‘Knowledge is no longer our essence as a uni.’ Prof. Isabelle Reymen on challenge-based learning

Rob Stork

At innovation Space at the Technical University Eindhoven, students from diverse disciplines work together on societal challenges that match their interests and motivation. In March, Professor Isabelle Reymen received the first prize for the Dutch Higher Education Grant for her work as Scientific Director of innovation Space. Reymen is also part of the Impact at the Core advisory board. In this interview, we talk about challenge-based learning and the changing student. "They can do a whole lot when they are passionate about the subject."

You are part of the advisory board due to your work with the innovation Space. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

“Among other things, we offer an interdisciplinary final project for undergraduates at innovation Space. Students from different study programmes  work on wicked societal challenges, all from different starting points and perspectives. At the start of the semester, problem owners come pitch their challenges. They are various organizations and companies from both inside and outside the Brainport Eindhoven region. The students choose the issuess they want to work on. Some dive into energy, others go towards smart mobility or artificial intelligence for example.”

“innovation Space is a learning hub for educational innovation, a center of expertise in challenge-based learning and student entrepreneurship. We are active online and we have our own base on campus. It’s an open community where knowledge is exchanged by students, researchers, artists, businesses, designers and civil society.”

“I will give you an example of a project. The European Space Agency (ESA) came up with our most open challenge: do something useful for society with satellite data. In the Netherlands, that data is free for entrepreneurs, but not everyone knows that. Our students dove into the monitoring of seaweed farms in the North Sea. Normally, to see if the plants are growing well, you’d need a boat and sail out there with a team of divers and other experts. Such a trip costs two thousand euros each time. But with the solution designed by our students, they can monitor their seaweed via an app twenty-four hours a day. I think it’s ingenious; they’ve worked it all out, which is awesome to witness!

How do students benefit from challenge-based education?

“Students have changed, they really have! Many of them want to do something with renewable energy, or to contribute to a better tomorrow in a more general manner. You can see that they want to have an impact on society. This is something that runs pretty deep. From their passions, they can do a lot. That way it becomes fun to learn. We must adjust education to this: it should no longer consist of merely one subject and one teacher who does all the talking. Teachers should become coaches who put the fact of learning by students at the center. The latter will enjoy learning new things if they can do so while working on a project that fits their intrinsic motivation. The students learns how to learn. They start setting their own learning goals and, as a group, they ask themselves: what is it that you are good at, what are my own qualities and how can we use our collective knowledge to do something good? This way, they gain experience with the way the outside world works and learn to deal with uncertainty. The projects and their outcomes are not fixed in advance, one has to learn to work around that. I think this is a valuable preparation for when they enter the job market.”

“Moreover, it is evident that employers are looking for next-generation graduates. They are no longer interested in merely a mechanical engineer for example; they are looking for people with an entrepreneurial mindset, who can work together in a team and know how to think at a certain level of abstraction. To that end, it is important to be an in-depth professional with a broad orientation. Up to now, that last bit has been underrepresented in education."

Bart van Overbeeke

How do you facilitate this type of education?

“Coaching! As I pointed out: education is not a one-way street anymore. You can still offer theory modules, but not even in a fixed order anymore; students decide for themselves when they need certain knowledge. To guide them in the process, we hired coaches from the field, hybrid teachers who seek for balance from the first week onwards: when to let them go and when to pull them out of the mud?”

“There is a lot of failure, in fact it is constant failure. The team with the seaweed farm I just mentioned had a clear idea from the start. They came a long way with the development and managed to get a lot of stuff done for their stakeholders. But you often also see groups changing directions two weeks before the end of the project. This too is guided by there coach, and it doesn’t matter: those students may have learned even more than the team that executed everything on the first try.”

“We are also setting up a train the trainer course to be able to train more coaches as we expand the innovation Space. For that, we are going to observe our current coaches and see how they go about it. We know that their efforts work, a number of courses has already run five times and we saw some very good and useful outcomes. This is good news: teachers are still key, albeit in a very different way.”

Why is challenge-based education on the rise right now?

“Because the issues of our time can no longer be solved with just electrical engineering or technical business administration. Such challenges are complex and ask that we approach them from a multitude of disciplines. These problems must be solved in a quadruple helix: along with governments, companies, knowledge institutions and consumers. If you want to improve the world, start with education. You have to teach students to do things differently, to work together in an interdisciplinary way.”

“One student has a thing for sports, the other has a seriously ill grandmother for whom she wants to be able to do something. Their mindset is: this is a field in which I want to contribute. Our education should fit in with that ambition, so that they can work on something from there intrinsic motivation and learn in the meantime. Challenge-based education is a response from universities to that changing student and to societies in transition.”

“Students nowadays are digital natives. Listening to a lecture for hours is boring, who wants to do that anymore? Sitting in lecture halls without any interaction is not the future. If we as universities do not act, we will cease to exist in ten years. You’ll have Google Academy or whatever, you will be able to get certificates anywhere. Knowledge is available everywhere; you don’t need a university for that. So then what is our function, the essence of a university?”

Can challenge-based learning be built in at a general university just as easily as at a technical university?

“Interdisciplinary cooperation is always possible. As far as I’m concerned, universities must also be open to working together. I can imagine TU/e defining a challenge with students from EUR joining in. Or the other way around; I don’t care who takes the lead. The concept of innovation Space might not easily be copied and applied, but the principle of challenge-based learning can. However, I do think that the central structure of a technical uni makes it easier to run this type of project. But that does not change the fact that innovation is always possible.”

“Assessment is still an issue though. How do we assess challenge-based education? The problem is that we still do most assessments the old-fashioned way, by putting a grade on a report card, while students nowadays learn and progress on the basis of competencies. That doesn’t match up yet.”

“I want to work on individual learning paths. In the current system, study routes are fixed with accreditations and learning objectives per course. I recently spoke to a woman who’d studied chemistry and was now working at electrical engineering to research solar cells alongside mathematicians. You see, people make their own combinations of disciplines and become experts in a unique combination of domains of their own choosing. Why would that only be possible after graduation in a specific field; why would you have to study all of chemistry or electric engineering first? As a student, it should be your prerogative to say: I want to work on sustainable energy and, to that end, I will find the right combination of chemistry and electrical engineering to form my own pathway. You can learn a lot that way. I think that this is the future, but maybe not for tomorrow.”

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Impact at the Core

EUR aims to make a positive societal impact with its education. With that ambition in mind, Impact at the Core builds courses and programmes where students work on the wicked issues of our time. Our goal is to challenge students to work on complex problems alongside professionals and peers from all disciplines. Together, they search for the core of the problem and analyze it from numerous perspectives in order to come to the building blocks for possible solutions. Students work on their knowledge and research skills, while at the same time developing the twenty-first century skills necessary to deal with societal issues. Impact at the core funds, supports and co-creates all initiatives for impact-driven education.