Bioengineers, what for? Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech's vision
In 2000, for the first time, agricultural engineers, chemical engineers and agricultural industry engineers were able to see the title "bioengineer" on their diploma. This change reflects the significant broadening of the fields of activity in which graduates are professionally involved. But what is a bioengineer? What skills and roles can they play in today's society? And how will these roles evolve in the future? These questions are central to the thinking of the educational teams at the institutions that train them. Here's how Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech is addressing them, and how this has profoundly altered its training courses.
According to FABI, the engineers' association, the engineer is a person who applies the sciences, who puts them into practice. He or she must therefore have a technical mastery of it, and practice applying his or her knowledge to concrete problems. In doing so, the engineer must have the analytical capacity and creativity to choose the best ways of solving problems, combine the tools at his or her disposal, or even design them. On top of this, the concrete application of knowledge requires the ability to manage projects and their interactions with various other specialties.
Bioengineers specialize in life sciences. They are interested in plants, fauna, microorganisms, the environments in which they live and their interactions within ecosystems and with mankind. He works on all scales, from the molecule in the laboratory to the management of large territories. It transforms and valorizes living plant, animal and microbial matter. In addition to scientific mastery, the training of bioengineers must also take into account the variability and complexity of the living world, as well as the many ethical issues that affect these fields.
At Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, we are constantly reviewing our teaching methods. The main cycle of program revision is based on the cycle of curriculum evaluation by the Commission des titres d'ingénieurs, throughAEQUES. Through internal procedures, annual adjustments are also made.
Various inputs are used. On the one hand, the teaching staff are all active in research and up to date with the latest developments in their specialties (understanding carbon storage processes in soils, new technologies available in both "high tech" and "low tech", ....), and in tune with the issues raised by the professional world and society.
In addition, workshops are organized every two years. In 2020, over 100 people took part in a brainstorming session on "The bioengineering professions in 2030". These discussions addressed both the technical aspects and the training needs to ensure that bioengineers have an impact on society through their professional activity. The year that followed enabled the teaching teams to operationalize the conclusions of these workshops. In November 2022, the curriculum proposed to the University Board of Governors will include all the changes brought about by these workshops: introduction of a bioengineering ethics course, permeability between masters degrees to enable students to tailor their course to their career plans, entrepreneurship training, etc. And all this while maintaining major elements of the learning path that have been present for longer: solid theoretical foundations, compulsory internships in the professional world, support for reflection on professional projects, change management, etc
Students' opinions are systematically collected twice a year, on each course, via online surveys (Evalens), and the coherence of programs is discussed in the student councils, a forum for exchange where students and teachers are equally represented. Last but not least, graduate feedback is collected via a survey carried out one year after graduation and a second 5 years after graduation.
Students are also involved in concrete changes on campus. A veritable open-air living laboratory, the campus is home to a host of sustainable initiatives in teaching, research and community life ( WASABI (urban agriculture, biodiversity, ecosystem services, etc.); community compost, soft mobility, upcycling, debates and engagement...).
In detail, how the curriculum has evolved, is evolving and will continue to evolve..
Thanks to these different inputs, our programs have evolved to take into account the expectations of both our professional partners and our students. What have been the most radical changes? If we go back twenty years or so, and look at the transformation of the agricultural engineering and chemical engineering degrees into the bioengineering degree, the range of courses on offer has been rationalized and clarified. The transition to four bioengineering master's degrees has led to a reduction in the number of hyperspecialized courses on offer, in favor of greater transversality.
This evolution has been accompanied by a change in the teaching methods used, with project-based learning becoming the mainstay of the master's program. Skills portfolios have been introduced. These are real areas of freedom in the programs, where students can develop their personal initiatives in line with their career plans.
The detailed drafting of competency frameworks has enabled teachers to coordinate their work more effectively, to distribute students' workloads, and to move towards more continuous assessment.
During the "Bioengineers in 2030" workshops, these trends were confirmed, and cross-disciplinarity is supported more than ever. This has led to a modification of the programs to enable students to go beyond the fields of their main master's degree and extend their skills to technical courses in other bioengineering master's degrees. This opening-up was intended to be realistic in practice, and was limited to well-chosen courses, with practical feasibility for the students in the balance. Dutch and Spanish language courses are now offered alongside English, the international language in which all students are trained. An entrepreneurship workshop is offered in the third year of the bachelor's degree and in the first year of the master's degree. The importance of new technologies (such as very high-resolution remote sensing), the challenge of data management (big data, data mining, machine learning), the integration of environmental challenges (agro-ecological transition, ecosystem approach, eco-design, green chemistry and biomaterials, etc.) already instilled by teachers and researchers has been confirmed by thematic workshops and is now an integral part of the programs.
Preparing responsible bioengineers
Another major project for the 2010s is to make room for cross-disciplinary competencies, or "soft skills", without which the best technical knowledge will not be able to bear fruit in the bioengineer's professional life.
As early as the first year of the bachelor's degree, a course on "topical environmental issues" encourages students to make links between basic subjects - mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, etc. - which may seem highly theoretical to them. Each teacher demonstrates how these subjects can be put to practical use in pressing issues such as soil and water management, or circularity, by tackling a new theme each year. The young students, barely seated in the lecture halls, are encouraged to carry out collaborative work, guided by a tutor, often an active bioengineer, who introduces them to professional practice.
In the second year of the bachelor's degree, the sociology course takes up the theme covered in the first year of the bachelor's degree, broadening its perspective from the technical to the transversal, and analyzing the links between bioengineers and society in general.
To complement and reinforce this approach, a course in bioengineering philosophy and ethics will be added to the program from the start of the 2023 academic year. Led by a duo composed of a philosopher and a bioengineer, this course will take students through a variety of themes, such as bioethics, the status of non-human life forms, corporate social responsibility and environmental ethics.
The third year of the bachelor's program marks the start of a program designed to support students' professional reflection. Supervised by a multi-disciplinary team of bioengineers and organizational psychologists, they are encouraged to sketch out their career plans. From this point on in the curriculum, they can iterate between academic courses, internships and immersive, increasingly professionally-oriented teaching methods. An initial observation internship in Bac 3 is followed by a second technical internship between the 2 years of the Master's program. These two internships are compulsory, their preparation is supervised and they are the subject of in-depth debriefings to go beyond the technical aspect and question the professional postures experienced and observed in the various internship locations (in companies, associations, administrations; in Belgium or abroad).
At the same time, immersive experiences such as the "Teams, Organizations, Change" weekend enable them, at the helm of a virtual company, to experience the realities of a professional life, to better understand how they function in a team and how they react to changes such as company mergers or takeovers.
The definition of a professional project in the3rd year of the bachelor's program also aims to ensure that each of the choices made by students (choice of Master's degree, choice of elective courses, choice of internship, final year thesis, etc.) is informed by their personal reflections, tastes, values and professional aspirations. This personal and professional project can, of course, evolve over the course of their studies, based on the different experiences they have gained. The whole program supports the development of a cross-disciplinary competency aimed at enabling students to "act as responsible bioengineers". It represents 20% of the curriculum.
The bioengineers of today and tomorrow are key players in meeting the challenges of the 21st century. At Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, their training is technically advanced, while integrating a reflective and responsible approach.
 The four Master bioengineering degrees are as follows: Master bioingénieur en Sciences Agronomiques, Master bioingénieur en Sciences et Technologies de l'Environnement, Master Bioingénieur en Gestion des Forets et des Espaces Naturels and Master Bioingénieur en Chimie et Bioindustries.