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How to “change the world” of learning at university

UCL engages multidisciplinary student group in circular economy challenge

Digital technology is creating new opportunities for personalised learning journeys every day. Educational Apps are flooding the market of primary and secondary schools. Employers attribute increasing importance to collaboration, creativity and communication in their recruitment processes. Yet, the traditional lecture-seminar format of higher education has resisted change. However, there are signs of change at institutions like UCL. In recent years, the university has piloted a new learning format connecting students with experts to address real-world challenges. Find out how students from a range of disciplines work together to take on a two-week challenge in changing the world.

Inspirations for a different kind of education can be found in places like Hill Holt Wood, a woodland social enterprise that offers alternative education services to young people who are not in mainstream education. A dedicated team of rangers puts teams of young people through their paces in woodland management, green construction projects and cooking with local food, alongside the usual classroom English and Maths. There, the young people develop skills through experience and practice, such as problem solving and teamwork.

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Photo via

Young engineers at UCL on the other hand are seriously good academics and immensely skilled at learning from books, lectures or through theory. In other words: they excel in the abstract. Despite their talents, there has been talk within professional engineering circles that universities are not preparing young engineers for the kind of complex, interdisciplinary challenges that will characterise the 21st century.

It is no longer enough for engineers to leave university with just technical knowledge and theoretical understanding.[1] Graduates must also be able to offer capabilities such as creative problem solving, design and innovation, and they must demonstrate a capacity for working in teams, across different disciplines and in business or management. All of this must be considered alongside design for the economic, social and environmental impact of their projects.

In response to the challenge, the UCL Engineering Faculty has developed an integrated programme, which is undertaken by all the engineering disciplines as part of their course. Since it aims to teach competences rather than abstractions, the programme is largely based on learning by experience, much like the Woodland experience.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via / CC BY-NC
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via / CC BY-NC

What emerged is the two year long Integrated Engineering Programme, which is capped by How to Change the World, an intensive two-week course for second year engineering undergraduates from all departments across the Engineering Faculty. This also includes students from the UCL School of Management and from Computer Science.

It is a problem-based learning course in which interdisciplinary student teams are challenged to come up with solid, but innovative solutions to some of the globe’s toughest problems. We support students through a series of facilitated workshops to develop innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to complex 21st century challenges, which UCL develops in collaboration with its partners, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, among them.

How to Change the World encompasses 700 students, 125 teams, 40 staff, 40 partners and experts, 5 challenge themes and a lot of good will and hard work.

This year they set two circular economy challenges: one based around electronics and the other around the construction industry. They also run Smart Cities challenges, which can be equally well utilised for students to explore new funding models. The great thing about this programme is that the faculty only pose a challenge, accompanied with some materials and facilitated sessions. Students then take responsibility and lead their learning. How to Change the World thereby presents a platform for pedagogical innovation, breaking with the traditional lecture and seminar format. Learning journeys are created by the students themselves.

Photo via
Photo via

At crucial points in the design process, the partners from public, third and private sectors come in to collaborate with and advise student teams on their specific ideas. On the final day of How to Change the World students are assessed on their work at an Innovation Showcase, in which they display their challenge responses on trade-show stands and pitch their ideas to Dragons Den – style panels.

This year’s circular economy challenge produced some of the best work of the programme – from circuit boards made from enzymatically dissolvable plastics, to modular cities and e-waste roads.

One of the most rewarding features of the course so far is that students report how much they talk about the programme when they meet employers. “It is the thing that most interests employers on my CV, because they know I can write essays and research, but they want to know that I can work in interdisciplinary teams and tackle real-world problems too”, tells one graduate.

One of the learning points for Kate and other staff running these programmes is that if you support young people, but let them work it out for themselves, they will always come up trumps. So much so, that one of our ‘Dragons’, ex-CEO of Atkins, told them that the average quality was not only, ‘well above what I’d expect’ but ‘well above what I get from industry’ as well.

The programme has just achieved its third birthday and the next step is to work out how to support students to take their ideas forward. That will make it a real gold standard


[1] Such changes are championed by industry, education and policy organisations. For example: International Engineering Alliance (2013) Graduate Attributes and Professional Compentencies Accessed 14.09.15, and Royal Academy of Engineering (2007) Educating Engineers for the 21st Century Accessed 14.09.15

Also see Kolmos A, Hadgraft RG, Holgaard JE (2015) Response Strategies for Curriculum Change in Engineering International Journal of Technology and Design Education 25: Accessed 14.09.15

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The Author

Dr. Kate Roach

Dr. Kate Roach

Dr Kate Roach believes that experiential education is an essential component of a university education, which gives students time to develop skills they will need to thrive and to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. She is a senior teaching fellow at UCL Engineering.

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