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Challenge participants: “Just dive in – improve your skills and expand your connections”


June 15, 2021

Challenge participants: “Just dive in – improve your skills and expand your connections”


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More than two hundred students have already participated in over thirty ECIU University challenges. The challenges, tightly related to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, were very diverse in themes: from the use of Big Data in health care to help cities in the transition to the circular economy. In the online Challenge Session of Student Agora, we asked some participants to share their first-hand experiences.

Ivona Glišić, a participant of the “Autumn Challenge” in the University of Twente shared her experience: “Our programme consisted of various workshops and thematic weekends, but the basis is the challenge that you work on. Our team consisted of students from different countries and had diverse backgrounds. We worked on helping the city of Enschede to transition to the circular economy, our role was to advise the policy writers and the municipality”. A student from the University of Twente defined her responsibility as keeping a contact with start-ups and spin-offs in Enschede:

“I had interviews with experts and met a lot of great people. I did know very little about the circular economy, so I learned a lot about sustainability in general, and I also gained some practical knowledge. That is actually how I even got a current job offer – skills and knowledge acquired while solving the challenge were the positive triggers in my application”.

Tim Marshall, a student from the University of Stavanger participated in the challenge “Intimate Cityscapes”. His motivation for joining the ECIU University challenge was strongly related to his career background: “I worked in a number of public policy roles in the UK before coming to Norway, and I believe that good public policies can change citizens lives and experiences of their communities for the better and it is especially important to put citizens needs at the heart of policy making.

"This challenge gave me a fantastic opportunity to work with students from a diverse range of backgrounds, including from the universities of Twente and Trento as well as the University of Stavanger.  We had the opportunity to examine Stavanger’s architecture and spaces from a different perspective and experience it differently, so that we could understand specific local challenges."

Following a city tour and challenge-based learning (CBL) sessions our team came up with an idea of a vertical community garden. Our idea was that this could be located in an empty grain silo and incorporate different services so the unused space becomes a real asset to the community of Stavanger”.

While telling what he liked the most about our challenges, he emphasized the CBL as a very interesting and collaborative approach to mapping problems and generating ideas: “It was good to divide tasks according to people’s specific skills, such as focusing on stakeholder engagement, technical solutions, video making or report writing which was my particular area of expertise.”

Entrepreneurial mind-set

Another student from the University of Stavanger, Armin Shahab, worked with students from the universities of Aveiro and Twente, on a challenge that aimed at lowering the carbon emission in the construction sector.

“I consider CBL as an “out-of-box” thinking and the great way to develop the entrepreneurial mind-set that strongly deviates from traditional learning. I had an opportunity to connect with local businesses, to know their needs. Our team had weekly meetings with challenge providers and building owners to guide us towards the result”.

Rūta Pelikšienė, a student from the Kaunas University of Technology, has just finished the ECIU University challenge that aimed at transitioning Kaunas towards the circular economy. “Our challenge was very wide and there was no one to give as an answer – we all had to come up with a problem, propose and present the solution. Of course, the teachers and challenge providers gave valuable feedback to know if our team is on the right track. In this challenge, we had a lot of freedom but also a lot of responsibility for the decisions”.

A student from Kaunas also summarised her experience that echoed that of other participants:

“What I liked is that challenges are about real life, real issues, not something made-up. It gave me a unique experience to acquire both soft and hard skills, not only learn about the problems you are solving but also to practice public speaking, idea mapping, negotiation, project management and teamwork skills. We also had very interesting speakers, providing their experience and great ideas”.


What is CBL?

What is challenge-based learning or CBL? How does it differ from the conventional way of learning? Frank van den Berg, Senior Educational Consultant in the University of Twente and one of the CBL experts explains: “we should prepare students for the future – but the problem is – we do not know what the future holds. The world is changing very fast, it is getting more and more complex, inter-dependent, technology-driven and intercultural. Growth of world population, insatiable demand for energy and food, climate change and shortage of clean water – these are just a few very complex issues we have to take into account. It also means we cannot solve these issues within borders of one university, or even one country. We need to work on an international and interdisciplinary scale.”

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, Frank van den Berg cited the famous scientist and suggested:

“Imagine education, where you can choose what and how you want to learn. And, what you learn, is relevant for you and society. Imagine the environment, where you learn not from but with teachers, where you cooperate with students and have a lot of fun. Wouldn’t it be nice?”

The expert from the University of Twente explained that this new way of learning is precisely what CBL offers to the students – a collaboration with different stakeholders and across different disciplines to build new understanding and knowledge. What students learn during CBL can be immediately applied in real-life situations. “CBL is student-centred approach and focuses on individual learning outcomes, in other words, choices depend on students. During CBL, a team defines a concrete problem that they want work on, makes a decision, how to analyse it and what solution to design”, Frank van den Berg explained.

CBL also means multi-disciplinary teamwork where you can collaborate with stakeholders – people in society who actually are affected by the problem. CBL is also about sharing your outcomes so other people can learn from it. “Seek the problem and ask the real questions”, Frank van den Berg quoted one of the challenge participants.


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