New model needed to future-proof engineering education in Europe

If Europe is to make progress in tackling major societal challenges such as climate change, an ageing population and global pandemics, strong engineering competencies are needed, write Henrik Pedersen and Mogens Rysholt Poulsen (Aalborg University)
12th February 2021
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Our engineers must constantly be at the forefront of the search for innovative and sustainable solutions. They should start preparing to fulfil this role when they are students. This is also when they must learn to navigate and critically assess the massive flow of information.

If you ask students what they need to make the most of their studies, they will stress three main points: i) freedom of choice, ii) flexibility and last but not least, iii) more personal interactions with teachers and supervisors.

Students have a point

If we want to future-proof European engineering programmes, we need to listen to the students. Research shows that contextual, dialogue-based learning is much more effective than passive learning.

To put it another way: we need to advance from arrangements where students sit in large auditoriums and listen to a teacher who stands fifteen meters away and presents information that they are not able to put in any broader context.

We must replace such learning and teaching practices with a model in which students work on real problems, collaborate with the wider community and engage in active dialogue with their teachers and supervisors. This is what contextual, dialogue-based learning is all about.

Dare to go digital

Currently, many students are facing challenges as they are unable to go to university campuses or use university facilities, and face-to-face learning is replaced by online learning. This might not be the most optimal solution in the long run, however, we must still find the courage to embrace digital teaching in the right form. If the knowledge that students traditionally acquire through lectures in an auditorium can be obtained digitally by the time they need it, teachers' time can then be much better spent offering guidance and help to students.

An educational model created by Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Australia that first introduced a ‘topic tree’ in engineering programmes (see video) could serve as an example of how we could advance our learning and teaching practices.

International digital topic tree

The CSU model was adapted to specific conditions in regional Australia, and thus cannot be directly applied to the European context. However, it can certainly be used as a source of inspiration when developing a European model in which students:

  • Learn while solving real problems;
  • Engage in close collaboration with industry, society and other relevant partners and stakeholders;
  • Acquire knowledge (traditionally offered in auditorium lectures) through a digital topic tree that brings together the best digital teaching processes from around the world;
  • Receive more direct supervision and support from academic staff, either individually or in small teams.

Learning when relevant

The aim of the model is to enable students to work on real problems and cooperate with partners outside of the university. While trying to solve the problems, students will progress in their studies and achieve certain learning outcomes. Along the way, they will need knowledge from the topic tree – knowledge that they can obtain at the time it is relevant when solving the problem at hand.

The topic tree must be visualised on a digital map and have a well-ordered structure. The students will require a thorough introduction to how the model works, how to use the topic tree and find the knowledge they need, and how to navigate between the subjects that are interconnected and identify the ones that are important for their chosen specialisations. Time saved on auditorium lectures should be allocated to help the students either individually or in smaller groups, so that they are accompanied and guided by their teachers in their journey through different disciplines.

Opportunity for cooperation

Aalborg University has been implementing the problem-based learning model for almost fifty years, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve and develop it further. The CSU model suggests what our next steps could be as it offers a novel approach to learning and teaching. It moves away from the more typical modes of knowledge delivery and puts more focus on the possibilities and abilities of students to easily find the knowledge they need and judge when and how to apply it.

At Aalborg University, we are keen to explore how we could incorporate the topic tree into the education process of our engineers. We see it as a great opportunity for collaboration, where leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education unite their efforts to create a topic tree for engineering students that could be used across Europe and globally. Would you be willing to contribute to shaping the engineering education of the future?

Henrik Pedersen (Dean of Technical Faculty of IT and Design, Aalborg University and Chair of Task Force Link SSH with STEM)

Mogens Rysholt Poulsen (Dean of Faculty of Engineering and Science, Aalborg University)

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