Bob van Vliet sits on a bench
Bob van Vliet: “I simply cannot take it anymore to get up in front of large groups of young people and talk enthusiastically while completely ignoring ‘the elephant in the lecture hall’.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

However wonderful technology is, it cannot do magic and solve every problem, says Bob van Vliet. He looks at limitations in his lessons – even if only during the breaks.

Lees in het Nederlands

At the beginning of this month – the week before the start of the daily blockade of the A12 motorway in The Hague to demand the end of fossil fuel subsidies – I showed a poster advertising the A12 support demonstration on the screen during the lecture break. Not everyone found this acceptable.

“Why are we seeing political propaganda?” asked one student. I explained that I did not expect everyone to join me in The Hague that weekend, but that I did want to confront them with the need to think about how they, as engineers, see their relationship to the impact of our work on the world. I explained that cheering on the protestors on the A12 is not just something I do as a concerned citizen. For me, it is part of my being an engineer. And I am definitely not alone in that at TU Delft. I wanted to show this.

It is not that I believe that we need to turn every engineer into a climate activist

Pedagogically, that may not have been the most subtle way to get students to think about this. I’ll admit that I did not really think about that in depth. But I simply cannot take it anymore to get up in front of large groups of young people every week and talk enthusiastically about our profession while completely ignoring ‘the elephant in the lecture hall’, as Scientist Rebellion puts it.

It is not that I believe that we need to turn every engineer into a climate activist. But if we never explicitly show this as a logical option, the message – reading between the lines – is that politics or activism is simply not necessary. Climate change? We can simply engineer ourselves out of it.

I have been thinking a lot about the ‘hidden curriculum’ recently: all the lessons that a course or degree programme teaches that are not explicitly listed as learning goals. The knowledge and culture that are so much taken for granted by teachers that we do not even realise that this is what we are passing on to students. Which is not to say that the message doesn’t come across. This part of the curriculum is often expressed in the way in which the teaching is organised; in the way in which teacher and student relate to each other; and, in everything that we do not cover. This means that these lessons are repeated in every course – throughout the entirety of your studies.

The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I feel. I do not want my enthusiasm about technology to implicitly be coupled with the message that doing the maths and building machines is the way to solve pretty much every problem on earth. I wrote about this earlier: ‘What to do as a teacher of courses that are not about the climate in a time in which everything should be about the climate?’

At the very least, I want to try to discuss the limitations of what can be achieved through the design and improvement of machines in every design project I teach – and to give examples of how engineering can go beyond this. Even if it is only in the breaks. Outside the official learning goals.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via