Inviting reality into the faculty

how transdisciplinary education nurtures the next generation of changemakers

How do you educate a generation facing such complex issues that cannot be solved by expertise alone? We speak to Florian Wijker, Education Program Lead for Erasmus Verbindt and Sake Zijlstra, Educational Lead for the Resilient Delta Initiative. Recently, the initiatives joined forces to explore the potential and future of cross-boundary education together.

First things first, what is “transdisciplinary” education?

Sake: Transdisciplinary education brings together different disciplines, including those outside academia, such as societal organizations or businesses. This could involve incorporating perspectives from both academic and non-academic sources. The additions of non-academic into a course structure isn’t something completely new. While guest lectures by professionals are a step in this direction, I believe there’s more to transdisciplinary education than just that.

In your experience, what role do collaboration and transdisciplinary work play in preparing students for life after university?

Florian: As a society we are facing several big transitional challenges which involve a diverse group of professionals, from engineers, policy makers to civil servants. When you first face such a complex issue in the work field, it can be very overwhelming. If you’ve encountered similar situations during your time at university, you’ll already know what steps to take. I believe it’s crucial for students to experience transdisciplinary education, allowing them to explore diverse perspectives and disciplines. One effective method is through project-based learning, where a single problem is tackled across multiple courses simultaneously. You can invite lecturers from diverse departments like law, economics, and sociology to host workshops centered on their expertise. It becomes even more interesting if students from those various departments work together to come up with joined solutions drawing from their own academic backgrounds.

Sake: As Florian said, it can be quite a shock to students to find out that the world isn’t as one-dimensional as they have come to expect when leaving university. You might want to go out and create world peace, to find that goal hard to achieve. We should aim to create moments for students to touch base with the world outside of academia by making our curriculum more tangible. In the Bachelor of Architecture, Urbanism, and Building Sciences program at TU Delft, we’ve done this by engaging students in a real-world project for the municipality of Delft, focusing on repurposing a small park. Students were tasked with developing policy principles, envisioning housing solutions, and proposing practical implementations. It is a way to invite reality into the faculty.

Why has transdisciplinary education not been implemented into education so far? Is it a logistical problem, or do other factors play a role?

Florian: There are indeed multiple factors. I think we have become more aware of the need for transdisciplinary education because we are facing big problems that cross disciplines. While our challenges might have changed, we are still operating in the same old academic structure. You need to understand that universities can be unwieldy organizations. Do you want to change the structure of the organization to enable this teaching? It is a big ask, but it is possible. The Erasmus Medical Centre is a good example. Before, the curriculum was completely centered around mono disciplines, but now there is more and more space for project education. In the medical world it is incredibly important to focus on intercultural skills. There are already so many different worlds that come together in a General Practitioners Room.

What caused this change of heart?

Sake: I think it happened gradually, like flowers in a garden. At first there is only one snowdrop, then suddenly you have a garden filled with white petals. It is a balancing act. While you want to create more densely intertwined students and knowledge, we do need expertise. I am cautiously optimistic about the direction we are headed, but I echo the challenges Florian just mentioned. For the change to happen, the system has to adapt, and all the operators involved – me included. It requires a level of surrender, which is something I’m also trying to teach students. The uncertainty is also affecting the exam board, how do you score students? There is no evaluation matrix. It is challenging for teachers, but we get such positive feedback from students. They have been waiting for this change.

You cannot sit on campus in isolation and claim to have solved the problem. Come outside, walk into the neighborhood, and see if your technical or theoretical solution truly works.

Sake Zijlstra

You mention the positive feedback from students, is this universal? Or are there some who would prefer to remain in the lecture hall?

Florian: When you tell some students that they’ll need to collaborate with a large group of people, some may wish the ground would swallow them up. However, you can’t always cater to student’s preferences; then all lectures would start at 3pm. All kidding aside, there are students who are excited to transform their theoretical knowledge into practical skills and there are those who understand the need for it but might feel some resistance. It goes back to a fundamental discussion about the role of universities within society. For me, it is evident that there has to be an interaction between both. For someone studying Public Administration, it is incredibly valuable to see how policy, even when written with the best intentions, can sometimes have the opposite effect when implemented. We don’t operate in isolation; often, we lack autonomy over outcomes and must relate to others.

Sake: I have similar discussions; can you create separate learning outcomes that are related to reflectivity and ethical awareness? We are looking for that reciprocity between academia and the rest of the world. You cannot sit on campus in isolation and claim to have solved the problem. Come outside, walk into the neighborhood, and see if your technical or theoretical solution truly works. How come we have not managed to minimize packaging waste since the 80s? I remember my mom used to bring our own Tupperware to the butchers. We can improve plastic, and meat cutting techniques, but we are still dealing with excessive waste. Scientific improvements are not always the solution.

If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make in higher education?

Florian: We must not forget that universities already produce so many good things, I do not want to come across as alarmist. I simply believe universities should interact with society in a more fundamental way. There is a pedestal of Erasmus on campus Woudenstein. It’s an ancient statue, dating back centuries. An artist crafted a stainless-steel structure designed to reflect its surroundings, inviting viewers to stand on the pedestal and contemplate, “How can I create value for my environment?”—echoing the spirit of Erasmus himself. Ironically, the pedestal, deemed too precious, was encased in glass, meaning now you can no longer stand on it. For me, this story serves as a perfect metaphor for what I believe hinders scientific progress. Let’s avoid placing science on a pedestal. Instead, let’s ask ourselves: How can our research contribute to making a positive impact on the world around us?

How do you think students today view their educational experience compared to previous generations, and how might this affect their expectations of university education?

Sake: We talked less about impact when I was a student. We had a more distant relationship with the unruly outside world. Coming back to that magic wand, if I would be able to borrow it from Florian, I’d like to make our school system more flexible. Currently a student starts at high school, moves onto an undergrad and finishes with a postgrad degree. This is a uniquely Dutch approach. Why can’t there be more room for different paths? Shouldn’t the transition between HBO and WO be more flexible? Is it truly needed to set all these entry requirements for people to switch between courses? By allowing those with divergent paths to enter the world of research, we make space for those who bring in different disciplines and perspectives, which I believe creates a stronger connection between academia and society.

About Florian Wijker, Stakeholder Manager Education at Erasmus Verbindt

Florian Wijker is one of the three founders of Erasmus Verbindt, a university-wide student initiative which explores, strengthens, and intensifies the relationship between the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and the city of Rotterdam. The initiative, born out of a discussion at Café de Bel among three philosophy students, seeks to integrate academic knowledge with societal impact. Since its inception, Erasmus Verbindt has grown into a successful project known for its collaborative efforts and the popular podcast series, Stadswandelingen.

About Sake Zijlstra, Educational Lead at The Resilient Delta Initiative

Sake Zijlstra, a lecturer in Housing Management at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft, has long embraced experimental approaches to education. Transitioning from small classroom experiments to larger-scale innovations, he now plays a crucial role in Convergence, a collaboration between the Erasmus Medical Centre, TU Delft, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. For the past two years, Zijlstra has been the Educational Lead at the Resilient Delta Initiative, one of Convergence’s thematic initiatives. In this role, he spearheads efforts to address challenges in the delta region through interdisciplinary collaboration.