A Competence-Based Approach to Sustainable Innovation Teaching: Experiences within a New Engineering Program

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Innovation and sustainability are two areas upon which Scandinavian countries place a great deal of attention, in order to maintain strong positions in the global market and strong welfare societies. A current movement in many engineering-related universities in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe is seeing a necessary re-thinking, re-organisation and re-launch of engineering curricula. This movement is underway in response to drastically falling student numbers in the 90’s and early years of the current decade, and to a recognition of the need to innovate educational curricula, in order to be able to educate and deliver candidates to modern-day and future industrial companies and organisations. The sustainability focus of many of the Scandinavian universities has often resulted in instrumental contributions to environmental agendas and methodical approaches towards environmental improvements, both through educational curricula and research programmes. This paper presents an initiative from Denmark, showing new interpretations of industrial needs, research insights, educational ideas and identification of core innovative engineering competencies. The new Danish Master of Science engineering programme, Design & Innovation, presents a radically updated set of contents, pedagogical style and learning goals for the education of engineers. The articulation of this new curriculum points to new roles and identities for the professionalism of synthesis and innovation, including a strong focus on sustainable innovation. By focusing particularly on the Design & Innovation programme’s fifth semester, which is entitled Innovation for Sustainability, the efforts we have made to renew the educational approach and contents in our engineering teaching will be shown in this paper. This semester has been the object of a research exercise, to affect and observe various approaches to the teaching of design. Particular attention will be paid in this case to competencies, both initiated in the teaching and the evaluated in the students’ interpretation of the theoretical contents. The lessons learned from the first three years of this semester’s application and teaching to approximately 55 students per year are presented and discussed. After introducing the motivation and background for establishing the education programme, the consideration of competence-based education is described, in the context of design engineering. The whole focus on competencies is central to the ambition of nurturing an innovative approach to sustainability, as described in the case, which focused on relating the contents, context and responsibilities connected to engineering for sustainability. The two course-modules described in the case are analysed in terms of four views of competency, to enable a discussion of the merits of training competencies in engineering students, rather than just skills. The frame for this paper is the engineering profession and the education of engineers. The English meaning of the word design (to create and synthesise) is employed in this paper.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Mechanical Design, Transactions of the ASME
Issue number7
Pages (from-to)769-778
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • Ecodesign
  • Innovation
  • PD methods
  • Course development
  • Design
  • Game-based learning
  • Sustainable product design
  • Sustainable product design education

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