The four Technical Universities plan to establish the 4TU.VO platform over a five-year period. It will be an online teaching platform for secondary schools that bundles the didactic knowledge of the four TUs. Secondary school students can get a taste of the characteristic research and design of engineering education at the TUs by following the digital teaching modules available on the site.
4TU spoke to initiators Pieter Boerman of the University of Twente and Michael van der Meer of TU Delft and asked them where they currently stand with the platform and what their dreams for the future are.
The initiative was launched last summer and you have not been idle in the meantime. We are very curious to see what you have done so far. But first back to the beginning. How did the idea for platform arise?
Pieter: Michael and I were already engaged in a number of outreach programmes. As director of the Science Centre Delft, Michael is involved in science communication, engineering teaching and various pre-university activities, while I am responsible for our pre-university programmes and so focus completely on the teaching side.
Michael: We often met in these roles and talked about how more needed to be done to get young people interested in engineering. The science deans of the universities agreed with us: we have to showcase what exactly engineers do and what jobs they end up in.
What is new about this platform?
Pieter: First of all, it is a platform that combines the strengths of four universities. We offer high quality teaching with the typical engineering approach and want to make a difference by combining the quality of the four TUs, making the modules enjoyable to teach, and ensuring that students are motivated to take these modules.
Michael adds: So instead of focusing as an individual university on your own intake figures, you can call on the strength and quality of these four excellent universities combined.
Pieter: Exactly! That cannot be repeated often enough. By sharing our knowledge, we are among the top three technical universities in the world. Few people are aware of this.
The timing of this platform couldn’t be better. After years of growth, the number of students opting for a technical education is declining again.
Pieter: That’s right! Even pupils who follow a Science and Engineering profile (the N-profile) do not automatically choose to follow a technical degree programme. Given the shortage of technical engineers on the labour market, this is becoming a serious problem and only reinforces the urgency we felt when we established the platform.
Let’s talk about the method. The engineering approach is a central theme, right? Can you explain what that means?
Michael: It’s about a solution-oriented way of thinking. Engineers like to solve problems and design things. They are not mono-disciplinary, but rather always have to juggle several balls at once. For example, when building a bridge you have to think about functionality, but also about aesthetics. And when designing a device you also have to think about user-friendliness. Such skills are acquired in these modules and are not taught in the standard science lessons offered in the existing VWO pre-university) curriculum.
What will the platform look like?
Pieter: It will be an online platform with various case studies. Four have currently been completed; one from each university. Delft has submitted a kite-surfing case study, Twente has one on hacking, Wageningen has one on Blue Energy – extracting energy from fresh and salt water – and TU/e has an automotive case study. Our ambition is to create relevant secondary school teaching modules to cover the full breadth of the 4TU engineering subjects, so about 150 modules. That will take as long as five years!
The platform will be built according to the engineering approach too. The process involves test phases with feedback rounds so that we can ensure that the platform meets the needs of secondary schools. This week we launched a special 4TU.VO page where we will regularly provide updates on the development of the platform.
The fact that the platform is online makes it easier to reach teachers across the country. A lot was learnt in that area during the corona crisis, and we are benefiting from that in the development of this platform as well.
Michael: But an online platform alone is not enough. We also need to build a network. Each university needs to forge ties with the schools in its region to form a foundation for that network, whereby we eventually want to achieve national coverage.
What drives you?
Pieter: We believe that by following these engineering modules, students will be more informed on technical degree programmes and will therefore be able to make a better choice, which will ultimately lead to fewer drop-outs. We are starting with VWO students in their final three years of secondary school. In the future we would like to offer these modules to the other years as well, so that these students can be made aware of their options as early as possible. Ultimately this will make it easier for them to choose a study.
Last question. What dreams do you have for the platform?
Pieter: Ideally, we would like the 4TU modules to gain permanent recognition as an important reinforcing factor for the VWO curriculum, and that the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science also recognises this initiative and ensures that it can continue after the five-year project period is completed.
Michael: But it would also be very nice if the business community adopted the modules too. They would then become co-responsible for the content of the programme; after all, it is they who can best show prospective students where they could end up as an engineer. How cool would it be if an aerodynamics engineer from ESTEC was to make secondary school students enthusiastic for an aerodynamics module! So there is plenty to dream about, but first we need to develop the modules to spec!