Engineering roles in Building with Nature interdisciplinary design

Educational experiences






Engineering roles, interdisciplinary ways of learning, Building with Nature design, authentic learning experiences


Building with Nature (BwN) infrastructure designs are characterised by disciplinary integration, non-linearity, diverse and fluid design requirements, and long-term time frames that balance the limitations of earth’s natural systems and the socio-technical systems created by humans. Differentiating roles in the engineering design process may offer strategies for better solutions. Four complementary engineering design roles were distinguished, namely: Specialists, System Integrators, Front-end Innovators, and Contextual Engineers. The key research question addressed in this paper asks, how can the introduction of engineering roles enhance interdisciplinary processes for BwN design? Three Building with Nature design workshops with international groups of students from multiple disciplines and various education levels provided the ideal context for investigating whether engineering roles enhance such interdisciplinary ways of working. Results indicate that the application of engineering roles in each of the three workshops indeed supported interdisciplinary design. A number of conditions for successful implementation within an authentic learning environment could be identified. The engineering roles sustain an early, divergent way of looking at the design problem and support the search for common ground across the diverse perspectives of the team members, each bringing different disciplinary backgrounds to the design table. The chapter closes with a discussion on the value of engineering design roles and their significance for the Building with Nature approach.

How to Cite

Klaassen, R., Kothuis, B., & Slinger, J. (2021). Engineering roles in Building with Nature interdisciplinary design: Educational experiences. Research in Urbanism Series, 7, 73-98.



Author Biographies

Renate Klaassen, Delft University of Technology

Dr. Renate Klaassen is Programme Coordinator and Researcher at the 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education for the TU Delft. Areas of research interest pertain to content, language integrated learning in higher education, Interdisciplinary learning and Conceptual Understanding in Engineering Education. Together with Reframing Studio and a TU Delft team, she has developed the engineering roles for future Engineering Education. As an Educational Consultant, she has run various projects on assessment (policy, quality and professionalisation), internationalisation of the university, coaching in design education, curriculum renewal and educational innovation at the programme level.

Baukje Kothuis, Delft University of Technology

Dr. Baukje Kothuis is a design anthropologist. Main research and education interests are design of flood risk reduction strategies, delta urbanism, and developing stakeholder inclusive design practices. At TU Delft, she’s a lecturer of practice, and the liaison for multiple Texas/Louisiana coastal universities. For BBE-Waterworks, Amsterdam, she produces international publications, events and exchanges related to delta design and flood risk.

Jill Slinger, Delft University of Technology

Dr. Jill Slinger is an Associate Professor at TU Delft, teaching systems modeling and spearheading the university's teaching on Building with Nature. As Visiting Professor at Rhodes University, SA, Slinger is also involved in water-related implementation challenges in the developing world. She was environmental scientist and policy advisor in South Africa; and international water and coastal specialist in the Netherlands.


Beers, P.J. (2005). Negotiating Common Ground: Tools for Multidisciplinary Teams (Doctoral dissertation). Open University.­11132275-502c-448b-ad50-468b9659f1c7

Boix-Mansilla, V. (2010). Learning to Synthesize: The Development of Interdisciplinary Understanding. In C. Mitcham, J. B. Holbrook, J. T. Klein, & R. Frodeman (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (pp. 288–306). Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, S. W., Hermans, L. M., & Slinger, J. H. (2014). A review and participatory extension of game structuring methods. EURO Journal on Decision Processes, 2(3–4), 173–193.

Fortuin, K.P.J. (2015). Heuristic principles to teach and learn boundary crossing skills in environmental science education (Doctoral dissertation). Wageningen University.

d’Hont, F., & Slinger, J. (2018). Application of a co-design process on a nature-based intervention in the coastal system of Texel, the Netherlands. 1-1. Poster session presented at 1st International Conference on Water Security, Toronto, Canada.

Hooimeijer, F., Kuzniecow Bacchin, T., Lafleur, F., van de Ven, F., Clemens, F., Broere, W., Laumann, S., Klaassen, R., & Marinetti, C. (2016). Intelligent SUBsurface Quality: Intelligent use of subsurface infrastructure for surface quality. Delft University of Technology.

Jay, T., Rose, J., & Milligan, L. O. (2017). Adoption, adaptation, and integration: renegotiating the identity of educational research through interdisciplinarity. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 40(3), 223–230.

Jescke, S. (2016, January 22). The role of Higher Education in The Fourth Industrial Revolution. World Economic Forum.

Kamp, A. (2016). Engineering Education in the Rapidly Changing World: Rethinking the Vision for Higher engineering Education (2nd revised edition ed.). TU Delft, Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

Kamp, A., & Klaassen, R. G. (2016). Impact of global forces and empowering situations on engineering education in 2030. In Proceedings of the 12th international CDIO conference (pp. 1-20). CDIO.

Kothuis, B. L. M., Slinger, J. H., & Cunningham, S. W. (2014). Contested issues game structuring approach-CIGAS workshop Houston report, results and reflection: Exploring stakeholder-based joint commitment to action for flood protection decision-making in the Houston Galveston Bay Area. Bee’s Books.

Kothuis, B. L. M. (2017). Stakeholder value inclusive design: Using the contested issues game structuring approach (CIGAS) in Texas. In B. Kothuis, & M. Kok (Eds.), Integral Design of Multifunctional Flood Defenses: Multidisciplinary Approaches and Examples (pp. 154-157). Bee’s Books.

Kothuis, B. L. M., & Slinger, J. H. (Eds.). (2018). Voices on Sustainable Ports in Africa: Stories from Tema Port, Ghana. Delft University Publishers.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. C. (2018). Conducting Educational Design Research (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Menken, S. B. J., Keestra, M., Rutting, L., & Post, G. (2016). An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research. Amsterdam University Press.

Newing, H. (2010). Interdisciplinary training in environmental conservation: definitions, progress and future directions. Environmental Conservation, 37(4), 410–418.

Raymond, C. M., Breil, M., Nita, M. R., Kabisch, N., de Bel, M., Enzi, V., ... & Berry, P. (2017). An impact evaluation framework to support planning and evaluation of nature-based solutions projects. Report prepared by the EKLIPSE Expert Working Group on Nature-Based Solutions to Promote Climate Resilience in Urban Areas. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Repko, A., Navakas, F., & Fiscella, J. (2007). Integrating interdisciplinarity: How the theories of common ground and cognitive interdisciplinarity are informing the debate on interdisciplinary integration. Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies.

Schwab, K. (2017). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Reed Business Education.

Slinger, J. (2015, October 8). Building with Nature @ TU Delft 2015 [Dataset].

Slinger, J. H. (2016, March 29). Engineering: Building with Nature 101x: series of 11 videos [Dataset].

Slinger, J. H., Cunningham, S. W., Hermans, L. M., Linnane, S. M., & Palmer, C. G. (2014). A game-structuring approach applied to estuary management in South Africa. EURO Journal on Decision Processes, 2(3–4), 341–363.

Stentoft, D. (2017). From saying to doing interdisciplinary learning: Is problem-based learning the answer?. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18(1), 51-61.

van den Bossche, P., Gijselaers, W. H., Segers, M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2006). Social and Cognitive Factors Driving Teamwork in Collaborative Learning Environments: Team Learning Beliefs and Behaviors. Small Group Research, 37(5), 490–521.

Voorendt, M. (2017). Design principles of multifunctional flood defences (Doctoral dissertation). Delft University of Technology.

Waterman, R. E. (2010). Integrated coastal policy via Building with Nature (Doctoral dissertation). Delft University of Technology.

de Vriend, H. J., van Koningsveld, M., Aarninkhof, S. G. J., de Vries, M. B., & Baptist, M. J. (2015). Sustainable hydraulic engineering through building with nature. Journal of Hydro-Environment Research, 9(2), 159-171.

de Vriend, H. J., & van Koningsveld, M. (2012). Building with nature - Thinking, acting and interacting differently. Ecoshape.