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WUR Strategic Plan: Boundary Crossing Education for Future Problem Solvers

Published on
April 21, 2021

For years, studying has not been a static activity in which gaining as much knowledge as possible is the ultimate goal: the ability to apply knowledge is just as important. The Boundary Crossing project – part of the Strategic Plan Finding Answers Together – aims to make WUR students into sophisticated world citizens.

Education in Wageningen must not only be of high quality and appealing, but it must also contribute to the greater ambition of Wageningen University & Research to find solutions for the major challenges of our time. The Strategic Plan Finding Answers Together describes how: through more flexible education and a rich learning environment.

Karen Fortuin, professor at the Environmental Systems Analysis Group and member of the Boundary Crossing@WUR core team: “If your goal is to contribute to solutions for large themes such as climate change and food shortages, then you must cross boundaries. This includes not only crossing the literal national boundaries, but also the boundaries of your own science domain and your own perspective. You can talk about farmers on campus, but it is only when you talk to them on the farm that you can put yourself in their shoes and include this in your research. That is when you see the impact that knowledge can have on practice, and how you can learn from each other.” Another example is an innovative food product: “If you research what the consumer wants and include this perspective in your development process, then you have a much better chance of success.”

An innovative product has a much better chance of success if you include the consumer’s perspective

Changing perspectives and learning from and with each other is not something that comes naturally to every 18-year-old student. In Fortuin’s opinion, Boundary Crossing is something that has to be explicitly taught and practiced in that sense during the study programme and it is woven into the curriculum. “The impression may be that Boundary Crossing is mostly something for Master’s students as they are a bit further along in their development, but that is not the case. It may be more natural to look across boundaries during the Master’s phase: you are more involved with the world outside of WUR because you are doing an internship, working on a project for an external commissioning party in a team with members from different study programmes, etc. But building the basis for cross-boundary thinking starts on day one.

It is helpful to take advantage of the access to different cultures that is present in nearly all study programmes. These are immediately apparent in an international class that includes students from around the world, but also consider meat eaters and vegans sitting side by side in the lecture hall during Animal Sciences. You must identify and use these different perspectives. The core of Boundary Crossing is to not see the boundaries as something unpleasant or constraining, but as an opportunity to learn something new.” The outbreak of the coronavirus has made practicing Boundary Crossing a bit more complicated: “If you cannot see each other in person, then you miss the body language that is so important in reading others,” says Fortuin. “However, we do notice that a lot is possible online as well, although differences must be questioned and discussed more extensively.”

Four Pilots

Four international Bachelor’s programmes are now running a pilot for Boundary Crossing: Environmental Sciences, Food Technology, International Land & Water Management and Animal Sciences. Fortuin: “These pilots have been running for three years now. Because Boundary Crossing has now been included in the strategic plan, the phenomenon is receiving a lot more attention at different levels at WUR: in courses, learning tracks, but also in policy and lecturer training. It is to be expected that it will be introduced throughout the university in time.” Are lecturers able to integrate that new focus into their teaching quick enough? Judith Gulikers, associate professor at the Education and Learning Sciences chair group, and part of the core team of Boundary Crossing with Fortuin: “Many lecturers do not automatically do this, although the education they provide often offers many opportunities. This is why they must learn how to make those boundaries more explicit in education and how to coach students to cross those boundaries.”

Rich Learning Environment

The Boundary Crossing project is part of the fourth column — Change Performance Indicator (CPI) 4 — of the strategic plan. The objective of this column is to create “a rich learning environment with different types of innovative education,” explains Dean of Education Arnold Bregt and Student Affairs Office Manager Frank Bakema. Bakema: “A rich learning environment which includes varied educational methods, inspired staff, and good facilities is not only important for high-quality and stimulating education, but is also essential for creating impact as a university. Well-educated professionals that are used to viewing challenges from different perspectives — such as government, NGO, business, consumer, etc. — and can thus collaborate and learn across boundaries, will be able to actually create solutions for complicated global challenges. A rich learning environment will also stimulate entrepreneurship through the student challenges, for example.”

A 2020 Urban Greenhouse Challenge participant says the following: “In the competition, I managed to use my theoretical knowledge to provide a practical solution regarding sustainable agriculture and worldwide food security. By working in an intercultural team I have developed my professional skills and the relationship with other disciplines.”

The lecturer must make boundaries explicit and coach students to cross those boundaries

Another good example of Boundary Crossing, in Gulikers’ opinion, is the Bio-Tech-Med-Nutrition Interdisciplinary Team Training: a combined course (worth three course credits) by TU Eindhoven, UMC Utrecht, and WUR in which students from the three research institutes provide solutions for existing patient cases by combining their expertise in technology, medicine, and food.

Dean of Education Bregt feels that, in addition to creating a rich learning environment, it is important to make education more flexible. This is the fifth column of the strategic plan: flexible learning tracks and spaces. “We are working on flexible education. It is how we ensure that students have more freedom of choice by participating in courses online or abroad. This blended learning was already gaining momentum and has taken flight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time we will start improvements: you can’t just have talking heads on a screen these days. Online education must be interactive and challenging.” WUR does not focus exclusively on the standard student. Bregt: “We also want to create a more flexible way of offering curricula to a wider national and international public. We have experience with the popular MOOCs and will expand those offerings considerably. And we are working on personalised education for professionals such as additional courses for dieticians, or a review course about soil management for civil servants.”

In this way, Finding Answers Together — the motto of the strategic plan — is increasingly integrated into education, in Bregt and Bakema’s opinions. Fortuin and Gulikers see the impact among students. After a course in which a theory about networking plays a central role, a Forest and Nature Conservation student said: “I have learned to embrace diversity. By examining my own beliefs I became more receptive to other points of view instead of judging them. With this attitude, it is easier to grow your network outside your own area of expertise. This will lead to meaningful collaborations and ultimately to shared goals.”

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