Don’t be afraid of chaos

Michel Ehrenhard studied public administration and obtained his doctoral degree in industrial engineering and management. He is currently working as a researcher in entrepreneurial processes at the NIKOS department of the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences. Maarten Bonnema, after completing his electrical engineering programme, specialized in mechatronics and technical systems and is an expert in systems engineering at the Faculty of Engineering Technology. In the 8th module of AT, the three disciplines were to intersect: Systems Engineering (Maarten Bonnema and Jos Benschop), Entrepreneurship & Innovation Management (Michel Ehrenhard) and Knowledge Production (in dutch ‘reflectieonderwijs’; Adri Albert de la Bruheze and Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis). Their moduleteam was facing the challenge of integrating these different disciplines into a single module.

Getting and maintaining a clear overview

Systems Engineering is about designing complex systems created from a variety of disciplines, and lends itself perfectly to an integrated module. “We made a very conscious decision in having the project take centre stage, with the theory supporting the project,” says Michel. “And companies are providing us with realistic and current assignments,” Maarten adds. The students started working on the project from the very first day, and the theory was introduced throughout the module. Students had to come up with a design that is (economically) valuable for a company, which required thinking about the various types of expertise necessary for achieving said design but also thinking about the (future) implications for society. This required all three disciplines.

Organized chaos

The students had to deal with a kind of ‘organized chaos’, due to the open-ended nature of the questions, and because they had to work in project groups of 12 students each. “It is up to them to find order amidst the chaos,” Maarten explains. Within their own project group, the students worked in subgroups of 3 to 4 people. Maarten: “They have to be able to trust each other. A subgroup is going to work on a certain part of the project, and they can’t possibly monitor everyone. They have to dare to ask very pointed questions in order to find out whether it was done properly.” This is an excellent learning experience, because it works the same way in the business world.

Creating something beautiful together

Collaboration within the team of five lecturers was excellent. Although this collaboration was new for most teammembers, they soon found they had a good connection. According to Maarten and Michel, this collaboration was made possible because they agreed beforehand to put the project first. “We looked at the complete picture, instead of just doing our own thing. The module is also about integrating various disciplines, so organising all of them separately would not make a whole lot of sense,” says Maarten. “If you can trust each other, everything will progress smoothly.” Michel also says they made sure the student groups were not working on the same components. If you know what someone else is working on, you are free to explore other aspects in greater detail. “We really adhered to the TEM principles during the design of this module,” says Michel.

Essays instead of exams

Maarten says they made a conscious decision to forego exams in favour of essays and assignments. The team was extremely excited about it: “We quickly learned that essays are incredibly useful for checking whether the students really understood the material, and they make for a good balance between individual assessment and group assessment,” says Maarten. “The way we present the material is akin to a toolbox: students may be able to use some aspects more than others, but they do need to be mindful of what they are and aren’t using.” The essay requires them to reflect on that process,” he adds. Michel admits that checking essays is more work. “However, reading a variety of business ideas is much more fun than having to check the same question 50 times with a standard answer key.”

Little ‘control’, but managing students expectations

“If you ask students what they like about this module, they would likely say that it is a very practical assignment, linked to an actual company, with little ‘control’,” says Maarten. Self-study has not been scheduled into the module, and there is ample time to visit companies. In addition, there were no mandatory classes. “But students kept showing up religiously” Michel says. For that matter, managing expectations is very important in this setting: “Prior to the module, we explicitly state that the students are responsible for their own results and that we are there to help whenever they need us. But they have to do it themselves first,” Maarten explains. Many students are happy with this level of freedom, but some students find it difficult. “Next year, I believe we should work a bit more on encouraging students who are still on the fence and struggling with this new method,” Michel admits. “We can improve on those aspects next year.”

Trust the student and don’t be afraid of chaos

Maarten’s main advice for other module teams is: don’t be afraid of chaos. “Have the students be responsible for their own work and trust them,” he adds. He is referencing their module design that expressly foregoes periodic tests and limited interim reports. Michel also states that, while we should realize the importance of knowledge, reflection and cooperation are becoming ever more important. He believes it can be incredible valuable to involve people who have practical experience, such as lecturers with work experience in a company or guest lecturers. “After all, the students we send out into the world need to understand how things work in practice.” Maarten also advises other module teams to consult their colleagues in the Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design Engineering departments. “There is no shortage of people who know how to set up this type of projects.” Maarten already had some valuable experience with project-led education within his faculty. Also the entrepreneurship part builds strongly on earlier experiences with two successful previous projects within Business Administration and Advanced Technology. But, as Maarten concludes, “Lecturers wanting to move from traditional courses to a project is an enormous undertaking, and I can definitely imagine how difficult that must be.”