Deans: We must future-proof European engineering programmes with a new educational model

Deans: We must future-proof European engineering programmes with a new educational model

By: Henrik Pedersen, Dean, Technical Faculty of IT and Design & Mogens Rysholt Poulsen, Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Science.

If Europe is to make progress on major societal challenges such as climate change, an ageing population and the threat of more pandemics, strong engineering competences are needed. Our engineers must constantly be at the forefront of development, and they should be equipped for this even during their studies where they must learn to navigate – and be critical of – the massive flow of information in these times.

If you ask students how they best learn, they highlight three areas they would like to see strengthened: freedom of choice, flexibility and, not least, increased personal contact with teachers and supervisors.


If we are to bring the European engineering programmes successfully into the future, we need to listen to the students. Research shows that contextual, dialogue-based learning is far more effective than one-way communication learning.

To put another way: We need to move away from the type of instruction where students sit in large auditoriums and listen to a teacher presenting material while standing perhaps 15 metres away – material that perhaps students cannot put in any particular context at the time.

We must support a model where students work with real problems in collaboration with the surrounding community and in close dialogue with their supervisors. Contextual, dialogue-based learning.


Currently, many students are understandably tired of being shut out of universities and receiving only digital instruction. This is certainly not optimal. But we must have the courage to say digital teaching. In the right form. If the knowledge that students traditionally acquire through auditorium lectures can be obtained digitally at the time they need it, teachers' time can then be much better spent in direct dialogue with students.

Why not develop an educational model inspired by Australia’s Charles Sturt University (CSU) that first introduced a “topic tree” in their engineering programmes?


The CSU model was adapted to regional conditions in a corner of Australia, and thus cannot be directly applied to European conditions. But it can inspire a European model where students:

work with real problems
engage in close collaboration with the business community
acquire knowledge (traditionally offered through auditorium lectures) through a digital topic tree that brings together the best digital teaching processes from around the world
receive more direct supervision – individually or in small teams


The aim of the model is that students work on real problems and in cooperation with the world outside the university. The necessary progression in the study must be ensured through this work. Along the way, they will need knowledge from the topic tree – knowledge obtained at the time it is relevant for their work on the given problems.

The topic tree must be visualized by a digital map with a well-ordered structure. The students must of course receive a thorough introduction on how to search for knowledge in the tree where subjects are interconnected and take into account interdependencies and possible specialisations. And the amount of time that teachers save on auditorium lectures must be allocated to direct supervision of students either individually or in smaller groups, so that digital dissemination of disciplines from the topic tree is supported by dialogue with a current teacher.


At AAU, students work in groups on large semester projects where they deal with real problems, but the interaction with the challenges of reality can be arranged in other ways. The point here is that the necessary disciplines should not be offered in the usual manner where they are only partially in sync with the needs of the students, but rather students must learn to find this knowledge themselves digitally.

At our faculties we can see a great advantage in the above model – especially if the strong environments in the STEM disciplines in Europe work together to create a topic tree that we share across the continent and with the rest of the world. We can then join forces and save resources that can instead be used directly on our students.

Who would like to be involved in shaping the engineering programmes of the future?


CSU's topic tree is explained here 

Learn more 

Problem-based learning at AAU