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.

This entry was posted in Future engineering skills, Innovative teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *