to create new knowledge. The constructs that underpin the competency include adaptability, creativity, curiosity and open-mindedness”.

Systems thinking

He sums up that in order to be prepared for the future, “individuals have to learn to think and act in a more holistic way, taking into account the interconnections and interrelations between contradictory or incompatible ideas, logic and positions, from both short- and long-term perspectives. In other words, they have to learn to be systems thinkers”.

This speaks to all of us in STEM education, definitely to me (as a mathematics educator), as I have always thought of ‘developing an understanding of a concept’ means ‘making connections’ (or as he put it earlier “connecting the dots”). And it is through the richness (or paucity) of connections that we can evaluate whether we have deeply understood, or developed a surface understanding of the concept. Which kinds of connections to make, which ones are likely to be most helpful, and how to support the making or scaffolding of connections, is surely the task of the teacher. ‘Making connections’ (as a teacher) also includes connecting to our students, their thinking, their experiences, and their interests, to name but a few.

Making dreams come true

Coming back to the initial quote, this outline is for the whole of education, and it emphasizes a broad personal development, which in addition to connected knowledge are also ideals in our engineering education. At the same time we know how difficult this is to make dreams come true, also in education. If we want to make a contribution in higher education, do we subscribe to these ideals, and how can we (start to) operationalise them?

This post has been written by my colleague Birgit Pepin, 4TU.CEE leader of TU Eindhoven, and was published on the weblog of 4TU.CEE ( March 20th, 2018.

The post and the OECD report are very much in line with my thinking about the necessary changes in engineering education, as you can read in the posts of my blog and my book.

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Teaching technology innovation and Reframing academic careers with an educational accent

My one but previous post was about the confluence of talent development, discovery and innovation at Skoltech, using the CDIO framework. At that same gathering the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education took the opportunity to run workshops about topics that really matter: developing a career framework for academics who have an accent on education, and training students about the innovation of products when the technology that is needed has not yet reached the threshold of readiness for industrial application. Last but not least I delivered the  workshop “Who does the CDIO Community want to be in 2030”. A video recorded impression of this workshop is available here.

Engineering knowledge innovation

Frido Smulders of TU Delft provoked the attendees by stating that almost all  engineering curricula focus on design, engineering and research, while it is innovation that is on the highest agendas in engineering business. In education we forget to pay attention to what technological innovation is and how that unfolds over time in real-life engineering projects. It’s a serious deficiency, because almost all engineering graduates find their natural habitat in innovation. The reason for this deficiency, he said, is that no complete body of knowledge exists that is grounded on research of technological innovation practice.

Frido Smulders, puzzling the audience how to teach the rapidly increasing amount of theoretical and experiential knowledge (private photo)

Single-loop and double-loop innovation

Students learn to develop new products, processes and systems using “old” validated technological knowledge. Or they generate new knowledge or transform fundamental knowledge into applied knowledge by doing research. Smulders terms that as “single-loop” innovation. But students donot learn how to develop technology that has not yet reached the required level of maturity but is needed to develop and build an innovative product or process. In that sense, the CDIO framework, he said, is not equipped for this smaller class of so-called “double-loop” innovations. He illustrated the deficiency with the first planes that used composite materials. These were designed by aeronautical engineers who still “thought in metals” and applied their old knowledge and practical experience to the use of carbon materials. It led to the ”black aluminium” parts that were adequate and safe but far from optimal.

Teaching technology innovation?

Engineers are responsible for designing innovative products, and also developing new technological knowledge. So where do we teach it? How do we find a balance between the growing amounts of scientific theories and engineering practice? Should not this also be contained in the CDIO framework?  How should we teach the students to learn about the process of technology innovation?

Smulders brought the idea forward to bring examples of technology innovations into the classroom that have gone through many iterative cycles of trial and error in science and engineering practice, with the involvement of both engineering and social disciplines. His message was to complement engineering classes and design and research projects with an explicit mindset of continuous discovery, of success, failure and iteration. With a narrative of technological innovation that spans the full range of what happened, yet is generic enough to transfer to technological innovation processes in general. Paying explicit attention to what engineers experienced, assumed, predicted, tested, bread-boarded, forgot or overlooked, and how they combatted the frustration, hesitation and resistance to change on the shop floor. Such storylines would enable the students to develop planning scenarios for the development of new engineering knowledge that is urgently needed for modeling, simulating, analysing or manufacturing new products and systems that are already on the drawing table or are being engineered. Where anticipating risk and conscious risk taking is extremely important. His slides were food for thought for many, see also the video-recording.

Asked why the CDIO-way of thinking is so important for the future of engineering education, Smulders said: “These days, there’s so much more knowledge about engineering available in the scientific domain as well as in the domain of practice. At this point, we tend to teach as much as we know, but with the passage of time, we have come to know too much to teach, so basically we have to revert to another system that helps students to learn the basics, but also learn how to specialise later on in their career, and embark on a road of lifelong learning.”

University career frameworks

Jan van der Veen (University Twente) and Birgit Pepin (TU Eindhoven), both affiliated with the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education, ran a workshop together with Clement Fortin (Skoltech) on university career frameworks that balance teaching performance and research achievement. A video recording of the session is available here. The framework is related to the progress of an international working group of 12 universities from all over the world, coordinated by the Royal Academy of Engineering project and chaired by Ruth Graham (see website).

In many universities management and staff wish to restore the balance between education and research in appraisal cycles and career paths, but few see how this can be achieved. The main problem is, Van der Veen said in his introduction, that most people who have to evaluate or approve professorships in education, are experts in disciplinary research themselves, don’t understand or appreciate education as such to the same level, and thus operate in a slow-death mode.

Van der Veen showed University Twente’s ambitions. They aim at two professorships per Faculty with an emphasis on education. These have to be a national and international leader in teaching and learning (Level 4 of Ruth Graham’s Career Framework for University Teaching). The educational research they are doing has to be at associate professor level. Each Faculty shall also have leaders in teaching and learning, as well as scholarly teachers with senior university teaching qualification (Level 3). Thus innovation and research in teaching will really count in the promotion to Associate or Full Professorship. Also in the Tenure Track training programme more emphasis will be put on teaching performance. See also the UToday post1 and post2 (in Dutch).

Pepin of TU Eindhoven explained their system of Advanced University Teaching Innovation Qualification (AUTIQ), where achievements in educational innovation and research projects provide incentives for university teachers and count in career promotions. Their emphasis is to stimulate continuous innovation in education and publish the results to the outside world.

Fortin of Skoltech showed the documents where the change in career path development had been approved in 2017. The implementation in the academic culture is just starting: they are currently going through the first promotion cases. Commitment in teaching and proven involvement in educational innovation are a requirement to achieve tenure. All Assistant Professors have to write an impact statement that describes their personal impact on education and innovation. For a promotion to Associate Professor criteria of refereed publications in educational conferences and journals have to be met, together with validated contributions to educational conferences and initiatives that demonstrate proven leadership and impact on university education at national and international level, which is also the Level 4 of the career framework.

Not all universities are equally enthusiastic about this Career Framework for University Teaching. For instance TU Delft has been reluctant so far to adopt it and has been discussing since 2014 how to invent a career progression framework for university teaching that optimally matches the “unique Delft” academic culture. Meanwhile educational achievements remain highly undervalued in the Delft career promotions and, as a direct consequence, the continual professionalisation for teaching staff has more or less come to a standstill, as already described in a my September post about the disposable fulltime lecturers.

Three out of 4TU.CEE

On the second day of the gathering at Skoltech we welcomed TU Eindhoven as a new member of the CDIO community. After TU Delft (member since 2011) and University Twente (2017), now three out of the four universities of the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education are a member. Together with The Hague University of Applied Sciences, the Dutch leave their mark on the network community! Alone together we share outcomes of applied educational research with our international partners and learn from each other’s successes and failures.

In the freezing and snowy Saturday morning most of us took the special guided tour of Moscow (private photo)

Hope and need for courage

The participants of the workshop about the Career Framework for University Teaching expressed their hope that this new career framework will soon become the new normal. Not as a lip service, but as a basis to foster education innovation and educational research. Everybody agreed that research universities will have to make deep change. The universities shall demonstrate courage in changing the rules for awarding incentives and funding dramatically. Only then they will transform the academic culture because also academics go where the money flows and conform to the awarding and funding rules, because these rules are usually based on the vision and a strategy of the institution.

We have to stop debating and have the courage to transform the system. A solid career framework that still leaves a lot of freedom to the university organisation, is at hand!

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No skating fun without an agile mindset and a bit of common sense

Global warming reduces the chance of long lasting cold periods, the Dutch national weather service KNMI says on its website. Weeks of wintertime in the Netherlands have cut down to days, if not hours. Over the past 100 years, the average temperature of the coldest five consecutive days of a year has risen by about +2 degrees! Cold weeks like the one we experienced last week in February, occurred in 1900 twice as much as today. And so, without an agile mindset you easily miss the chance to enjoy wintertime.

Siberian bear

Seldom did freezing weather in the Netherlands start so late in the season. Friday February 23rd the meteorological office forecast Siberian cold air to be blown over the Netherlands. It would almost certainly result in an opportunity to skate on canals and other waterways in less than a week time. Daytime temperatures dropped to -5 and -10 centigrade, nighttime temperatures five degrees lower. The windchill by the strong wind from the east made it feel bitterly cold.

Their forecast was right. Within one week time hundreds of thousands Dutchmen skated on the waterways and lakes, even on the canals in the city centre of Amsterdam and Delft. Just on two days, Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday the thermometer indicated a spring temperature of +11 degrees centigrade, and Monday at sunrise I heard the song of a blackbird in my garden… Recent winters have shortened from weeks to days. There is little time to contemplate on whether you want to take a day off and skate: you have to be agile and immediately rearrange your agenda to create space for some hours of skating fun. There is no time to think twice!

One of the main canals in my village Saturday afternoon March 3, 2018 (private photo)

Skating is in the DNA of the Dutch

For foreigners it is difficult to imagine what influence freezing weather has on many Dutch citizens. It must be deep in our DNA. You may know the historic paintings of the 17th and 18th century that show skaters on frozen waterways on a sunny winter’s day, with snow covered cottages and windmills on the riverbanks, or skaters in winter landscapes with a stand on ice that sells hot chocolate milk, drinks and cakes (“Koek and Zopie”).

Little has changed. Also in today’s hectic world, freezing weather in the Netherlands stimulates fraternity and friendship that emanates from spontaneous initiatives by citizens. In my village all of a sudden villagers organised a local championship of “Curling 0.0”, using biscuit tins filled with gravel as the curling stones, while the local supermarket sponsored the Koek and Zopie stand, and the fire brigade arranged the floodlights on the ditch in the village centre. Out-and-out village entertainment anno 2018!

Good sense

Some things did change though. Where I learnt from my parents to assess the quality and thickness of the ice layer on the basis of the weather and the local conditions such as flows in the water, at present many people seem to have a blind trust in simulation models that predict the ice thickness growth in the waterways, on the basis of air temperature and wind speed and probably a couple of other parameters. But these models cannot reflect local conditions of depth and flows of water and local effects of the wind. Where I used to trust on my intuition and good sense, most people today rely on apps that give alerts for weather conditions, slippery roads, as well as ice safety. We rapidly forget to learn from experience and refrain from trials and experiments and no longer use our human sensors.


I don’t know if it was the bitterly cold wind or the abundance of alerts about unsafe ice conditions that were published on the internet, television news, newspapers and apps. The fact was that Friday morning at ten o’clock nobody had tested the ice floor yet on one of the main three-meter deep canals in our village.

Since I had taken a day off to skate and was ready to go, I had no option but to test the ice floor myself. My wife and daughter remained on the bank, in case that…  I walked and jumped on the 12 meter wide ice floor over 300 meters to test its strength. The ice floor was solid as rock, black, hard and super smooth, probably five to eight centimeter thick, with the exception of one blowhole where ten moorhens were swimming. We picked up our skates from home and skated over a one-kilometer long track back and forth. With the wind behind us we felt energized! But the massive headwind took all energy we had. It did not take long till our skating was noticed and we were accompanied by about 20 villagers.

Skating in Botshol, a 215 ha nature reserve where peat moorlands, reed-land, swamp forest take centre stage (private photo)

“Dimes ice”

Saturday morning we drove with my wife, son and daughter to our favourite skating place, the nature reserve Botshol, 8 km from our home. It is a not so well-known reserve of peat moorlands, reed-lands and swamp-forest and is usually only accessible by rowing boats outside the breeding season, and occasionally in wintertime by skating. It’s a wonderful area.  But this time caution was required when skating. Ice was excellent but contained a number really big blowholes. Following the traces of the other 100 skaters made it easy to find a safe route. Skating over a 1.5 km long loop in the reed-land with birds (we even spotted a rare brightly blue coloured common kingfisher, in Dutch appropriately called IJsvogel – which literally translates in “Ice bird”), while listening to the  sloshing water in the blowholes and the cracking noise of the skates gave us the experience we had hoped for.

Dimes ice (in Dutch “dubbeltjes-ijs”): millions of thin flat bubbles of swamp gas trapped in the ice floor (private photo)

A typical feature you observe while skating in the peat moorlands are the bubbles of swamp gas that are trapped in the ice floor. They are visible as hundreds or thousands of thin discs, small or large that are located at different depths in the ice floor, filled with swamp gas, or oxygen released by water plants. In Dutch we call it “dubbeltjes ijs”, dimes ice, because it looks as if the black ice layer contains thousands and thousands of dimes.

Life is not a race track

We all live in a run run runaway world, programme ourselves into a “Fastnet” of speed, internet and 24/7 social networking, and have created a cult of busy. We are harder workers, shorter sleepers and faster thinkers, and expect the world to offer us what we want, when we want it. But wintertime on-demand is not available and only lasts a couple of days. There is no time to think twice. You have to take the chance when it’s there.

For me skating on canals in the polders and reed-lands is the best and most beautiful activity to slow down and take a moment to myself. When we returned home the GPS tracker app showed Friday and Saturday we had skated a total distance of 60 kilometer. Our minds are refreshed. The skates are waiting for sharpening, to be ready for next time. Ready to go!

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Following the CDIO framework Skoltech develops into a powerhouse for innovation and talent development

Visiting a massive campus building under construction in an extensive technology park which is under development at the same time. Understanding the impact of CDIO thinking on the development of Skoltech. Discussing a career development framework that has an accent on education. Upgrading the CDIO framework to also contain training students about innovating products, processes and systems, when the technology itself has not yet reached the level of maturity for full scale application. And strolling over a Christmas market in Moscow mid-January.  These were the ingredients for a memorable out-of-the-box meeting at Skoltech near Moscow.

Winter in Moscow

Winter and Christmas market on the Red Square (private photo)

Most of us had already been back to work after the Christmas break for at least two weeks,  but the Orthodox Christian community in Russia had just celebrated Christmas ten days before our arrival. It made the meeting special: Christmas trees, an abundance of illumination and decorations in the streets and shopping malls, ice sculptures, a skating rink on the Red Square, very few tourists and a winterly snow-covered city. The CDIO European Region had invited us for an “out-of-the-box” meeting. The venue of the meeting was a temporary Mendeleev building of the Skoltech Institute of Science and Technology. You get an impression of the lively atmosphere and discussions at the meeting in this video on YouTube.  The main campus building is still under construction but was accessible for us in a special guided tour.

Skoltech as a pivot for innovation and economic development

Founding president of Skolkovo, MIT professor Ed Crawley addressed in his keynote the lessons learnt from “the human drama to develop and build a Russian innovation and research focused technical university from scratch.” He headed the institute from its founding in 2011 till February 2016. Of course it had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the freedom to align the development of the educational programmes with the design and construction of the building and learning spaces, and recruit and shape the academic staff, right from the start. With clear expectations from the stakeholders to achieve economic development, innovation and entrepreneurship, exchange knowledge, and be a catalyst for education, research and innovation by positioning the university as the pivot in an ecosystem of industries, start-ups and institutes that are developed in parallel. The tour to the new campus showed us what he meant. The Skolkovo Technopark is the biggest technology park of Russia. During our visit the many construction cranes showed it is being developed, with the new university building as the main pivot.

Crawley explained how he had used CDIO as the leading framework not only for the curricula, but also for the physical building and the whole set-up of the Skoltech institute, where talent development (education), discovery (research) and creation (innovation) are integrated in one comprehensive programme. Interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, entrepreneurial education and developing prototypes for proof of concepts are the main enablers for integrated learning. Where students, researchers and collaborators of  the industrial site meet, exchange ideas and knowledge and cooperate in fablabs or makerspaces and the many informal social spaces, all within one and the same campus building.

Learning-by-doing has been made a key asset in the Master programmes, and learning-by-teaching in the PhD studies. PhD students deliver many student-led courses for Master students. At present Skoltech has slightly more than 100 faculty staff, 700 Master students of which 32% are female and 16% non-Russian.

The changing face of Russian higher education

In the second keynote Irina Arzhanova of the National Training Foundation discussed the impact of demographic change on Russian higher education. I don’t remember the many graphs and tables but recall the drop between 2006 and 2016 from more than 500 to 300 students per 10,000 citizens, and the drop in number of public universities from 660 to 500. She addressed the reforms in Russian higher education with respect to quality assurance and accreditation, staff professionalisation and student mobility, merely following European standards and legislation. Internationalisation is increasing, where a minimum of 1% foreign students is the minimum level, while currently almost 7% of the students in higher education is non-Russian.

Skolkovo Innovation Center tour

Skoltech Vice President for Real Estate and Facilities, Gary Wentworth, took the attendees on a tour of the massive campus, which is set to open later this year. The circumference of the annular building is 880 meters. Within the ring-shaped building there will be several well equipped laboratories, an auditorium, classrooms, maker- and lab spaces for research and education that are interconnected by broad interlocking rings and outdoor yards where people meet and collaborate. Nearly 60% of the 136,000 square-meter space will be devoted to research functions. Twelve hundred construction workers are on the site to complete the building.

Construction works at the main campus building of Skoltech (private photo)

The tour inspired the attendees. “For me, a highlight of this gathering was the discussion about engineering workspaces and the design of Skoltech’s new campus building,” said the University of Calgary’s Ron Hugo. “I enjoyed hearing the thought process people went through in designing their new work spaces, and being able to go see the new campus. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear about the architectural team’s projects and then see the nearly final product,” he added. Chalmers’ Malmqvist echoed the sentiment. “It’s been great to be at Skoltech and great to see the soon finished building, which we’ve been hearing about for quite a while,” he said. Also I chimed in: “The most impressive thing about the university was the construction work of the new university. I would really like to come back here when everything is operational and see how the integrated concept of education, research and innovation has worked out” I said.

CDIO: a paradigm shift in engineering education

In the conference coffee breaks Ingrid Burke of Skoltech interviewed the speakers and other attendees to reflect on the value of the CDIO framework and community. The full article with interviews is available at the Skoltech website.

It all began in 1999 when industry giants like Boeing and the American Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology rallied in favour of engineering educational reform. “In an era of unprecedented technological advancement, engineering practice continues to evolve but engineering education has not changed appreciably since the 1950s. This schism has prompted industry, government, and other key constituents to question the relevancy and efficacy of current programmes,” began a 1999 paper written by representatives of aerospace giants Boeing and TRW, Inc.

It was about this time that Crawley entered the scene. “CDIO started as a programme for four universities. There was never any intention at the beginning to go beyond those four schools,” Crawley said, referring to MIT as well as Swedish institutions Chalmers University of Technology, Linköping University and the Royal Institute of Technology. But word of the initiative spread, attracting the attention of universities far and wide. It was this unexpectedly widespread interest that inspired the founding members of CDIO to establish the list of 12 educational Standards that define the initiative today”. In his keynote he said he would like to rephrase the Standards into “Effective Practices”. The standards strive to define the philosophy of the CDIO programme, and to help educators implement educational reform. They fall into five categories:

  • philosophy
  • curriculum
  • design-implement experiences and workspaces
  • teaching and learning
  • assessment and evaluation

Malmqvist does not believe that any of the principles is particularly superior. Rather, he believes it is imperative to implement them as a set in its entirety. “It’s the set that is important. When we have worked with a set of standards, we have gotten a systematic approach to designing our programmes, and that takes into consideration many things. So in many cases it’s really working with the whole set, which is the key point. All of them are important in their own right, but they’re even stronger as a combined set,” he said.

Asked why the 12 Standards seem to be so broadly embraced by geographically diverse engineering schools, Crawley explained: “I think they’re just a codification of what’s more or less generally acknowledged as good practice. The hard thing is not to get people agree that the CDIO principles are good principles; the hard thing is to convince people to go to work in the morning and do it.” In that interview I added in a similar vein, “CDIO is really not a theoretical network; it’s a network of common sense. If you’re really thinking about what education should be, you end up with a CDIO-type of framework.” Notably, I myself at TU Delft discovered CDIO after having reconstructed my Bachelor programme in Aerospace Engineering that perfectly mirrored the initiative’s guiding philosophy.

The Standard “Integrated learning experiences” champions the integration of disciplinary and practical knowledge along with personal and interpersonal skills. Personally I consider this both the most important and the most challenging of the CDIO Standards to implement. “All of the experts are discipline-based, and each of them believes that their discipline is the most important thing in the universe. If you tell them they have to enrich that with creativity, ethical, systems thinking or other interdisciplinary skills, they find it extremely difficult because they themselves are not equipped for that”.

With the permission of Skoltech, I have copied some sections from the article “Skoltech hosts CDIO meeting aimed at revolutionizing engineering education” by Skoltech correspondent and editor Ingrid Burke. The full article with CDIO interviews is available on the Skoltech website.

My next blog post will discuss the contributions of 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education  at the conference, about a career development framework that has the accent on education, and an upgrading the CDIO framework to also contain training students about innovating products, processes and systems when the technology itself has not yet passed the threshold for full scale application.

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Hands-on learning the new mantra for engineering education at TU Eindhoven

February 1st, the day after the second National Interdisciplinary Education Conference (NIEC 2018), the Eindhoven team of the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education organised the Education Innovation Day at TU Eindhoven (TU/e). I got the invitation to run two workshops on building an engineering body of knowledge in a hands-on learning environment. From the presentation “Expedition 2030” by the Dean of the Bachelors College Lex Lemmens, I soon found out why these workshops would be highly relevant: in the discussions about an updated strategy for education in 2030, TU/e has put a new dot on the horizon, where hands-on learning is a key asset in the Bachelor and Master programmes. Many other vision statements I have described in my report “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” may be brought to life as well.

“Learning-by-doing is going to be the new thing for us”
(Quote Lex Lemmens, TU/e)

TU/expedition 2030

From the presentation I understand that the rethinking of the university strategy focuses on the impact of six driving forces:

  1. the rise of the digital technologies in the engineering profession and in higher education (ubiquitous content, need for digital intelligence, digital learning environment);
  2. the increasing importance of professional skills beyond the engineering discipline;
  3. the increasing global mobility of students and staff;
  4. the convergence of digital, science, engineering and social disciplines;
  5. the need to develop global innovation hubs to accelerate development cycles;
  6. the need for more societal and industrial engagement.

Although the strategy is still in a nascent state, “on-campus” and “hands-on” education are the key words. They lead to the following three leading directions for the transformation:

Learners will create their own playlist

In 2030 all students in the classroom will be digital natives. The digitalisation of the learning environment and study materials enables the students to create their own playlists and compose personalised study programmes in line with the individual capacity, interest and ambition. From day one it makes the students responsible for their learning and makes them more aware that education is a preparation for life. TU/e foresees a transformation of the existing rigid curricular Bachelor and Master structures in highly flexible curricula in which each student has a high degree of freedom to build his or her study programme from separate modules, micro-credentials and nano degrees. These originate from an unbundling of the existing curricula in Eindhoven or can be taken from (qualified) programmes from other universities. Programme certificates will guarantee the quality of the individual degree programme. It will require an extensive upskilling of the teaching staff, new didactic and pedagogic learning systems and software that supports the teachers in tracking of individual competence development, and the students in planning and control of study activities. It will also require “flip-thinking” to turn traditional didactics, rules and regulations into enablers for personalised study programmes.

Hands-on learning labs will become the prime educational spaces

In spite of the rapidly growing student numbers, TU/e aims to transform the Bachelor and Master curricula into highly interactive programmes with 70% or more hands-on learning. Nowadays this is less than 30% of the study time. Hands-on learning will prepare students to become curiosity-driven makers and discoverers of their future careers. Hands-on learning  is a catch-all for problem-based, project-based, design-based or challenge-based education. For me hands-on learning is about equivalent to “learn how to engineer“. It may include design and analysis work, experimentation, research work, conceive-design-build-operate projects (following the CDIO approach), where students work in multi- or interdisciplinary student teams, possibly in collaboration with stakeholders from industry or society. To accommodate such a hands-on learning environment, the university plans to invest in new physical learning environments, such as Innovation Spaces. They should develop into the prime educational spaces on the campus. One of the main educational buildings is already under major reconstruction works for a transformation into an Innovation Space. Also teaching staff will have to prepare for a major switch from mainly transferring content to merely coaching, monitoring performance and validating work. A challenge indeed. Do sufficient senior staff have the willingness and capability to act as a change agent?

Engineering education: interdisciplinary and embedded in an innovation ecosystem

The way we educate future generations no longer prepares them adequately for the skills and jobs of today. The idea that engineering students study mathematics and engineering sciences as separate disciplines, and then work to solve real world problems in today’s economy, does not add up. The engineering profession in business as well as academia increasingly demands skills like systems thinking, interdisciplinary thinking and digital intelligence. TU/e explained their vision on the T-shaped professional: all engineering students will need a broad basis in engineering fundamentals of mechanical and electrical and chemical engineering and computer sciences and architecture. It will enable the students to collaborate effectively in multidisciplinary teams. Another vision however explained the attractiveness to educate an M-shaped professional, who has deep knowledge in one, and deep knowledge in one or two other engineering disciplines. The M-shaped professional is well equipped to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams. I doubt if professionals with deep knowledge in two or three engineering disciplines, do indeed have the capacity to be integrative: a mastery of different but similar disciplines does not necessarily make them interdisciplinary by itself. My favourite model is therefore the Π-shaped professional, who has deep knowledge in an engineering discipline and a good working knowledge of one or more branches of social sciences or humanities.

“Engineering students have to learn that people policies, environmental aspects, politics, economics or cultural values often override disciplinary expertise”

A strong collaboration between the university and industrial partners and institutes will be essential. TU/e therefore forms ideas to develop an innovation hub, the so-called TU/engine. In this innovation ecosystem researchers, students, entrepreneurs, companies and R&D professionals will collaborate in interdisciplinary flagship projects.

Building an engineering body of knowledge in a hands-on learning environment


The aim of my workshops was the development of awareness of the impact that a major shift to a hands-on learning environment could have on the learning of the engineering body of knowledge. In such learning environment the mental organiser for staff and students is the thread of design work, project work, challenge-based education, etcetera.

This is in contrast with many today’s curricula, where projects are often supplemental with Intended Learning Outcomes (ILO) that emphasise personal and interpersonal skills (communication, teamwork, creativity, initiative, leadership). In these curricula the courses in engineering fundamentals and disciplinary subject matter are often concluded by exams, mainly testing memorisation, application and understanding.

Technical depth: more important than ever

In the discussions about the increasing importance to develop “21st century skills” in an active hands-on learning environment, we tend to forget that in 2030 the mastery of deep working knowledge of engineering sciences will be more important than ever.Deep knowledge will remain the key for understanding the value and assessing the reliability and usability of the exponentially growing amount of information in our technological world. Also in 2030 creative solutions for engineering problems cannot emerge from a vacuum and will need a broad and ready availability amount of engineering domain knowledge.

Project-centric curricular framework, slightly adapted from NEET framework of MIT School of Engineering

Next Engineering Education Transformation

For ideation I showed the participants the so-called NEET (Next Engineering Education Transformation) project-centric curricular framework that is currently under development by MIT School of Engineering. Where students learn what they need to know to design innovative solutions for advanced machines, systems and processes that will be on the market in twenty to thirty years time. ILO’s for the integrative learning of engineering knowledge and durable skills are defined per project and are tested by integral assessments within the projects. When TU/e adopts a similar (NEET) approach, and puts on top of that a mix with personalised learning, what exactly do we want the students to learn in these hands-on learning environments? How should we reformulate the ILO’s for disciplinary content knowledge, harmonised and integrated with durable skills? How can we measure the formal disciplinary knowledge and competency levels that really matter? Or is there a way to avoid assigning marks after all, as Eric Mazur,  the well-known educator at Harvard, proclaims in his Assessment: the silent killer of learning?

Learning objectives, attainment levels, assessments and flip-thinking

The lively discussions in the workshops highlighted multiple concerns and ideas. A quick overview:

  • The major change in the role of the teacher, shifting from transferring content to coaching students in their development.
  • The conflicting goals of acquiring knowledge, developing skills and obtaining satisfactory project results; the need to integrate skills development in the proper sequence,  in the context of the project and the discipline.
  • The uncertainty in the attainable academic level and the completeness of the engineering body of knowledge. There was discussion about what level of completeness would be  required as a minimum for all students, and there were questions about the risk of too much zapping between subjects by the students.
  • The need for regular self-assessments by the students to define personal learning outcomes and study path and planning, develop preferred engineering roles and the required knowledge level for engineering fields of personal interest.
  • The assessment of the individual attainment levels of sub fields in engineering that are different per person: how can we find the balance between subjective assessment and assessment of the rigour of the engineering domain? Could one integrative summative assessment do the job on the basis of a personal portfolio?
  • Can we copy the concept of the Progress Test (VGT) of Maastricht University all students do four times a year, all at the same time, all with the same questions, to test the attainment level of knowledge and skills in their discipline?
  • The complexity of personal competence-based education: defining, controlling and tracing the development of personal ILO’s.
  • The need to define the ILO’s on programme level on a higher level of abstraction; accreditation agencies have to get involved as well.
  • The lack of staff expertise to supervise interdisciplinary projects, and coach students of different seniority, from different disciplines in different roles: need for team teaching.
  • The need for different educational spaces than the traditional classrooms.
  • The need to build community: departmental structures will be broken down for students as well as staff.

Both workshops identified the need to flip our thinking in almost all aspects. Nothing will be trivial. The change will have to be radical and you can’t implement only parts of such new strategy. Somebody stated “You can’t be just a little bit pregnant!”

“This idea of learning by doing is what is now called “experiential learning,” and though it’s demanding, it is also very effective”. (Quote Ishwar K. Puri in World Economic Forum 27 February 2018)
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This is what we can do to break the gender stereotype in hardcore engineering

Women spend more time than men on social integration, score higher in teamwork and empathy, and are more adaptive to change. Does not this make women the preferred engineers of the future? And if so, what can we do to make this happen?

I am far from being an expert in gender diversity. But a prize award ceremony at our faculty by the International Aviation Women Association (IAWA) in August, a sudden drop in female freshman students at my Faculty in September 2017, a role in the GEDC Airbus Diversity Award session at Niagara Falls in October, and the challenge we have set ourselves the goal in October to triple the female influx by 2025, have got me thinking.

Why so few?

Women are under-represented in many fields of engineering.The stereotype that links masculinity with mechanical, civil, electrical and aerospace engineering is prevalent and difficult to overcome. Could it be the way these disciplines have portrayed themselves? For too long they have presented themselves as fields that recruit the best brains in mathematics and sciences and shape them into problem solvers who wear a hard hat and work on-site. For too long they forget to tell that engineers not only solve cut-and-dried problems but also define and analyse problems, design creative solutions for ambiguous problems, and use 3D design, analysis, simulation and intelligence software! That’s how they build skyscrapers, design modern airplanes and invent things that improve and save people’s lives.

We forget to emphasise that engineering is a social activity and shifts towards more contact and more empathy with customers and colleagues. Any new technology, system, building or infrastructure we see in our daily world is the work of a team of engineers. Rather than thinking of engineering capabilities as gender-related, engineering is very much person-related. Since women spend more time than men on social integration, score higher in teamwork and empathy, and are more adaptive to change, could not this make women the preferred engineers of the future?

Women in a Man’s World, but not everywhere

Photo: TU Delft

Many countries in Europe have a low percentage of female engineering professionals. Engineering industry has earned itself a reputation of being a male bastion and seems to forget that no technology will work optimally if fifty percent of the people from the world, the women, are excluded.

The absolute numbers and the ranking of countries depend on which research and statistics we take as a reference. The percentage of female employees in the engineering middle and upper segment in the Netherlands seems to be lower than anywhere else in Europe: with 18 % women in engineering, the Netherlands seems to be at the very bottom. The figures are quite different when we look at Germany and Belgium at about 25-30%,  and Eastern Europe is leading the field at 35 to 40% with Bulgaria as the winner with 41 % female employees (ref. Dutch magazine De Ingenieur April 2015). Outside Europe the gap closes even further as China, India, Jordan, Malaysia edge upwards to fifty per cent. And in Iran even seventy per cent of science and engineering students are female! These data show large disparities from country to country, and the forces at play are very complex and multidimensional.

The low figures of female employment in the Netherlands not only apply to the engineering sector. The January 2018 report (in Dutch)  “Werken aan de Start, Jonge vrouwen en mannen op de arbeidsmarkt” by the Netherlands Institute of Social Research reads, that nowhere else in Europe young women work so few hours than in the Netherlands, and nowhere else the difference between men and women is so large. In the Netherlands many women chose for sectors that easily accommodate parttime jobs. Particularly in the health sector parttime jobs are favourite and “normal”, in the engineering sector they are not.

Lack of role models

One of the barriers to young women is that they don’t see more than a handful of females who are doing traditionally “male” jobs in the engineering and technology sector. It makes them assume that such roles are more or less closed to them. Aspirant female students who think about a study in engineering sciences look at faculty and find mainly grey-haired men. Also in my Faculty of Aerospace Engineering the gender profile is unbalanced. Eighty-seven per cent of the permanent scientific staff (full, associate, assistant professors) at my faculty is male, not necessarily all bold or grey-haired. Only one of the seven-member Management Team is a woman. Only fourteen per cent of the Bachelor and twelve per cent of the Master student population is female (ref. TU Delft Facts and Figures/Staff 2016).

The world needs more women in engineering

To solve the world’s problems and come up with innovative ideas we need a diverse set of minds. The largest pool of under-utilised talent is the women. They would make great engineers, but why do so many choose non-engineering careers? I believe it’s not only the Man’s World. It’s also the image of the engineering disciplines we stick to the mind of the students. Millennial students in general, and young women in particular, want to make a difference in the world, want to help people and add value. Engineering is exactly doing that: making life better and a safer place, but we often forget to mention. My first hit on today’s TU Delft website describes in 500 words the origami’ lattices with nano-scale surface ornaments, and mentions, hidden in the text in just five words, that it “can be used in medical implants”. It is one out of tons of examples that in research universities, pride in engineering sciences stands fiercely for its technology, not for its purpose.

Gender stereotypes

There is no valid argument why men and women would have different reasons for enrolling in engineering. Many of my students mention they are good at maths and science in their pre-university education and want good employability, interesting career paths with well-paid professional opportunities. Women, more often than men, add that they want to become socially responsible engineers. They do not want to become a nerdy engineer but solve major problems, make a difference in people’s lives. They are more likely than their male counterparts, interested in engineering work that is “socially conscious”, i.e. specialisations such as environmental or biomedical, extraterrestrial life search, instead of the hard electrical, civil or aerospace engineering.

Another argument that plays a role is that engineering students quickly find out that collaboration and teamwork constitute a core component of being an engineer. For quite some female engineering students the first encounter with this teamwork is influenced by gender stereotypical behaviour by their peers. Female students like team work, but too often they are relegated to doing more routine work or reporting activities, and are excluded by the males from the “real” engineering work.

In my faculty we try to mitigate such relegation by assigning at least three female students to a team of eight or ten students, or no women at all, which is not the ideal world either. This also takes advantage of a conclusion in the report by HFMtalentindex and the Royal Dutch Institute for Engineering: “For women to thrive and fully utilise these (learning) agilities, they must be in teams that contain other women” and “….when a woman is in a team containing only men, the opportunities to interact together, to share ideas, and to learn from each other is quite limited”. Women want freedom and have the opportunity to be surrounded by others and the ability to ask others for help.

I hear and read stories that also in internships and later in the the workplace women are more often than men coupled with less challenging projects and confronted with sexism and everyday harassment, often in isolation from supportive chiefs or colleagues. Such perspectives easily lead female students to revisit their ambitions. They begin to question whether engineering is what they really want to do. The engineering sector is moving, and I know for instance the European Airbus multinational is taking (gender) diversity very seriously. But I forecast that also in the coming decade female students and engineers will need perseverance not to let the stereotypes distract them. In many companies they still have to be better than their male colleagues to achieve the same career opportunities.

Talking differently about engineering will attract different people

Women feel, more than men, attracted to “purpose”. Developing highly advanced instruments, optimising product or system designs, doing research without the user or the application in mind, do not have the visible impact on society. So I make a plea to add a mindset of societal and industrial engagement to the engineering curricula, by bringing environment and societal, economic and political contexts into the classroom, much more than we are used to. Incorporating such mindset requires a major mind-shift of the staff but will lead to higher student engagement and educate better engineers. More women will feel attracted. Look at the better gender balance in the fields of life sciences, architecture, planetary exploration, biotechnology and the search for extraterrestrial life. In these fields it is the societal impact that makes the difference. The TU Delft 2018 corporate movie  “You are everywhere in my life” on YouTube is one of the few portraits that shows very well what the role of engineering in everybody’s life is.

In our outreach and informative sessions for prospective students, we have to reframe engineering in a more purposeful and creative profession that resonates better with women’s interest. We have to connect it, in my discipline, more tightly to the great challenges in aeronautics and spaceflight. Secondly we should change the profile of engineering into a more creative and problem-solving profession. I hear people say that the addition of arts to engineering education could add the necessary motivation of creativity and attract more female students.  So, should not we empower the female students in the makerspaces and innovation factories on campus where engineering specialists, customers, users and other stakeholders join together?

 “We will attract more female students if we let them use engineering to solve real-world challenges, where they learn how their creativity and engineering skills can make a real difference”

Are females the engineers for the future?

The conclusion in the study about learning agility of HFMtalentindex reads “(…) women are the ideal candidate to hire (…).” Women are stronger than men in people agility (social integration, openness to people) and self-awareness (knowing your own strengths and weaknesses). The report reads “This is an ideal combination, since previous research found that those who have this profile have the greatest development change over time (…) show a greater improvement in their current function than those who don’t”. “Female engineers also score higher than their male counterparts in almost all the competencies, meaning they have more potential than male engineers.” If we add these insights to the expectations that the developments in robotics and artificial intelligence will create new jobs that require human aspects and human intervention, it’s clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution forces us to rewire the DNA of engineering teams.

Solving complex problems needs creativity, and creativity demands a diversity of view points. Without the input from women, engineers have only access to half the total pool of creativity, which limits the applicability of solutions they reach. According to a study by McKinsey, the most gender-diverse companies are fifteen per cent more likely to outperform financially than the least gender-diverse. Diversity in workforce is good for business. It offers a broader range of skills and perspectives and encourages better performance and behaviour.

It is not only half of the creativity we miss. I wonder how companies who want to grow and understand trends and discover new market niches can be successful without understanding and without having the skills to empathise with the female perspectives?

Opportunities for women with a career break

For engineering business as well as universities, attracting women who have taken a career break, may help to enlarge the number of females in senior or leadership roles. It is probably a quicker way to find candidates with experience by selecting them from a highly motivated pool who have difficulty in getting back in the world of work. It is also much quicker and cheaper to upskill a  returner in comparison to starting with a young graduate who usually misses many professional skills of teamwork or project management.

Lack of confidence causes women change their minds

Female engineering students perform equally or better than men. But they are more likely than men to leave the study or switch to a more social or societal oriented study. They switch more than men because they don’t believe their skills are good enough or don’t feel like they fit in engineering. Such lack of confidence is an important factor when competing with men, for instance in selective admissions to an engineering programme or a job.

Impact of selective admission

My Faculty has to do much better in gender diversity and we have therefore set ourselves the goal of thirty per cent female students influx in 2025. It means an annual rise of sixteen per cent in female student intake per year, for the next eight years in a row… I call that a challenge. It is the reaction to many years of slow but steady rise and a sudden decline from sixteen to nine per cent of female influx in 2017. More women and an inclusive culture will enhance the effectiveness of our educational programmes. But we have to understand that instilling such inclusive culture in the university will be a challenge.

Since 2017 we as a Faculty have entered the era of selective admission of prospective Bachelor students and are aware that we run risks of exclusion due to a bias in the criteria or process for admission. We select students who are expected to have the highest ability and potential to succeed in our Bachelor programme. Diversity in gender, race, religion, social background, talent or any other contextual factor are not part of our admission criteria. The emphasis of our selection process is on high-achieving single-minded academic applicants. The lack of confidence by women I addressed in the above, possibly prevents more female than male students from applying to our programme, or completing the admission process, and if it does, we have to find out how to mitigate.

The GEDC – Airbus Diversity Award

The GEDC – Airbus Diversity Award ceremony. From left to right: Aldert Kamp, Rachel Schroeder, Alex Bannigan – finalist, Qiao Sun – finalist, Taiwo Tejumola – recipient of GEDC Airbus Diversity Award 2017)

Diversity and Inclusiveness were among the most popular words at the Global Engineering Deans Council conference at Niagara Falls in October 2017. Diversity is the prime condition for a reflective community and a driver for innovation and growth. Increasingly sectors and countries recognise the value of diversity and inclusiveness.

Together with Rachel Schroeder, Head of Employment Marketing, Airbus, I hosted an interactive panel on “Diversity in Engineering” where we discussed a number of provocative statements with the deans, where the central question was “Whose responsibility is it to beat the gender bias in engineering?”

  • Engineering universities will only prioritize diversity and inclusiveness when its benefits are evidence-based.
  • Positive discrimination (such as tailored admission standards, special scholarships) will boost diversity at university level.
  • Only when the higher management has the courage to set targets and give incentives for diversity and inclusiveness, the organisation will adopt it.

AI and inclusiveness

I will not elaborate on the discussion, but an unexpected topic that popped up was about the rise of Artificial Intelligence and its potential impact on inclusiveness. Algorithms should be in principle “colour-blind” and thus not discriminate on gender, race, etcetera. But actually nobody knows  in detail how the many complex algorithms in AI will sort and sift data. It raised the question whether or not learning machines will be capable to learn inclusively, or unintentionally reinforce discrimination? It is one more reason why we need more women in engineering. Without their thinking the algorithms in artificial intelligence and robotics may be poor and have conscious or unconscious male bias.

“The article, issued in the Irish Times on 24 December 2018 “Concerns over huge gender gap in artificial intelligence workforce” is a bad sign. Women account for just 22% of the workforce in Artificial Intelligence: the gender talent gap in this sector is three times larger than in other industries. “This gender bias will thus enter the coding process, leading to real-world implications”, the article reads.


Portraying a different image of our curricula, connecting engineering more to society, defeating sexual harassment, using more female role models in engineering, teaming women in project education, adding a mindset of societal and industrial relevance to engineering programmes, empowering especially women in makerspaces, analysing the impact of selective admission processes. The broad spectrum of topics in my post may give the impression I have been scattering away at random about gender diversity. They came to my mind when I started thinking about improving gender diversity at my Faculty.

Diversity and gender equality are hot items. In the five days after publishing this blogpost, I hit upon the recent comprehensive study by Microsoft “Why don’t European girls like science or technology?” and a report of the World Economic Forum “Why 2018 must be the year for women to thrive“. Let’s make time to make it work! We have a long way to go before we will achieve an equal spread of women and men working in the engineering sector. But when men learn about gender inequality at work? They fight it.

“If you want your company to be successful; if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, then women are the best”.
(Quote Jack Ma, Executive Chairman Alibaba,
at World Economic Conference in Davos 24 January 2018)

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