From Workshop to Academy

CAMPUS 100 YEARS

Published Sep 22, 2017

In the midst of a raging world war, KTH’s new campus was opened on Valhallavägen. The premises were tailor-made for engineering courses, with firm roots in craftsmanship-related traditions. The aim was to develop in a more academic direction.

CAMPUS 100 YEARS

This year, KTH’s campus will be 100 years old. What has happened over the years that have passed? We met students, researchers, teaching staff and others who told us stories of past and present.

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It is 1917. Europe is at war. There are food shortages in Sweden – flour, bread, coffee and milk are rationed. Hunger riots and demonstrations break out in several cities. In October of this tumultuous year, the first phase of KTH’s new campus is opened on Valhallavägen.

Students at KTH will be educated to meet the needs of a fast changing modern society. The students will become the engineers that the fast growing industrial base calls for and needs to build, and drive the development of the future.

The KTH campus on Valhallavägen is the result of a parliamentary decision made six years earlier regarding a major expansion of the university. Engineers are of course granted prime rights in towns with industrial works and in emerging industrial communities.

“Pursuing an education in engineering education meant moving up in terms of class at that time,” says Kristina Edström, associate professor and PhD student at the KTH Unit of Higher Education Research and Development.

The buildings on Valhallavägen were designed to meet all conceivable requirements in terms of modernity. A number of new, well-equipped laboratories, for example for conducting research on combustion engines and boilers, were developed.

“The professors themselves participated in the design of the laboratories and were able to push through their wishes to a great extent,” says Anders Houltz at the Centre for Business History.

“The laboratories, like the artistic ornamentation, were also status symbols. The material testing laboratories, for example, were praised, and Sweden was an early starter in terms of testing materials.

Practical craftsmanship

The courses that subsequently took place at the campus were still firmly rooted in a practical and craftsmanship-oriented tradition. Leading rock engineers could analyse ore that was brought into the teaching facilities by rail, and climbing in and out of mine shafts was practised at Bergsskolan farm.

“The laboratories did not resemble what we envisage today when we talk about research laboratories,” explains Anders Houltz.

The special needs in terms of facilities for the highway and water engineers required innovative solutions, for example, the design of the V-shaped building, long known as the trouser legs, which now houses the KTH library.

“In the basement of one ‛leg’ there were large water channels that could be used for various experiments. It was possible, for example, to reconstruct the River Nile flooding.”

But new requirements needed to be met. The fact that all educational courses should provide “scientific training” was entered in the university’s statutes in 1867. Accelerating technological development is now reinforcing the need for theoretical knowledge on the part of the engineers. The traditional focus, rooted in the apprenticeship system for tradesmen, was quite simply no longer sufficient, explains Kristina Edström.

“This was based on learning a profession from older men, because at that time it was almost exclusively men who represented the state of the art in such professions. And this can be very restrictive, as you learn just one use of the technology. And if you only learn one method, one way of constructing a machine, for example, your knowledge may be outdated within 10 years.”

Academic status

Kristina Edström has worked with educational development at KTH for 20 years, including with the CDIO (Conceive Design Implement Operate) educational model. She has an engineering degree from Chalmers University and also conducts research into engineering courses at Chalmers during the last 100 years.

“If one tries to draw a timeline for engineering courses of education in Sweden, one can say that in the 19th century the focus was on organising the courses while in the 20th century the focus was on making them more academic.”

The efforts to ensure the courses of education are granted academic status yield results in due course. The number of professorships is increased and KTH is also granted the right to award doctoral degrees in 1927.

Practical aspects dominated the educational courses for a long time though. The water channels of the highway and water engineers were apparently used until the 1980s. But as time goes by, the theoretical aspects become ever more prominent.

“This development is emphasized by the fact that, during the crisis in the 1990s, with industry not able to offer many internships, the practical requirement for a degree is removed,” points out Fredrik Lundell, Head of KTH’s Teaching and Learning in Higher Education activities, who started studying at KTH himself in 1993.

Towards the end of the 20th century, more and more critical voices are heard that things have gone too far in the other direction, with theory becoming too dominant. Critics claim that the course of education has lost its focus on the profession itself.

Link between theory and practice

The problem, says Fredrik Lundell, was not really the amount of theory in the courses, but that the link between theory and practice was broken. The students did not learn to apply the theories in practice. For example, he compares how a group of preschool children and a group of students would address the task of building a bridge using straws and needles.

“The preschool children would of course experiment using trial and error. But it is also quite likely that the engineering students would also start with trial and error. Our task must be to provide an education that allows students to use their theoretical knowledge to build a better bridge than the preschool children can manage.”

For a number of years, a conscious effort has been made to safeguard and develop the vocational aspect in the course of education. The CDIO education model was developed by KTH in collaboration with MIT, Chalmers University and Linköping University in the early 2000s.

Projects based on practical situations continuously introduced during the period of education – and learning in order to develop more active understanding in common subject areas – are intended to ensure that students are better prepared for the daily demands of professional life.

Fredrik Lundell also highlights how collaboration with the business world and lecturers who run their own businesses or gather examples from the workplace through some form of internship help to strengthen the vocational aspect of the education.

Successful entrepreneurs

The higher education learning and new teaching methods have also given lecturers a broader repertoire and a better theoretical toolbox. Kristina Edström hopes that this will lead to a flexible culture in which more lecturers design their own teaching and constantly develop working methods and content in order to facilitate student learning.

“Based on both what works for the current students and on how one is as a lecturer.”

Kristina Edström and Fredrik Lundell agree that the course of education is now heading in the right direction, although much remains to be done still.

“In 50 years, it will be said that the early 2000s was a time of change when the team of lecturers was developed in order to contain both brilliant academics and successful entrepreneurs,” predicts Fredrik Lundell.

Text: Ursula Stigzelius

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