Stories#058 Petra's search for resilience

#058 Petra's search for resilience

The story of Margo's bass balance is a story of Petra's search for resilience

American citizen Margo Dietrich is an ATLAS student; she participates in the international honours programme of University College Twente. ATLAS takes her to various places – Eindhoven, Enschede, and perhaps Munich as well – where she specialises in sustainability. Between her lectures, she talks to Petra de Weerd-Nederhof, professor in innovation and organisation. ‘The challenges of the future require resilience. Of society, of the economy and of us as individuals.’

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Monday 13 December 2021

Resilience for tomorrow

Margo: ‘Hi Petra, we already know each other, right? We met in the University Council. But there’s a lot I don’t know about you, so I have a whole list of questions.’

Petra: ‘Nice, bring it on!’

Margo: ‘Before you started working here, you also studied at UT. So you’ve been around at campus for quite some time, now. How has the university changed in recent years?’

Petra: ‘That’s right. I studied industrial engineering here from 1985 to 1990. So you can roughly calculate how old I am! At that time there was a campaign to get girls excited for tech careers: Thea studies Technology. “Thea” was a play on words: technical universities were called THs at the time, which – when pronounced in Dutch – sounds like Thea, a Dutch girls’ name. When I first came to UT, I was sold. The campus, that was where I wanted to be. We started in 1985 with twenty “Thea’s”, on a total of 250 students. Fortunately, the distribution between men and women is a lot better these days.’

Margo: ‘But that’s not the only change, I assume?’

Petra: ‘No, definitely not. The university is completely different now than it was then. In terms of staffing, but also in terms of research themes and education. Over the past decades, we have broadened and deepened our strategic focus. With Shaping2030 we want to shape the future. Not just of the university, but also of society. One of the most important changes for me was the RoUTe 14 programme. It ran from 2008 to 2014 and can be seen as a predecessor of Shaping. RoUTe 14 introduced the TOM model, Atlas and the Twente Graduate School. Three important educational innovations that are still relevant today. But I don’t have to tell you that as an ATLAS student.’

Margo: ‘A lot of your research is also about educational innovation and sustainability. What do you think should be the next step in making education future-proof?’

Petra: ‘I think micro-credentials are the future. They make education a lot more flexible, because as a student you can learn and get your credits in all kinds of places – at universities, also those of applied sciences, and with social or commercial partners. A bit like you are doing in the ATLAS-programme. We call this “engaged scholarship”. It strengthens local ecosystems. When UT, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, the ROC Twente – a school for vocational education – and regional social and commercial partners all work together, we keep talent in our region. And at the same time, we are making the region future-proof, because all that talent focuses on taking on regional challenges.’

Margo: ‘Interesting! I’d like to go back to “the emancipation of the university” for a moment. Do you think diversity should play a role in the innovation of education?’ 

Petra: ‘Certainly. Diversity and inclusion make our education better and more complete. But that doesn’t happen automatically. We as UT have to ensure that we reflect and bring to the surface the power of diversity. People come from all kinds of different cultures and systems. Consequently, there are big differences in values, norms, levels of assertiveness or the ability to work together. Simply put: not everyone is cut out for challenge-based learning. But we do want everyone to participate.’ 

Margo: ‘So how do we manage that then?’ 

Petra: ‘Well, I think we should train all bachelor students in working together. That is a challenge, because we are mainly teachers and researchers – not so much skills trainers. But it is important. Furthermore, it is up to us to offer the right mix of education forms, in which everyone can excel. That doesn’t always have to be a big deal or complicated. Diversity and inclusion can also benefit from very simple interventions. When I notice that students always pair up with their compatriots on collaborative assignments, I come up with a method that makes them end up with others. In my opinion, this kind of helping hand is a task for our entire community. Not just for teachers, but also for sports associations, student associations and the Student Union. We are all part of this people-first university.”

Margo: ‘Now, the key question for someone who is always concerned with the future: What do you want to do in the coming years?’

Petra: ‘I strongly believe in “research is me-search”. As a professor and researcher you grow when you are intrinsically motivated. Hugh Herr is an inspiring example. He lost his lower legs in an accident in the mountains. From that moment on, he focused on developing prosthetic legs that would enable him to walk again. You now see athletes sprinting at the Paralympics using these same prostheses.’

‘I myself experienced a great personal loss ten years ago. That sparked my interest in resilience: the ability to bounce back from adversity, recover and renew. You can also see this in my work. If you look at COVID-19, climate change and really all future challenges, resilience is essential. This applies to society, to the economy, but also to us as individuals. In the coming years I want to investigate how we can make ecosystems more robust, future-proof and resilient. And what about you? Will you still – or again – be at UT in a few years’ time?’

Margo: ‘Until recently, I was convinced I wanted to go to Munich for my master’s degree in sustainable buildings. But I’ve started to have some doubts. Because Twente offers more and more possibilities when it comes to sustainability. And there will soon also be a very beautiful, new ITC building here. So I am definitely considering staying at UT.’ 

Petra: ‘Very good! UT can use some more Margo!’


is in her last year of the Technology, Liberal Arts & Sciences programme at the University of Twente. Her focus is on Sustainable Development Engineering, and she hopes to pursue a master’s in Environmental Engineering. Currently, she is taking classes in the Sustainable Innovations programme at Eindhoven University of Technology. During her time in Twente she has participated in the Educational Committee and Semester Team of her programme and spent a year in the University Council as chair of the Strategy and Internationalisation Committee.

Petra de Weerd-Nederhof (1967)

studied Industrial Engineering and Management and after that did her PhD at UT on the topic of New Product Development Systems. She was programme director Business Administration, and set up Twente Graduate School. Meanwhile she became professor of Organising Innovation and chaired UT’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship research group. After suffering a personal loss, she refocused her research on the relationship between resilience and innovation. In addition, she is a member of the University Council.