Setting to work to innovate education

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Setting to work to innovate education

Last Friday was a very festive occasion for professor Isabelle Reymen. Having delivered her inaugural speech to friends, colleagues and students, she then took her audience to TU/e innovation Space in Matrix, to celebrate the official first birthday of this community and facility, which she herself helped to set up. innoSpace, as it has been nicknamed at TU/e, is an experimental center, a hotspot for education innovation and, above all, the cradle of challenge based learning.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

Ask a group of first-year students in the Auditorium whether they know about TU/e innovation Space, and you are likely to get some odd looks. But a few will respond as enthusiastically as Amy Pelders did. The Industrial Design student would love to spend more time there. “I think innovation Space is an organisation that brings together students from all kinds of disciplines to work as a team on certain projects," Amy says. "During the introduction week we worked on a so-called Scrapheap Challenge. We had to make a product that would enable us to get a rubber ducky into a swimming pool. As a student Industrial Design I worked on this together with students from Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering."

While Amy was working with them, she found out that her approach of a project as an Industrial Designer is quite different from the way the other students did it. "Industrial Designers think it is important that they come up with a new idea and for Mechanical Engineers it is important that the product works. This means that different students focus on different parts of the design process. Since a full-time job often involves working with people with different skill sets, I think it's important to practice that by working with students on other programs. innovation Space offers a nice chance to do this. To practice this kind of differentiated collaboration, I would like to work on lots of projects in innovation Space. I'd like to work there on a project about sustainability as I feel it is an important topical issue and one that offers my generation the opportunity to make a difference to our lives in tomorrow's world. I want to stay in touch with them and take part in workshops and other activities that are educative, especially fun ones.”

But can Amy get a spot there? With that question we go to innoSpace to project scout Bart Koppelmans. Bart is a Master's student of Innovation Management, and has a Bachelor's in Computer Science under his belt. But most likely you'll find him in Matrix. He is the link between the various project groups and ensures that personal and professional help is on hand whenever it is needed.


Social agreement

As Bart is poised to answer the question of how students like Amy can ‘get into’ TU/e innovation Space, student Arne Steemers, a first-timer in Matrix, is sidling up to him, clearly itching to ask a question “Can I help you?” asks Bart. “Hallo, I'm a board member of Team Energy and I've come to ask what opportunities and obligations we'd have if we were to join innoSpace,” Arne replies. “Being here will put you contact with other teams who are running up against the same problems as your own team. You'll learn a great deal about a lot of different aspects of what it means to be a team. And you'll meet people here from industry who are interested in your work.” “Do we have to apply for work space, or sign a contract?” asks Arne. “No,” replies Bart. “We'll enter into a social agreement. A certain commitment will be expected of you. You'll be asked to contribute ideas and to answer other people's questions, if you can. Every quartile we review whether innoSpace is still the right home for the project teams. But it is a public space, you can come and sit here without our say-so.” This is news to Arne. “Golly, I didn't know that. This doesn't feel like a public space because it's enclosed in a building; there are doors in and out. And I thought it was somewhere that's mainly for the student teams.”

Matrix is a public space, you can come and sit here without our say-so

Bart Koppelmans
Project scout TU/e innovation Space

This is precisely what the innovation Space team needs to make clearer, says Bart. “It is a place for education and we want to help everyone.”

Bert-Jan Woertman, also a team member at innoSpace, puts it like this: “We are the Sherpas. We help the students to get to their next camp, and then the one after that and eventually to reach the summit. Everyone here is a pragmatic idealist. It's not that we don't want to improve the world, we do, but demonstrating all by yourself isn't going to achieve that. You need companies. The problem of excess nitrogen that's currently big in the Netherlands isn't something you can solve with a PowerPoint presentation, but you can solve it by joining forces with industry. It's with good reason that the student team cars are plastered with sixteen stickers.”

Students who are itching ‘to do something’, project scout Bart advises, should come along for a chat. “We may be able to add you to an existing team or to have you join Springboard. That's a public program in which you can pitch a good idea and get feedback. Five weeks later you come back for the ‘Deep Dive’, which involves sitting down with other people and developing your idea. Anyone who wants to join in, can. And the people who come here are keen to do that. And by the way, there's pizza; we're still students, after all." The next Deep Dive is happening on October 17th.

Bart can be found in Matrix pretty much all week and knows a great many teams. He's impressed by Hable: “The motivation they have to improve the world is an example for many people.” The most recent project at the moment is PREA, he tells us. “PREA is working on preventing the anticipated future food shortage by making urban farming accessible. They see hydroponic kits, used to grow food without soil, as being a valuable tool.”

According to Bart, a project we are going to hear a lot about is Serpentine, which combines Artificial Intelligence with video game competitions. “They hope to build a community that revolves around the implementation and teaching of AI. By doing this, they totally exemplify the concept of innovation Space, which is to use challenges to learn more about a topic and to broaden the field of learning.” 

Challenge based education

The further layout and implementation of challenge based learning has for an important part been put in the hands of Isabelle Reymen, the academic director of innoSpace, who delivered her inaugural speech as professor of Design of Innovation Ecosystems last Friday. According to the TU/e Strategy 2030 all students will come in contact with this specific form of education, in which interdisciplinary teams are to solve social problems in close cooperation with society.

“We spent an entire year occupying Gaslab, from September 2017 onwards, running a pilot for TU/e innovation Space. We had a low-key start, working with students on the Engineering Design course in the Bachelor College. To make a success of our move to Matrix we had to work hard as the building was not yet entirely finished. In fact, it was months before the outstanding renovation issues had been resolved, but now it's fantastic”, says Academic Director Isabelle Reymen.

Hard on the heels of this move came the stress of the official opening of TU/e innovation Space, which insiders were soon referring to as innoSpace. On 15 November 2018 the place was packed with guests and glasses were raised. “After all that, things calmed down and we had some time to work on our professionalism. We studied the best way to organize ourselves, who needed to do what and when, and we sorted out the team. I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved,” says Reymen.

Spider in the web

Reymen calls innovation Space a spider in the education web at TU/e. “We are constantly in touch with all sorts of people, and we put these people in touch with one another: education policymakers, students, lecturers, student coaches, researchers, companies, grant providers, education administrators, the various TU/e services, the list goes on.”

What are the things that Reymen is really proud of, looking back on the past period? "We ourselves have provided 43 challenges, associated with 8 different courses, 1600 students on 22 courses have been supported by us -which equates to a good 8000 ECTS- , every program has seen some of its Bachelor's and Master's students working here and 27 project teams are at work."


At the end of September 2019 innoSpace was able to acquire a new challenge from the Ministry of Defense. When soldiers go on a mission, they also have to eat. How do you provide food in an environment marked by scarcity? This is a project run in cooperation with Wageningen, Utrecht, UMCU, Defense and Economic Affairs. “We are now going to see where it would fit comfortably in our education provision, in consultation, of course, with lecturers at various departments,” says Reymen. “There are various potential fits: a Bachelor's graduation project, a USE course or a Master's course.”

As we've said, Reymen is happy with the way things are going. Some areas would benefit from a little fine-tuning, like the student entrepreneurship in cooperation with TU/e Innovation Lab “I'd like to build up the service we offer students relating to intellectual property, advice on making grant applications, and coaching in entrepreneurship. And we can also talk about the entrepreneurship competitions. The Innovation Lab organized the Golden Light Bulb, and we ran the TU/e Contest, but to some extent we are fishing in the same pond. Fortunately, our philosophy is one of ongoing reflection and maintaining an unceasing focus on innovation. Our ultimate aim is to see TU/e among the global frontrunners.”

A dated education system

His present situation illustrates how dated the education system he joined in 2012 has become. From the outset, Bas Verkaik was involved in the creation of the former student team STORM, has progressed to director of SPIKE Technologies, and for the past five years has been a Master's student of Sustainable Energy Technology, although the study requirement now feel like a millstone round his neck. “If, like me, you get involved in something during your studies and want to focus on it, you can't make time to immerse yourself for nine months of the year in a research project that will enable you to graduate. All it's going to give me is a piece of paper, nothing useful. For those students who want to start a company, join a student team or get a job, the education system is hopelessly out of date.”

Bas realized this after the world trip with STORM when, as a Master's student, he had to get back to his lectures. “That felt a little like a demotion because I'd had the world at my feet. So with our fellow students, among them Tom Selten, we looked for a way to integrate student-team work in the TU/e curriculum. We had already tried to gain credits, but without success. Then we came across Isabelle Reymen, who works in education innovation. The basic course Engineering Design already existed, by the way. We clearly showed that working in a student team is a good fit with Challenged Based Learning; the teams seek solutions for open-ended societal issues arising in the real world.”

In Gaslab they were able to help (or arrange help for) students who, like themselves, were lacking a practical component in the Bachelor College, who wanted to learn skills rather than just information to pass exams. Help in the form of coming up with an idea, putting together a team or applying for sponsorship. In the meantime, there was work to be done setting up innovation Space. 

It was just like a startup, but one that had to deal with the slow-turning sails of the TU/e windmill, to use a Dutch metaphor

Bas Verkaik
Former team member innoSpace

“That whole year in Gaslab we were in discussion with the departments. What kind of education would be appropriate in innoSpace? Do you have cases that could be used as a challenge? It was just like a startup, but one that had to deal with the slow-turning sails of the TU/e windmill, to use a Dutch metaphor. There are countless protocols you have to abide by, the first one that occurs to me is establishing the opening hours for Matrix. Logical, but tricky.”

And once Matrix had finally been furnished, Verkaik continued to drive things forward. At the same time, he founded SPIKE Technologies B.V., as the next step after STORM. Since then, twenty-seven project teams have been launched, all of them given, and some still occupying, working space. “Whether a team is still entitled to be there is under constant review in innoSpace,” says Bas. “We ourselves played by the same rules; we outgrew the place. We had too many staff, we wanted to go into production; on both counts this meant we needed more space than Matrix can offer. We ended up on the Automotive Campus in Helmond where we simply pay rent. This place has a nice ecosystem in which a young company like ours can make good contacts and can work with short contracts.”

With his graduation in mind and his sights on his company, Bas has called a halt to his participation in the innoSpace team. Although he did rejoin them recently when he was asked to give the Greek prime minister a guided tour. “He landed at Eindhoven Airport specially because he wanted to visit innoSpace before going to The Hague to see Prime Minister Rutte. He didn't do anything else in the Netherlands. He was getting inspiration for the Greek education system. I take that as a compliment.”

Dare to fail

“Bas Verkaik's story paints a good picture of this institute's original raison d'être but these days we do a lot more,” says Chantal Brans, policy officer for education in TU/e innovationSpace. “Students can do their Bachelor's graduation project here or an elective worth 10 ECTS in their Master's, the ISproject. Last year thirty students took up this offer, but that number will grow.” Matrix is also buzzing in the evenings, she says. “We have workshops, open to everyone, where members of student teams can share their experiences with others, and external experts join in. This goes by the name innoApproach.” Brans says they've struck gold with the connection between the curriculum and extra-curricular education. The arrangement cuts both ways: student teams can recruit new members and the current members can act as course coaches.

One of the workshops, where you'll likely find pizza or Chinese being eaten, has a very telling name: ‘Dare to fail’. “This is where students learn to pitch. InnoSpace is a safe environment for students, but also for the education developers,” says Brans. “You can make mistakes here, then brush yourself off, get up and move on.”

Brans has been involved in the creation of innovation Space from the start. With others, including Isabelle Reymen and Alfons Bruekers, she has gained inspiration from all over Europe. In Aalto (Finland), Munich, Barcelona and Paris, they saw examples of new education. Some aspects are very much culturally driven. “Take an example from Finland, where they like to get together and roast a reindeer on a spit and are keen to integrate the sauna into education. That's not very applicable here,” says Alfons Bruekers. But other tips, however, are universal. Like the need for open work spaces and well-equipped production studios, and having an A-location on the campus. Added to which, here in Eindhoven we are surrounded by a cloud of companies in Brainport with which we collaborate, that is our strength.”

Guided tours

Bruekers is the managing director of TU/e innovation Space. He is responsible for staffing, finance, business development, business premises, and external relations. Something else he does, and with great pleasure, is offer guests a guided tour. These are university rectors, some of whom come from as far away as China, politicians and companies. One particularly important visit was that made by a number of Dutch ministers to Gaslab, innoSpace's former premises, bringing 130 million euros to Brabant.

In ten years' time the vast majority of education at TU/e will be challenge based

Alfons Bruekers
Managing director TU/e innovation Space

Bruekers tells his guests about 'the making of' innoSpace, the vision and the dream. “In ten years' time the vast majority of education at TU/e will be challenge based. Moving from a teaching model to a learning model will have consequences for the form our education takes, the necessary infrastructure and the competences required of our lecturers. As well as for our auxiliary services.”

If at all possible, Bruekers has his guests meet with students who are working here. The Greek Prime Minister was no exception. He listened to Bas Verkaik speak and Dirk van Meer explained how CORE will solve Greece's waste problem. “He came with seven limousines and a phalanx of bodyguards and journalists. They would have preferred to have him step out of the car right here outside Matrix, but the Groene Loper is a 'green carpet', isn't it? Prime Minister Mitsotakis was very enthusiastic, and was filmed for Greek television telling Mark Rutte what had happened here.”

A personal highlight for Bruekers among his guided tours of the building was having his former colleagues from Océ, the printer manufacturer, visit. He worked there for twenty-one years before joining TU/e. “Not only was it fun to see them again, it was also useful because I sparked their interest in a collaboration in the near future. That is bound to give rise to a new challenge.”

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