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‘Expect the unexpected’: How ECIU University transformed the University of Trento’s approach to challenges


February 20, 2024

‘Expect the unexpected’: How ECIU University transformed the University of Trento’s approach to challenges


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The University of Trento is no stranger to challenges. It first introduced them in 2015, long before becoming part of ECIU University – and even before the concept gained momentum in Europe.  

The idea was to connect companies and organizations with students who could help find innovative solutions to their problems. And, according to Roberto Napoli, then-assistant to the rector and the current challenge coordinator at the University of Trento, the results exceeded all expectations.

‘It proved to be a very interesting experience for both companies and learners’, Roberto says.  
'For students, this was something new – and different from anything else they would’ve experienced at the university. They got a taste of what awaited them later in the market.’

The university then took it one step further by launching the School of Innovation Trento which helped learners from all departments foster skills to analyze, develop, and promote innovation in different sectors — technical, scientific, social, and humanistic.

Still, challenges back then were quite different from the way they are now, Roberto points out. ECIU University was what made a difference.

A new perspective

Joining ECIU University was a game-changer. While it inspired an even greater commitment to challenge-based learning at the University of Trento and School of Innovation, more importantly, it changed the university’s approach to challenges – or rather offered a new perspective.

‘The main difference between our traditional challenge and the model ECIU University introduced was the aim of the challenge itself’, Roberto explains.  

Originally, the University of Trento's challenges mostly prioritized the market perspective, he shares, with innovation seen as more of a solution to the challenge providers’ issues rather than a goal in its own right.  

Meanwhile, ECIU University offered a different point of view, introducing what the University of Trento now calls ‘social challenges’. They set a bigger goal of creating a global impact – and making the world a better, more sustainable place. For example, the so-called ‘Alpine Challenge’ aimed to create a co-working space in the Trentino mountains that would both attract tourism to the area and help locals establish a work-life balance.  

They also redefined the students’ role in the challenges, embedding their voices deeper into the process, and offering them more opportunities and space to identify the issue, discuss it, and come up with a solution.  

'Learners would not just be the problem solvers’, Roberto explains. ‘They would also define the problem and sometimes even redesign it in a way that made the challenge more approachable for the team’.
‘It was a very interesting adjustment to the challenge structure because it emphasized the early stages of the challenge and allowed students to contribute more’.  

It was not just challenges, though. Joining ECIU University became a game changer for the School of Innovation as a whole.  

‘Being part of ECIU University allows you to interact with people who have different experiences in organizing and running challenges. Everyone is passionate and excited for new perspectives, so you get an opportunity to both learn and be useful to others,’ Roberto shares.

The University of Trento took this opportunity to exchange knowledge by working closely with other member institutions, both hosting and attending other universities’ challenges – a unique chance to enrich their methods.  

Stepping out of the comfort zone

The feedback from the learners has been overwhelmingly positive so far, Roberto says, with many describing the challenges as a life-changing experience – and a more complex one than it sometimes seems.

‘We had students approach us and confess that while they enjoyed the challenge, it took them some time to understand there’s more to it – a bigger value’, he explains.

He notes that challenge-based learning is all about being ready to think outside the box – but to make it work universities should be ready to take risks too and embrace approaches that are different from what they’re used to. That’s exactly the mindset ECIU University and its member institutions have, he believes. And the mindset he wants the learners to have as well.

'We don’t want to create an environment too protective. We’d like to allow our learners to fail, to make mistakes, and to be frustrated’.

It’s all about stepping into uncharted territory. Exactly what awaits students when they graduate – and challenges seem a unique way to prepare them for this journey.

A promising future

With their cooperation with ECIU University having earned nothing but praise, the University of Trento now has even bigger plans.  

'It has been very fruitful so far, and we know it’s going to be even more fruitful moving forward. The future feels promising’.

Among other things, they hope to introduce research-focused challenges, cooperate even more closely with fellow universities, and offer more opportunities for life-long learners.  

Their number one priority remains the same – ensure the learners can grow, connect, and make a difference in ways that go beyond education as we know it. After all, that’s one of the ideas behind the School of Innovation – and joining ECIU University has inspired the University of Trento to pursue its goal even more passionately, Roberto points out.  

'One of the reasons I love challenges so much is that they constantly surprise you’, he notes. ‘So, to those looking to participate in our challenges, I would say: expect the unexpected’.  
‘That’s the mindset we have at the School of Innovation – as inspired by challenges and ECIU University’.

University of Trento

The University of Trento (Italian: Università degli Studi di Trento, German: Universität Trient) is an Italian university located in Trento and nearby Rovereto. It has been able to achieve considerable results in didactics, research, and international relations according to CENSIS and the Italian Ministry of Education.