All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Bergedorf and its university

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On Friday I visited the neighbourhood of Bergedorf, home of one of the campuses of HAW, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. It reminded me a bit of my situation in Langley: an applied technology program in a satellite campus in a far-flung suburb.

The comparisons stop there, though. HAW is a full-fledged university with post-graduate degrees, and Bergedorf has a pedestrian town centre and a sixteenth century castle. And it is easily accessible from downtown by commuter train. But despite the differences, it may have lessons for Kwantlen.

I met with professor Heiner Kühle, the director of the Environmental Technology program. We chatted about our respective programs: his department offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in environmental assessments and in renewable energy technologies. At the bachelor’s level, all students must complete a semester working in the industry. Students do this in their senior year, and are expected to work “just as if they were junior engineers” to use Dr Kühle’s words. I asked whether there are ever issues of work-terms not measuring up to expectations, in terms of learning experience for the students. Dr Kühle replied that, while it is a concern, in practice such problems don’t happen. That is because faculty and employers tend to work closely together; faculty members often perform research in partnership with the employers, so the school knows well what the student’s experience consists of.

Professor Heiner Kühle

Professor Heiner Kühle

Conversely, students are rarely directly involved in such research; there is no curricular requirements for them to conduct a research project. I was left with the impression that this is a far better model than ours in Canada. While being involved in a research project does have its advantages and learning outcomes (a student has to integrate material, learns to plan, etc), often undergraduates lack the necessary depth of knowledge to carry out a meaningful project. Instead, a work placement at the right technical level is far more appropriate to prepare a student to thrive in the work place.

In fact, such placements are something that HAW fought to keep in its programs (other universities have cut theirs when asked by the government to shorten their programs). This may have something to do with the make up of the faculty. All instructors are required to have a minimum of five years of full-time experience in the industry, as well as having a PhD; Dr Kühle, a physicist by training, worked for several years on energy conservation projects before joining the faculty. So he and his colleagues keep an eye on the practical elements above all.

As at Kwantlen, the focus is on education and the instructors get to know their students well. This became quite apparent in the chatter between Dr Kühle and students as we made our way to the cafeteria (instructors share their eating space with the students). I asked him about the mix of research and teaching work. He answered that he is not required to do any research; the research he does is “for fun, and to keep current”. But since HAW is considered an applied science university – aka, a teaching university – his teaching load is higher: eighteen contact hours per week, as opposed to eight in a conventional university. These loads are mandated by government regulation.

This amount of teaching leaves time for research. Dr Kühle mentioned that he is currently analysing the performance of an energy retrofit for a daycare: an interesting problem as daycares are empty at night, and so winter heating requirements have a high morning peak before the body heat of the children takes over. (He also mentioned a project with Airbus: they have problems with their on-board sewage tanks sensors, which tell the plane that the tanks are full before they actually are – a foaming problem, apparently. Kühle said he enjoys challenges!)

The Bergedorf campus of HAW

The Bergedorf campus of HAW

Not that everything is rosy. The campus itself, built in 1974, is a charmless instance of brutalist architecture, and the building originally meant for 600 students now bursts at the seams with about 2000 of them. And the campus has little life: once classes are over, students all leave. Downtown Hamburg is within easy train reach (a mere ten minutes on the regional express!). Even though Bergedorf has its charms, most students live elsewhere, making it difficult to create a real identity for the campus.

This is particularly unfortunate since the university has a large contingent of foreign students, most at the masters level. I spoke with two students freshly arrived from India. They like their classes, but switching to German is a tall order (“we took two years of German classes in Bangalore, but somehow that’s not quite enough”). Indian students form a large contingent of the international group, partly because the program’s focus on solar energy, a booming sector in India, but also because of a well developed outreach effort over the years.

If these are problems for HAW, where does that leave Kwantlen in Langley? How do we compete on the world scene? We don’t offer Master’s programs, as yet. Our instructors teach exactly twice as many hours as HAW’s, leaving little time for research, or for innovative workplace integration, for instance. We offer little in terms of student housing support, and Langley has no charming pedestrian core, never mind ancient canals and a baroque era castle. Do we just give up?

I don’t think so. There’s a lot that we could offer. We have a pretty unique mix of innovative agriculture and horticulture, for instance, with classes as well as research opportunities. And our language is English, which helps. But just imagine what we could do if our post-secondary institutions were supported as in Germany: no tuition! More faculty to look after students, as well as carrying out research! If education is as important as politicans claim, with our knowledge economy and what have you…uh, how about a little more support.

As for Langley, well…there is potential for a pedestrian area in the downtown core, and great bike path opportunities. I won’t hold my breath, but that is the inevitable future. Why not be a pioneer?

The pedestrian area in the centre of town

The pedestrian area in the centre of town

Note: HAW offers some summer courses in English, aimed at the post-grad crowd but open to anyone interested. Applied limnology, sustainable energy economics, or toxicology are among the options, which change from year to year. Not a bad way to spend a summer.


Written by enviropaul

October 27, 2015 at 3:53 am

One Response

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  1. […] are few in numbers and there is ample room for diversity in the system. If anything, it is the traditional technical colleges (such as HAW) that may lose the best […]

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