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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