Anette Kolmos: Engineering Change Agents through PBL

Anette KolmosDr. Kolmos is Professor of Engineering Education and Problem Based Learning, in the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University in Denmark. She has been involved in engineering education through faculty development and curriculum development, particularly in the area of project-based learning, since the 1980s.

The profile below was authored by Cheryl Allendoerfer, University of Washington, based on an interview with Dr. Kolmos in 2014.

Dr. Anette Kolmos
Professor, Department of Development and Planning
Aalborg University, Denmark

Ph.D., Gender and Technology, Aalborg University, 1989
M.A., Social Science and Psychology, 1984

From Faculty Development to Educating Change Agents

I have been involved in engineering education research since the mid-1980s. My background is actually in social science and psychology, and I was very involved in recruitment activities in engineering. My Ph.D., which was done in the 1980s, was on gender and technology and focused especially on recruitment into technology and engineering education. I became a member of a newly established group focusing on technology assessment —or maybe you call it STS in the U.S. When I finished my Ph.D., this research group wanted to keep me, and they created a position that I could apply for in Technology and engineering education research.

In the mid-1990s, I helped start the Centre on University Teaching and Learning at Aalborg University, doing faculty development. The Centre became successful, and the university realized that they really needed this. At that time, a new law in Denmark began requiring assistant professors to participate in mandatory pedagogical training. We started doing that training in 1994, and since then our faculty participating in that training have started to become heads of departments and deans of schools, and they are moving up the system.

Around 2000, I decided to step back from faculty development and returned to my engineering department, and I became full professor in 2002. I realized that what I wanted to do was to stay with the engineering faculty, because this is what I felt was the most challenging and also the most supportive. What I have gained from the engineering faculty is much more respect for things that I do. They said, “We are good as technical engineers, but we don’t know anything about communication. Come and teach us.” So there was a positive attitude.

For the last 10 years I have been doing a lot of work with UNESCO. I became UNESCO chair in project-based learning (PBL) in engineering education, and my work is less about doing the internal development, faculty development, or curriculum development, and much more about helping other universities through change processes. I have been involved in projects in several countries, but I realized that if we really wanted to influence the world, we needed to change our strategy. So I started looking into getting scholarships for Ph.D. students, and this is what we have been doing since about 2006. We have enrolled and graduated several Ph.D. students from all over the world. One of the goals for our Ph.D. students is actually to educate change agents.

I have always had support from my institution. Of course we all have struggles, because if you are a pioneer, nothing is given to you for free. But having said that, I have had a lot of support from the university, because the management at the university realized they needed evidence for how PBL is working. Research has also been the driver when we started to expand and work with people from universities all over the world.

I have loved teaching engineering students and teaching colleagues from engineering, because my mindset is much more like engineering than humanities. Maybe I’m just some kind of a strange hybrid that has a little bit of everything.

Promoting Change: European and U.S. Perspectives

Since the 1970s, Aalborg University has focused on research around problem-based and project-based learning, or PBL. Students work in teams analyzing and solving problems and come up with a common project report in the end. There was a need, because companies (and society in general) were quite skeptical about this new model of learning. So there was a need for research on what we were actually doing, and on the industry response to these new types of candidates, including an effort to figure out how we conceptualize it. So during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I started to develop taxonomies and concepts, and thinking about how to develop, how to train, and how to conceptualize the facilitation part. This gave me an introduction to a type of research that was different than the engineering education research in the U.S. The engineering education research in the U.S. started out being very quantitative, very retrospective, while we started out here in Denmark trying to actually study and develop a new practice, and trying to conceptualize it. New practices need language –and that involves research methodologies that are much more theoretical and qualitative.

Our research didn’t really fit into any of the research that was represented in the Journal of Engineering Education. However, I think more recently, more people in the U.S. are looking at what we are doing in Europe. Some U.S. researchers have come here and have seen what we are doing. Now they say, “We have gotten inspiration from the Aalborg PBL model, and we do things this way.” I feel that in the last few years, there is a much more open approach in the U.S. to new ideas about teaching and learning.

In 2009, I had the chance to step up as the president of the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), which is a sister organization to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). The reason why I did that was to give more focus to or put the spotlight on engineering education research in Europe, and to get it into the deans’ consciousness that we cannot change education based just on beliefs, but we also need data and documentation. In Europe, we have worked at many different levels to get more focus and more respect for engineering education research.

What has been characteristic for Europe, as compared to the U.S., is that the people who go into engineering education research are not funded so much by external funding. In the U.S., researchers can get funding from the National Science Foundation, and then they can start something up at a university. Here, it has been much more of an internal process of institutional money going toward research. That means that more and more universities here actually have engineering education research professors.


In Europe, we are always working in networks. When we get funding from the EU or at the Nordic Council, it has always been in networks. It’s a precondition of our existence. I have always worked in networks, and I have been involved in several different networks. In 2007, I became the UNESCO chair. The UNESCO chair is actually just a UNESCO professorship, but we have always regarded this as some kind of organization. So it has always been a whole organization, and there are around 15 permanent staff in the group. And for the UNESCO chair, we have established our own network. We are running research symposia every other year, and have gone to Australia, to the U.K., to Denmark, to Malaysia, and next year we will be in Spain. It’s a group of 150 people doing research.

I am working basically in two types of networks. Setting up networks takes time, but one reason that we set up this PBL network is to team up with others that have the same type of practice, and we share experiences and develop conceptual understanding of this new practice. The other type of network is engineering education research. I have set up a working group within the European Society for Engineering Education on engineering education research at the European level. At the same time, we also set up a Nordic network on engineering education research.

As a result, we have managed to do research and we have managed to conceptualize new types of practice within engineering education. We have also conceptualized educational change. And when I say we have conceptualized, it’s by theoretical and empirical research but also by experience, because we are very much involved in theory practice and in reflective practice. And I think that is very important.

The Community: A Meeting Place

Today in Europe we have many people who are calling themselves engineering education researchers, coming from many different places. They are faculty developers, people teaching within the curriculum, or people who are teaching ethics or technology assessment to engineering students. It’s a wide range of different types of people with different social backgrounds. In Europe, we would never call engineering education research a discipline. We would call it a field or a meeting place. It’s a place where we share a context, and we share an interest in the context of engineering education. We do research on engineering education, but we do it from quite different methodological perspectives. When we call it a meeting place, it’s actually much more open. A discipline would mean that we should have our own theories and methodologies, and we don’t. We are using qualitative and quantitative methods, and theories that have been developed in other areas. There’s nothing specific about engineering education research except that we share an interest in engineers and engineering, and we have an understanding of the content in engineering education and how it is taught and learned. This is why I think we call it a field or meeting place.

Go Where the Energy Is

I would recommend joining networks and finding the places where the energy is. I have learned that sometimes it goes uphill, and sometimes you have the wind at your back, and it goes much easier. But if it only goes uphill, you need to find another path, because you need to go where the energy is. It’s a matter of trying to get into the network, and then starting a career. This applies not only to graduate students, but also to more experienced scholars that are getting interested in this area.

The graduate students that we get from other institutions are people who want to take risks, because this is risky. When you are in India, or Malaysia, or other places, it is risky to go to Denmark and learn about a totally different practice, because you don’t have the local professors to protect you. You are on your own. So this is risky, and these are people who have the courage to go after alternatives. You also have some engineers that are curious, and they want to join the field. I’m not worried about where the new Ph.D.’s will get their jobs. They get jobs in faculty development, in curriculum development, and in human resource departments. They do find positions.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • How does the approach to teaching in your setting compare to what Dr. Kolmos describes at Aalborg University?
  • Where have you found “the energy” referred to by Dr. Kolmos? How do you look for that energy, and know when you’ve found it? How can you create or sustain energy where you are?

Photo provided by Dr. Kolmos.