Good Practice

Project-based learning with external stakeholders and wicked problems for building innovation capacity

Supporting KIC's

Domain: Domain 4 – Enhancing the quality of innovation and entrepreneurial education.

Action: Innovative capacity


This practice intends to build innovation capacity in students through involving external stakeholders and realworld, wicked problems in project-based learning. This practice has been developed for electronic engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway and implemented in mechanical engineering, food science, and educational science contexts at University of Split (UNIST), Croatia and University of Western Brittany (UBO), France. 


The Engineering Ladder is an educational initiative at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway, using, in part, project-based learning to develop innovation capacity in students. The Engineering Ladder was originally developed for an electrical engineering programme and has been given, and continuously developed, since 2014. Here we will illustrate how the good practice in the Engineering Ladder for using project-based learning with external stakeholders and real-world problems has been spread to other educational contexts in University of Split (UNIST), Croatia and University of Western Brittany (UBO), France. We will describe the background for the project that has generated this practice along with results in terms of guidelines for further dissemination of the Engineering Ladder model or dissemination of similar practices, guidelines for involvement of external stakeholders, and the impact on the teaching and learning at UNIST and UBO. 

Project background 

The project-based learning courses in the Engineering Ladder at NTNU is given to first- and second-year students in the Electrical Engineering and Innovation study programme, with the goal of both giving students practical experience with electronics, programming, and mechanics, and developing the students’ innovation capacity. The students are divided into groups and get to meet an external stakeholder with an area with a problem that can be solved using electronics systems. This problem should not be a list of demands that the students should meet, rather be a topic or theme where the stakeholder has identified that there are challenges. The students then need to use design thinking methodology to understand the people and users involved, identify problems, ideate and prototype solutions, test and iterate on the solution. The topic given by the stakeholder should be sufficiently open to allow for a variety of possible problems and solutions for the students and be a so-called wicked problem. A wicked problem is a problem where both the input and output factors are difficult to state clearly, and there is no best solution or methods, i.e. a real-world problem. Sustainability problems are good examples of wicked problems. 

Among the intended learning outcomes of these courses are practical experience within electrical engineering, development of group work and collaboration, project management, design thinking, and systems engineering competences, and freeing the students from a teacher-focused school mentality through giving them more freedom, allowing them to experience uncertainty and develop professional identities as engineers. 

This practice was implemented in a mechanical engineering course at UNIST and food science and educational science courses at UBO. The implementation of the practice started fall 2021 and the first courses were given spring 2022 and has been continued in 2023. The implementation involved both teachers and administrative staff at both UNIST and UBO. 


Students, educators and industry benefits from this practice.

The collaboration between students, industry, and educators can be highly beneficial for all parties involved. Students get the opportunity to develop their innovation capacity and gain practical experience, while industry partners receive valuable solutions to their problems. This type of collaboration is an excellent way to bridge the gap between academia and industry and prepare students for a future career.


Key outcomes

  • Development of innovation capacity in students connected to their fields of study: understanding of real-world, wicked problems, user-centred design thinking, creativity, group work and collaboration skills, and handling uncertainty.
  • Development of technical and practical competences related to the students’ field of study.

Key success factors / How to replicate / Sustainability mechanism

Engineering ladder adaptation guidelines 

Based on these experiences gained from planning, executing, and observing the partner universities’ practical implementation and conversations with faculty and students, we have preliminary guidelines on how the Engineering Ladder model can sustainably adapt to partner and other universities, guidelines on how external partners can be involved and aligned with the intended learning outcomes for the students, and a description of the impact on the teaching and learning of the involved partners. 

First, the implementation needs to be supported at all levels. In many contexts, the Engineering Ladder model can be a radical change from the average course. Therefore, to enact the changes necessary to implement the Engineering Ladder model, support is needed from faculty and department administration and leadership, along with beliefs from the faculty in the benefits of organising a course around this model. Although running a course organised on the model given in this project in a steady state might require less work than a regular course, implementing such a course requires a significant time investment in the first years. The support from leadership should ensure that the faculty involved are given enough time, resources, and teaching assistants. 

Second, training of involved faculty, administrators and teaching assistants is required. As some of the concepts in the Engineering Ladder can be new and foreign, the people involved at the partner university should be given the knowledge, skills, and competencies to implement the Engineering Ladder Model successfully. This training should not be given as a one-way lecture but through conversations and activities where the participants from partner universities are at the centre. The Engineering Ladder cannot be carbon copied from one university or study program to another. Therefore, successful training and implementation need to start with the trainers gaining an understanding of the local context and culture of the university and program where the Engineering Ladder model is to be implemented. Then, training can happen through targeted activities and interactions between all participants. This training can be modelled on the Engineering Ladder, where the participants are asked to use design thinking tools to develop local implementations of the Engineering Ladder. 

Third, students that participate in these courses can find the Engineering Ladder activities foreign. Constant reminders of the goals of the course and the relevance for their future professional careers should be made to increase the students’ motivation. Lastly, implementation of the Engineering Ladder does not seem to require that the courses are within specific fields of study. Still, there might be a need to consider the students’ experience when choosing the course(s) where the Engineering Ladder will be implemented.    

Both in running the Engineering Ladder courses and in planning and implementing the courses, developing equal partnerships between involved parties is paramount. This can be between partner universities exploring together how to develop new courses adapted to a local context or between faculty and students exploring together how to solve a real-life problem.  

Creation of partnerships with external stakeholders 

Through the history of the Engineering Ladder and through the implementation at UNIST and UBO, there has been a variety of external stakeholders involved. The Engineering Ladder at NTNU has for example collaborated with the Norwegian national broadcaster NRK on how to improve the audience experience for live studio productions, helped introduce more digital technology to the sport of curling with the Norwegian Curling Federation, and collaborated with the City of Trondheim on making the city more friendly for pedestrians and bikers. At UNIST the local implementation of the Engineering Ladder has for example allowed mechanical engineering students to make wind turbines and photovoltaic panels with a local company, contribute to a student race car competition, and create models for autonomous driving with the car company Rimac. At UBO examples of collaborations include food science students collaborating with elderly care services on creating food that is easier to eat for elderly and others who have difficulty chewing, and educational science students creating board games that help medical practitioners talk to patients on difficult topics. 

All these examples has been created as a partnership between the educators responsible for the courses and the external stakeholders. Here, we will quickly outline some guidelines that we have developed for the recruitment and involvement of these stakeholders. There are three important steps in creating the partnership: finding the external stakeholder that will be the partner, creating a problem for the students to solve, and clarifying the expectations the stakeholder should have to the students and the expectations of the university on the stakeholder. 

We have found that finding the stakeholders is one of the easier steps. There are many companies and organizations that wish for a variety of reasons to collaborate closer with universities and students, for example they want input solutions to a problem that they have, as a method of recruitment, to create bonds with researchers, or due to a feeling of civic duty. The stakeholders have been identified through personal connections, involvement in other projects at the university, suggestions from students or through contacting interesting stakeholders directly. We have found that for lower level students, using a stakeholder from a different field than the study program is beneficial as the students do not have the required expertise to solve problems for a company within their field of study. This is less of a problem at higher levels where the students are soon expected to work for similar companies. 

The problem or theme that the students are given by the partner should be sufficiently undefined as to allow for the students to use the design thinking methodology to gain insight into the problem and define their own problem statement, while concrete enough to give the students a clear understanding of who the various stakeholders are and what arenas are involved. The level of the students also is needed to be taken into account here, as lower level students need more concrete problems and more help than more advanced students. 

The external partner needs during this process to be made aware of what level the students are at, what they can expect of output and what is expected of them. For example, the stakeholder might reasonably expect some good ideas or prototypes that illustrate a solution to a problem, but will not be given systems or solutions that are ready to be implemented. They will also likely be given solutions to particular problems they did not know existed or did not want to be solved. Therefore, finding solutions to the problem or theme should not be critical to the stakeholder. They should also be made aware of the more time they are willing to dedicate to the students, the better output they can expect, as this will increase the students understanding of the stakeholders associated with the problem or theme and give the opportunity to give better feedback during the project. As a minimum, we have said to the external partners that they should be present at the start of the course to present the problem, participate at a midway feedback session, answer questions from students through email, and be present at the presentations by the students at the end of the course. 

Impact on teaching and learning 

Through the project two courses at UNIST has been adapted to the Engineering Ladder model and two new courses based on the Engineering Ladder model have been created at UBO. Eight academic staff and eleven non-academic staff have been trained in the Engineering Ladder model at UNIST and UBO, and 122 students have been involved in one of these courses as of the end of 2022. At both institutions there are plans to continue using this model and expanding it to other fields, giving more students the capacity to be innovators in their field as future professionals. 


Contact person

Torsten Bolstad