A WORKING EXAMPLE
The purpose of education is progress, says Professor Geert Dewulf, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Technology (ET) at the University of Twente. “If students get good grades but don’t know how to implement their knowledge to solve society’s problems, they will never have any impact.”
His institution has approached higher education from this standpoint since it was founded in 1961. Originally a technical university, today Twente offers applied and social science programmes. Within the ET faculty alone, almost 2,000 undergraduates, master’s students and PhD candidates engage in collaborative, industry-focused learning. “We help our students to look at things in different ways,” says Professor Dewulf, “to generate new solutions for the problems of tomorrow.”
Another feature of Twente’s ET faculty is its project-led teaching and learning. The faculty’s five fields – civil engineering and management, construction management and engineering, industrial design and engineering, mechanical engineering, and sustainable energy technology – all see students working with industry on real-world problems. Civil engineering students learning about flood defence systems, for example, are set a live project by industry experts. They have to tackle it interactively in multidisciplinary project teams, and present their findings and solutions to the experts and stakeholders. Teaching is structured to complement and enhance this process.
“We give students the academic background,” says Professor Dewulf. “Their job is to adapt that training to the problem at hand. We’re training them to understand their discipline in a professional context.” Further, the needs of the students are the focus of our education system. “Our education concept of blended learning in a ‘classroom of the future’ enables our students to connect with each other and see how their different specialisms work together.”
It’s also crucial to Twente that its students’ work has a positive impact on society. “A mechanical engineer could design a beautiful robot,” says Professor Dewulf, “but we need them to understand the interaction between the robot and humans, the ethics involved, the impact it might have on jobs and the environment. Our students have to understand that their work is never a stand-alone project; they will have clients, there will be people working on it. That is all very important. To be successful in any career, they will have to generate new solutions that benefit society and address the problems of tomorrow.”
An entrepreneurial ecosystem
Twente’s ET faculty therefore develops an entrepreneurial spirit. “Many of our academic staff and students have their own spin-offs,” says Professor Dewulf. Twente is the most entrepreneurial university in the Netherlands. It has an ecosystem of start-ups and spin-offs, a business incubator, and a science park that helps students develop ideas, gain legal advice and secure funding for new companies. Then there’s Kennispark, a public-private entity between the university, public authorities and the industry, helping PhD students patent their inventions and launch new businesses. But entrepreneurship isn’t simply about setting up new firms, it’s about thinking creatively and working productively in new ways. For students, that happens both within and around the curriculum. “That’s what entrepreneurship looks like here.”
These are the pillars upon which the University of Twente was built. “Blended learning, societal impact and entrepreneurship are part of our DNA,” says Professor Dewulf. “They’re in the genes of our people.” And they’re helping to drive this future-focused institution forward.