There is a demand, from society and industry, for engineers capable of interdisciplinary collaboration, with an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability of thinking in systems […]. In our ever changing world, CBL is the educational concept that fulfils many of these demands.
Scientific director, innovation Space
How do you train students for enhanced employability in industry? How do you innovate higher education courses and curricula? Isabelle has been facing these challenges for a few years now. Read the full interview here.
Key words: students, CBL, challenge, designing, education, learning, interdisciplinary, courses, university, entrepreneurship, department, innovation, management, curriculum, vision, project, prototype
Interviewer: Chiara Treglia
Chiara: To start with, could you please give a little introduction about yourself, your background, and how long have you been involved in the educational world.
Isabelle: I am trained as a designer, an architect. I studied in Leuven. I came to TU/e for a PhD on multidisciplinary designing in three disciplines; in software engineering, mechanical engineering, and built environment. Afterwards, I spent four years in Twente University, but then came back to Eindhoven, and I am here since 2006. I became an assistant professor in entrepreneurship. Instead of designing buildings, I focused on designing ventures and organizations. So, I lectured in parallel with doing research on entrepreneurship, as well as taught management students to design. I coordinated campus-wide technology entrepreneurship classes and became representative of entrepreneurship education at TU/e.In 2015, I was asked by the rector Frank Baaijens and the Dean Bachelor College, Lex Lemmens, to set up something that is today called innovation Space, due to my background in design and entrepreneurship. This was the start of becoming a lot more active at TU/e level. It was me, with two other teachers, starting from nothing, designing, and setting up innovation Space. In fall 2017, with a team, we set up an interdisciplinary elective course at master level (Innovation Space Project). I brought my experience from design and business courses to TU/e level for an interdisciplinary audience, with students not only from business or management, but also from the other TU/e master programs. Over the years, I initiated many more education innovation projects. I was first in the department of IE&IS to introduce blended learning. Overall, I have been involved in teaching for 20 years now.
Chiara: Alright. I hear that you have been very busy progressively, but also organically, with designing as an architect and in the built environment, in multidisciplinary design, new venture creation, and now designing in education, all with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Isabelle: Yes, in essence. I co-designed innovation Space, and now I am in the education innovation field, where I am again designing, but now innovation projects, courses and learning lines. I am the one who initiated the Technology Entrepreneurship USE learning line redesign project. It is another education innovation project which I am currently leading, or, at least, I took the initiative and facilitate where possible. This is a learning line, but for new projects I would like to work on a program/curriculum level. I aim for system innovation, so innovating and designing on a program level is something I am interested in. We change the system via small steps, always taking initiative for improving and innovating.
Chiara: Thank you for walking me through your background. Proceeding with my questions, when did you first hear or learn about challenge based learning? You grew into it quite organically, but was there a “moment zero”? When did CBL become a term for you?
Isabelle: I can say explicitly. It happened when I was still associate professor. I was in a group with other associate professors, and we were invited for the yearly dinner for all the professors at TU/e in 2017. Every one of us had to prepare a sentence and I had to prepare something about education, because I was already involved in innovation Space. In my preparation, I googled what is now happening at the forefront in the engineering world. What would be a good thing to mention? And I mentioned Challenge-Based Learning, as an alternative term for hands-on learning what we used till then in innovation Space
Chiara: Right. So, you found out what is there in the world, and you brought it to this dinner.
Isabelle: And since then others and myself have picked it up. But yes, at that dinner I used Challenged-Based Learning as a term.
Chiara: I am curious, you said that you looked it up. It means that there were already some resources out there?
Isabelle: Apple had the only Challenge-Based Learning refence I could find at that time. But what inspired me the most were the engineering associations in US that talked about grand challenges for engineers. I was just trend watching, trying to find out what direction to go. As an associate professor, I asked myself: Where am I going? What do I want to focus on in order to be relevant and create impact? What can we do here on campus in terms of innovation? I saw big challenges mentioned on these websites. Hence, I suggested Challenged-Based Learning. Hence, we started with making a list of characteristics of the type of education we had recently developed and the type of education we wanted to facilitate. That is how we gave a body to CBL. Later, in the Comenius Leadership project, in a second attempt, we gave further shape to CBL, now more based on literature that was developed by then and involving education scientists. The TU/e CBL Compass also evolved out of the initial list of characteristics of CBL.
Chiara: When was the first time you decided to implement CBL?
Isabelle: I think we actually first implemented CBL, and then came up with a name.
Chiara: You were with Miguel Bruns and Rick de Lange (re)designing a few courses, and you had this idea of structurally changing education. How did it go?
Isabelle: Miguel was really the visionary of the team. He has vision on the future of education. Basically, in the early days I mainly tried to make it happen and implement the ideas.
Chiara: It sounds like it is a very positive story so far. However, have you faced any challenges in that period of defining and implementing CBL?
Isabelle: Well, I still have a challenge. […] A problem that is still not solved within these four years since we started with the master course Innovation Space Project, is that if you want to set up an interdisciplinary master course, and invite students from all departments to join, then there should be a semester and timeslot that fit all students. However, that is not yet available. […] So, this is one of the major problems in the master programs to make interdisciplinary (CBL) education possible. I think I have a successful course, which many students want to follow. But it does not fit their program, even though we offer it twice a year. Since CBL is something we want, and we want many students working on a challenge, in an interdisciplinary team, then the programs should allow it/even stimulate it. In the Bachelor, we have the USE learning lines, which is perfect because all students can follow them at the same moment, which allows for interdisciplinary courses and teams. In the Masters, there is no shared semester/timeslot across all departmental programs. I think that is still the biggest challenge.
Chiara: What was the reaction of the students and your colleagues when you had set up these innovative courses?
Isabelle: It was very different and confusing for the students in the beginning. There was a lot of uncertainty, it was completely out of their comfort zone. However, they learned a lot and it is almost always a very successful learning experience in the end.
Chiara: And what about your colleagues and other people around you? How did they react to this implementation of CBL?
Isabelle: People in my surroundings thought that it was really cool. Some were very skeptical about it. It is a very big change and there is always that concern of how we are going to know that all students do their fair share, that they get to know what we want them to learn. Also, assessment and grading are completely different to what people are used to. However, we have been successful in convincing the education and exam committees of my department so far, as one cannot go on without their approval. In the end, the grades were high for the course because we saw the students learned a lot and they worked really hard for those grades.
Chiara: My next question is: how did you grow from that moment until now in terms of your CBL mindset? How did things change for you in your mindset, in regard to CBL?
Isabelle: From that moment, I could not oversee what we are doing now. It was a course which I was completely into. In the meantime, I was co-creating and setting up innovation Space, too. I really just briefly mentioned it at that dinner and started doing some things. And now, what we do is part of the education vision of the university. We also got a Comenius Leadership grant, which means that I became visible at national level. I am now active in the national Comenius network of education innovators. Then we won the first Prize of the first Higher Education Award in 2021, which is really a big recognition of what we are doing for five years. Hence, we are more confident that we are on the right path here. And in June 2022, the work of TU/e innovation Space was recognized at the European level with winning ACE EU Triple E Award: Innovation and collaboration Space of the Year 2022.
Chiara: So, where do you see CBL going? What is next?
Isabelle: CBL works already very well with elective courses, in interdisciplinary format , but implementing CBL at the university level, in the different bachelor and master programs, is still a challenge. When our business case was accepted, in January 2020, TU/e innovation Space got finance for five years, being expertise center on CBL and student entrepreneurship. We help teachers where we can. For me, a next challenge would be to set up a curriculum that is completely aligned with the CBL concept and the education vision 2030.
Chiara: So, how do you deal with concerns or skepticism from yourself and outside around CBL? Is there something that you are concerned about?
Isabelle: I think we should start the story differently and communicate way more about CBL, but also why we introduce this concept. […]I am convinced that the traditional way of mass frontal teaching is far from optimal to facilitate the learning process of a diverse set of students. Some will not retain a lot when just listening, for others the lectures will go too slow or too fast. Putting students way more in the lead and offer them more freedom of choice and flexibility in what they learn, how and when, will benefit the learning process of many. We also need to develop engineers with in depth academic knowledge in a few disciplines, but do not have to educate only for becoming a researcher. There is a demand, from society and industry, for engineers capable of interdisciplinary collaboration, with an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability of thinking in systems. This requires students learning to work in complex projects, in interdisciplinary teams. And students themselves are more and more motivated to learn if they can contribute to societal challenges already during their study. In our ever changing world, CBL is the educational concept that fulfils many of these demands. Everyone should try to understand what it means that the world is changing. And that what we do at a university should also be considered in view of that change. I think this awareness of the need of change is the most important.
Chiara: Clear. Thank you very much, Isabelle.