Students at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) are no longer sitting in the lecture halls as much as they used to. Education is focusing more and more on the practical side, which means on the actual application of technological knowledge. Student teams are an example of this. Over the past five years, the number of teams has increased from six to fifteen at TU/e. Participating in a student team can be the most instructive time for students during their studies. In this respect, proper supervision is crucial.
Student teams are made up of students from various backgrounds, levels and study programs. They work together outside the regular education program to find solutions to social problems. Team SOLID, for instance, generates energy from iron powder instead of from coal. Solar Team makes a solar-powered family car. While Team CORE is designing an oven which recycles batteries. The students take part in a team on average for just one year. They then make way for a new group of students. “Students learn skills that they don’t learn in the classroom,” says Mia Jelsma, coordinator of the student teams. For example, about leadership and cooperation, but also about recruiting sponsors and PR.
Eindhoven University is a leader in the field of challenge-based learning. The campus also has a special community, TU/e Innovation Space, where student teams and start-ups are provided with workspaces and supervision, among other things.
Professionals run the courses for the student teams. “Of course, they want to achieve as much as possible in that year, which calls for proper supervision,” Jelsma says. One of the trainers is Roel Wessels from Holland Innovative. He coaches the students in the areas of project management and leadership. His company gives these kinds of courses not only at the university, but also to the business community. “The term challenge-based learning is commonly used in education nowadays,” says Wessels. “To me, it just means learning in the real world. You don’t learn to swim on the shore either. You learn to swim in water. But when you get into the water, a teacher first has to prepare you for that on shore and offer you help in the water if you need it.”
Leadership is the greatest challenge
That’s exactly what he wants to do in his courses. “In terms of leadership, the student teams immediately have to face one of the greatest challenges,” says Wessels. He aims to teach students the basics of leadership – “so that they can start swimming early on and cover longer distances.” In his opinion, leadership within student teams is often especially difficult. “Quite a lot of students have known each other for a while already or even work together. And then one person is suddenly appointed as the leader,” he explains. “This doesn’t usually happen in business. Typically, someone from outside is chosen as the new leader,” he says. Managing a group of peers is a challenge, yet student teams tend to do very well when it comes to this.
Wessels provides support where possible. “I see the students once every two weeks. That regularity is very important to me. The trainer finds that someone who is in the process of learning frequently has no idea that a problem exists or that one is imminent. Then it is important to meet up with each other at regular intervals to make sure you can steer things in the right direction in time.” Wessels gives workshops on a variety of topics during these meet-ups. Such as devising a test schedule for a prototype or drawing up a communication plan.
Aside from all this, there is plenty of room to discuss any issues the students have come up against. “This is how we link theory and practice. Students can work on the implementation and development of their plans after these workshops.” Jelsma: “Although we don’t intend to shield the students from everything. They are supposed to learn and this involves sometimes making mistakes. If things really go wrong, we will throw them a lifeline in time.”
Out into the world
Wessels also encourages students to go public more often. “It is often taught in school that you have to master something down to the last detail before you present it to the outside world.” The trainer believes there is nothing wrong with that, but it may also limit students. “My tip is always to just talk to people. Even if the idea or solution is not quite clear yet. People and companies often want to think along those lines with you. Nobody has a ready-made solution, yet together you can make some headway.”
Jelsma sees that the students’ communication skills improve as a result of the training. “It struck me that after Roel’s course, students came to me for help sooner if something wasn’t working out,” she says. “They can communicate their ideas and their vision of the future much more clearly. This is good for them personally, but also for when they approach potential sponsors.”
These are the occasions when Wessels says that he feels particularly proud. “I think it’s great when students already have the courage to venture out with just a rough draft of a design. Jelsma adds: “Sometimes students come up with wild ideas that I initially don’t think will work. But then they manage to do it anyway. That’s what I love to see.”
Education needs to evolve
That is why the university is looking at how student teams are able to integrate into regular education more effectively. As an example, by awarding a number of credits after contributing to a student team. This could lead to the dropping of a few courses or an internship, for instance. In some cases, students can now do their entire final bachelor project within a student team and graduate that way. It is also occasionally possible to do an internship within that kind of a team. This is a good first step, Wessels finds: “Linking lectures to student team issues seems very useful to me. Students are immediately able to put theory into practice this way.”
Although he does have one reservation. “Teachers must also be able to teach like that,” he says. In order to do this, teachers should continue to connect with students. “As an example, if the changes mean that tests no longer need to be taken, then teachers must be able to question students in other ways to see if they understand the material. This might require some other skills.”
Jelsma: ” Practical experience will show us how challenge-based learning is turning out.” It is a matter of urgency, in any event. “Students numbers are constantly rising. Eventually, it will no longer be possible to stick students in a lecture hall with a professor up front. We have to look for other alternatives.”