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Teaching & Learning Lab


Looking back at Inspiration Café Challenged Based Learning

jaco appelman

Jaco Appelman

Challenged based courses are gaining in popularity. During the café of 12 March, Jaco Appelman and Jonno van Vulpen talked about their experiences with this type of education. Jaco lets his students solve societal problems with nature-based solutions. Jonno is a Master student of the Bio Inspired Innovation program of the UU and followed some of Jaco’s courses. He went to the Panama jungle to search for aspects of nature to use in innovation.

Applying nature in human situations

According to Jaco, challenged based learning can best be compared to the way a researcher like Louis Pasteur worked: applying knowledge in a practical way. The idea behind challenge-based courses is that by providing students with challenges, we can solve today’s problems in different areas, like mobility and sustainability. In Jaco’s courses the idea is to take a look at nature first, see how problems are solved here, and then adapt the solution so it can be applied in a ‘human’ situation.

Interdisciplinary teamwork

In the course, students work in small groups of 4 to 6. They have different backgrounds, varying from biology to industrial design. By working in interdisciplinary groups, students get acquainted with various disciplines. This in turn prepares the students for the real world, where interdisciplinary teamwork is indispensable. Furthermore, working challenged-based improves intrinsic motivation of the students, while at the same time it requires good coaching of the teachers.


Jonno van Vulpen

Jonno van Vulpen

‘‘Let students feel the pain first, then intervene,’’ says Jaco. The challenges can be hard, but it is supposed to be that way. Students work independent in their groups, where they try to solve problems they face during the process by themselves. It is intended that students struggle first, before they receive help. Jaco also thinks that this is one of the fundamental differences between bachelor and master programs: a master is meant to be more DIY (do it yourself), and challenging than a bachelor program.

Jonno tells that with deadlines approaching, it can get more tense within the groups. You might have to choose between friendship and success, because not everyone’s ideas can thrive. The group members need to be able to kill their darlings and choose the best solution. As a result, your idea may be dropped.

Scorpions in Panama

When asked what part of the challenges contributed most new insights, Jonno mentions ‘learning skills’. He has learned about specific methods, and he has learned how to organize projects, but most prominently he refers to the skills he has developed on how to collaborate with, and manage a team. With a lot of enthusiasm, Jonno tells about his expedition to the Panama jungle, searching for aspects of nature to use in innovation. He tells how scared he was at first, but as time passed, he felt more and more connected with nature and didn’t feel fear for animals, such as scorpions.

New challenges

Recently, the University has decided that the oldest and most well-known building of the Uithof, Willem C. van Unnik, will not be sold or demolished. Instead, the van Unnik will be redeveloped. According to the University it is both cheaper and more sustainable to redevelop the building. One of the challenges of upcoming year will be how to integrate ecology into the van Unnik building. Projects like this are a nice opportunity for challenge-based learning to point out it’s added value.

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Author: Naomi Smorenburg, student Utrecht University