Blog by Birgit Pepin, former 4TU.CEE leader of TU/e; Michael Bots, manager CBL program TU/e; Zeger-Jan Kock, post-doc researcher TU/e

Eindhoven University of Technology aims to educate the engineers of the future. Engineers who have a deep understanding of their discipline, keep their knowledge and skills up to date, and are able to work on complex systems in multidisciplinary settings and teams (Deans Bachelor College and Graduate School, 2020). The university has formulated a vision for education in the year 2030, and in this vision, Challenge Based Learning (CBL) plays an important role. In a CBL based curriculum, modularisation and digitalisation are essential, as they enable students to access and develop knowledge in an agile way, at the time/moment they need it. It facilitates the diverse and personalised learning paths inherent in a curriculum that places CBL at its centre. Digitalisation has also gained huge importance due to the Corona restrictions, in which students need access to the TU/e education systems to continue their studies from home.

Central to challenge-based learning at TU/e is that students acquire knowledge by engaging in real-life interdisciplinary challenges often defined in collaboration with external partners (challenge owners). While working on prototype solutions that contribute to these challenges, students seek out and apply knowledge, individually or in groups. This approach is expected to result (amongst others) in a better integration of knowledge and skills than a conventional classroom approach. Presently, the university is taking steps to create a growing number of opportunities for student learning based on the principles of CBL.

In this contribution we briefly describe what we mean by CBL and how it relates to other forms of authentic and active learning. Subsequently, we provide examples of CBL experiments at TU/e, followed by research themes identified across the experiments. We end with an outlook on the near future of CBL at TU/e. (In another 4TU.CEE blog colleagues at the University of Twente will follow up on this.)

What is Challenge-Based Learning?

Malmqvist et al. (2015) have proposed the following definition of CBL in tertiary education. Challenge-based learning:

takes places through the identification, analysis and design of a solution to a sociotechnical problem. The learning experience is typically multidisciplinary, takes place in an international context and aims to find a collaboratively developed solution, which is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. (p. 4)

CBL is considered a student-centred active learning approach, related to but distinguishable from other student-centred forms of learning, such as problem-based learning. CBL is different from problem-based learning in that instead of presenting students with a problem to solve, CBL offers general concepts, or grand challenges, from which the students identify and determine the particular problem they will address. In other words, in CBL students are not only expected to solve a ’real’ problem, but they are moreover expected to identify the problem (amongst the ones connected to the ‘grand challenge’). In addition, CBL requires multidisciplinary groups, whereas in problem-based learning students from a single department might engage in the problem solving.

CBL challenges are often derived from big issues that critically need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of human societies during the coming century. These issues have appeared in national research and innovation agendas (European Commission 2014; NAE 2008). For students, working on challenges can be meaningful, engaging and motivating. Students using CBL have the satisfaction that comes from debating both the issues to be tackled and the solution they develop. As participants determine where a problem lies, how a solution might be affected, and how technology can be leveraged to accomplish a workable result, they learn the value of different perspectives, critical thinking and reflection. The CBL experiences can be seen as a further step in enhancing student participation in conceiving and defining their own learning trajectories, as well as a step towards integrating sustainability in engineering education (Enelund, et al. 2013).

CBL changes the roles of both the teacher and the student. For students the emphasis is on becoming a more self-regulated learner. Due to the open-ended complex and scientific nature of the examined research question, the teacher’s role changes (from traditional teacher) to becoming a coach, co-experimenter and even a partner in learning. Student work is guided by challenge owners, tutors and coaches. With these parties involved, collaboration in the team of educators (and co-learners) becomes more important.

In its vision for education in 2030, TU/e provides key ideas and a clear direction regarding CBL, but not a rigid framework, as the university is still investigating and debating how to define CBL for its curriculum. A wide range of challenges are possible: in a regional, national, or international context (while still situated in a global perspective), student groups of different sizes and from a single or from multiple disciplines. In order to collectively learn how CBL can be successfully designed and what changes are required, a number of pilot projects are being planned and carried out at different levels of TU/e. The projects will be part of a dedicated CBL programme aimed at integrating outcomes from the projects and using the lessons learned for strategic decision making regarding the future role of CBL in TU/e. Of course, it has been realised that a CBL based curriculum does not only change the role of the student and that of the teacher, but also the learning environment, assessment procedures, to name but a few curriculum aspects. In that sense, TU/e is not just moving towards Challenge-based Learning, but towards Challenge-based Education (CBE). Below we describe some examples of the challenge-based curriculum opportunities that have recently been realised.


CBL Experiments at TU/e

There are now many different types CBL experiments running at TU/e. From these, we can distinguish CBL experiments at different levels:

    • Course-based (disciplinary, multidisciplinary) (i.e. at micro curriculum level): e.g. USE (User, society & Enterprise) learning lines; Innovation Space Bachelor End Project/s (ISBEP/s); particular courses
    • Across courses (i.e. at TU/e macro curriculum level):  e.g. E3 a TU wide pilot to develop a CBL based curriculum; integration of the USE lines, electives and basic engineering courses
    • Electives: e.g. multidisciplinary electives
    • Extra-curricular (extra the core curriculum): e.g. Honours Academy and student teams
    • Inter-university collaboration: e.g. Eurotech

At the same time there are a number of research themes permeating the experiments, and we provide an example of an experiment under each research theme:

    • Pedagogy of CBL: The focus of this project is on the optimal pedagogy of CBL, in general and for different subgroups of students. Important topics that will be addressed are:-the optimal balance between student self-regulation and teacher guidance;
      • optimal balance between student self-regulation and teacher guidance;
      • how subject area differences should be taken into account when designing CBL;
      • how knowledge acquisition and application can best be integrated in CBL; and,
      • how the complexity of challenges and students’ self-regulated learning can be systematically increased during a Bachelor programme.
    • Didactics of CBL approach in (applied) mathematics and physics: e.g. “Challenge Based Education in/for Mathematics and Physics education: Towards the development of suitable ISBEP projects”
      CBL has been explored in several educational experiments at the bachelor and master level at TU/e. One of these experiments is the Innovation Space Bachelor End Projects (ISBEP), an interdisciplinary final project offered to all bachelor students of TU/e. However, few mathematics and physics students have taken up ISBEPs and this gives reason for concern. Hence, in this project we investigate:

      • why ISBEPs have not been chosen by more mathematics and physics students (as their BEP) (exploratory study of status quo);
      • what the design characteristics of ISBEP projects are that are likely to be attractive for mathematics and science students (development of design criteria for ‘new’ ISBEPs);
      • in which ways such ‘new’ ISBEPs could be beneficial for students of mathematics and physics (implementation and evaluation of selected ISBEPs).


Outlook/conclusive remarks

The coming years we will keep on investing in experiments and projects that contribute to increasing our body of knowledge with regard to the design and the effects of CBL in and across departments. The CBL programme is aimed at reporting these evidence informed practices to a taskforce. The mission of the Task Force is to provide the Executive Board, before the end of 2024, with a well-founded advice on the TU-wide application of the Challenge-based Learning concept.

If you want to know more about the research projects mentioned above and other experiments within the programme at TU/e, please contact:

Birgit Pepin (professor of STEM education, TU/e):

Michael Bots (manager CBL program at TU/e):

Zeger-Jan Kock (post-doc researcher, TU/e):

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