Going Dutch

Tech Times from the TU

Summer in Delft

It’s that day of the year again – summer is here!

Jokes aside, Dutch summers are a wonderful spectacle. Young and old alike choose to let time take its languid course, and stock up on Vitamin D for the rest of the year. Everyone’s mood is that little bit brighter and getting work done is that little bit harder. Some choose to venture southward to Spain or the Mediterranean, but lest we forget, and for those of us with tight purse strings and schedules, Delft has its fair share of attractions. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  • De Lelie – A Delft establishment, De Lelie serves both chocolates and ice cream but everyone in town knows which their highlight is. The flavours range from the basic vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to layered creations such as the Delftse Donder (chocolate ice cream with brownies), Stracciatella (panna cotta and milk chocolate) and Exotic Fruit (banana, peach, mango, passion fruit and melon) – a summer special. They’re open until 10 PM in the summers, which is perfect because that’s also often when the sun sets and creates a picturesque scene by the canals of Delft.

Disclaimer: I have not been paid by De Lelie to write this. I don’t need to be – they’re that good.

  • Delftse Hout – Summer calls for barbeques and our very own park and lake situated at a 10-minute distance from the campus provides a great setting. The early months of summer provide a brief opportunity to take a dip because soon after algae formation occurs on the surface. There are numerous spots where you can set the grill up and some create some space around for light games and sport. I was recently surprised to find that barbeque kits for one-time use are sold in the supermarkets here, which reduce the hassle of carrying and maintaining individual pieces.

Scientific tip – barbeque your meat with beer!

  • Library –  I kid you not. The TU Delft Library (‘bibliotheek’ in Dutch) is one of the most impressively designed structures in the academic world. The sloping roof is covered by grass for natural insulation and also allows to sit or lie down and bask in the sun whilst taking a break from ‘working’. In addition, movie screenings and live performances are sometimes held here and it was also the venue for some electric concerts at the recently concluded International Festival of Technology (yes, it’s a music festival!).

Even Engineers need all the breaks they can get



The TU Delft Master’s Event

Twice a year students from across the Netherlands, and some from even beyond, attend the TU Delft Master’s Event which is meant to help them get acquainted with the various Master’s programs offered here. It works very much like job fairs do – there are stalls in the main hall (in the Aula Congresscentrum) where programs clustered by faculty set up information booths that have current students and staff who can respond to queries from prospective students.

We’re happy to help!

I was part of both events this year (in November and March) and it is now something I eagerly look forward to (not least because I get a large chunk of my compensation from it). It is a fascinating and fulfilling experience to interact with students from diverse backgrounds who often have conflicting interests and desires. For example, there was a student who was interested in the SET program and was from a Physics background. She wished to work in the field of renewable energy but thought that the SET program was structured a little too broadly for her to be able to delve into the nitty gritty of the Physics behind photovoltaic technologies, for example. In attempting to bring clarity to her perception of the program, my own understanding and appreciation of it increased manifold. I was able to explain that, in the newly restructured program, she would not have to take courses from across the spectrum of renewable energy technologies but instead would have to select a small number and specialise in them right from the first year. Further, in preparation for her thesis, she could choose to take further electives/graduation courses and subsequently choose a project that cut the details right down to the atomic level. For many other students, however, the concerns are quite different – they are afraid that the course may be too technically challenging! This has been the case for some in previous years and to avoid major hiccups in the future the program is now much more selective about the backgrounds it chooses from.

This just goes to show that there’s a little bit for everyone in the SET program, and indeed at the TU as a whole. There were many occasions where we redirected students to another program such as European Wind Energy at the Aerospace faculty (TU fact: the Dutch name for the faculty is Luchtvaart – en Ruimtevaarttechniek), or Energy and Process track within Mechanical Engineering, or even SEPAM (Systems Engineering and Policy Analysis). As always, this abundance of choice is both good and bad – it all depends on what you make of it. At the end of it all, it’s about having a good time. Like we did:

Tot ziens!


Moving Into The Dutch System

Moving between education systems, and indeed between countries is always tricky. It isn’t so much a matter of skill as preparedness. While the underlying techniques for success involve the same old trifecta of hard work, regularity and focus; knowing what the system asks of you makes the process more efficient. I’m not suggesting that the system can be gamed (it perhaps can, but I haven’t figured it out), but instead that the small differences can add up in the long run. Here are some key points that I had to figure out for myself –

Enormous flexibility – I’m struggling to describe the numerous options as anything other than staggering. The TU allows you to take courses from any faculty on campus, and aside from the core curriculum requirement, you choose which of those courses are counted on your transcript. Further, you do not actually register for courses – you only register for exams. This means you have the option to attend any number of lectures from any course without having to inform anyone (while you are free to participate in labs also according to your whims, it wouldn’t be very useful to do so). You may then choose to register for the exams that take place every quarter (we follow a quarter and not a semester-based system), and the exams for a course are usually offered in more than one quarter. The most incredible part – only your best grades are counted. There are no limits on the number of attempts you give, and no indication will be provided in your final transcript of which attempt was counted. Note: this is ideally done within the recommended duration of your programme, which is 2 years for the Masters. You are allowed to extend it, but at some financial and opportunity cost.

Assessment style – There is considerable variance between courses and faculties in how you are assessed, with some choosing to count only one final exam, others two, and some others a mixture of regular assignments/coursework and exam, or no exams at all. What stands out is a general tendency to use application based problems instead of purely theoretical ones. Some may contend that this makes the exams considerably more difficult, but I would prefer to say it merely makes them more interesting, and that the level of the questions will not be very different from what you’ve seen in class. Within engineering, the process of transforming a physical system to a mathematical model is the key step to solving most problems. The exercise sessions during the course should help you get better at that.

Don’t be surprised to see students making sandwiches during the exam

Dutch work culture – There are endless articles and comics that attempt to grasp the adjustments many internationals may need to make when working with the Dutch. I would regard them largely as positive ones, without launching into a critique of work cultures around the world. In essence, it is characterised by a Zen-like focus on efficiency and ensuring that there is life beyond work. Meetings will almost always start and end on time, have a fixed agenda that is followed unless there is a significant cause of an exception, and will be followed by gathering in a more social environment such as a pub, restaurant or someone’s home. There is also the famed Dutch directness to deal with, which I have found to be rather less offensive than some claim. Be prepared however for a few (mostly genial) moments of speechlessness.

Food – Yes this isn’t quite academic but almost as important in my opinion. Bottom line – the Dutch are not, errrm, the most gastronomically inclined. Disclaimer: fresh stroopwafels are delightful and poffertjes can brighten up the dull, dark winter (more on that soon). The other options leave a lot to be desired, though. I have hopped excitedly to a lecture with free lunch but found to my dismay that it consisted of a piece of bread and a slice of cheese (and ham, but I’m unfortunately vegetarian). The most ubiquitous fast food is the Turkish inspired Döner, and the most classic of Turko-Dutch concoctions, the Kapsalon (literally translated as ‘hairdresser’; you’ll be at a loss for words when you’ve had your first). However, the quality of produce such as vegetables and dairy at supermarkets is generally very high, and if you’re willing to open your wallets a little wider, a range of different cuisines at multiple price points awaits you. Yet you will never make the mistake of thinking you’re in France or even Belgium.

Stroopwafel is heel lekker

Weather – No it is not as bad as Sweden. There is sunlight between 8 AM and 5 PM on all the but very worst winter days, and the temperature doesn’t dip much beyond – 5 degrees Celsius and when it drops below zero it is often accompanied by a delightful spectacle of snow. But the rain is almost incessant and the wind always seems to work against you, which added to the need to cycle nearly everywhere you go can make the going difficult. In fact, a running joke in the TU is that we have two wind tunnels – one in the Aerospace Engineering faculty, and the other in the street to the side of the Electrical Engineering faculty, which due to its height (it was one of the tallest buildings in the Netherlands) causes strong gusts capable of throwing you off your bike. However, to the Dutch, there is no bad weather – only weather that you’re not prepared for. The latest buzzword around the world is the Danish concept of ‘huygge‘, literally translating to ‘fun’ or ‘cosiness’. The Dutch have their own version – ‘gezellig‘ (if you pronounce it right, the government offers you citizenship). Warm social gatherings accompanied by Glühwein and steaming cocoa can offset the worst winter blues, and the Christmas break offers the opportunity to see Europe at its most delightful. Also, there is always access to superb mental health facilities at the TU. These range from student counsellors to full-fledged psychiatrists and psychologists. As ever, you don’t need to wait for things to take a turn for the worse – the counsellors will be happy for you drop in and say hi just to make sure you’re getting along okay.


Not quite like this, but close

Think you’re ready for Nederland yet? Maybe it’s time to finish that application!

Good luck! 🙂

Sustainable Energy in the Netherlands

There exists a country in Northern Europe that is a haven for sustainability. Bicycles rule the road, and 42% of energy is produced from wind – the highest proportion in the world. Owing to its large capacity of renewable energy production, it is the 6th most energy secure country in the world. That country is………

……….not the Netherlands. It is Denmark.

This is a curious contradiction considering that the Netherlands is almost universally associated with windmills. But the fact is that since the discovery of vast natural gas fields up north in Groningen, the Netherlands has been slow to invest in and develop renewable energy technologies, especially compared to some of its neighbours. This means that despite having a strong culture of sustainability, where Dutch companies like Phillips, Unilever and PostNL often top the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the Netherlands is third from the bottom in the EU in terms of the share of renewables in energy production. The dangers of continuing such an approach should be starkly clear to the Dutch; since most of its landmass is at or below sea level, the Netherlands stands to face the brunt of the effects of rising sea levels associated with climate change.

But it isn’t all dull and gloom. In 2015, Dutch citizens sued the government for not meeting its climate goals, and in a landmark judgement, the court ordered the government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in 2020 (as compared to 1990 levels). This represents the first time in history that human rights were used as the basis to protect citizens against climate change (Urgenda Case). This was an improvement on the status quo, in which the EU had set 3 targets for 2020, collectively referred to as the 20-20-20 targets – 20% share of renewables in energy production (currently 5% in the Netherlands), 20% reduction in greenhouse gas levels, and 20% improvement in energy efficiency. The Netherlands was widely considered one of the countries most likely to miss the targets.

Achieving these targets requires a holistic approach involving technology and policy reforms. Being the top technical university in the Netherlands, TU Delft has been actively engaged in this process. As part of these efforts, the Sustainable Energy Technology program was initiated and is now coordinated by the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, or EEMCS. From the coming academic year, the program requires students to pick between 6 clusters involving combinations of 3 of the 6 tracks – Wind, Solar, Biomass, Electric Power, Storage, and Economics and Society. Being a multi-disciplinary course spread across the faculties on campus, students have a great degree of freedom in pursuing courses, projects and theses. The Wind track, for example, is centred at the Faculty of Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering, which is widely regarded as among the finest in the world. Students can work on wind turbine blade design, predictive algorithms for wind conditions using AI, or optimising wind farm design, to name a few options. The Solar track, based out of EEMCS, has faculty and students that have set world records in solar cell efficiency. The current profile leader, Prof. Arno Smets, was recently awarded the prize for the best instructor on EdX (an online platform offering MOOCs from universities including Harvard, MIT, Berkeley etc.)  for his online course on Solar Energy (Prof. Smets wins EdX prize). On the other side of the spectrum, Prof. Linda Kamp from the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, and profile leader of the Economics and Society track, wrote her PhD thesis on a comparison of the development of wind energy in the Netherland and Denmark and continues to work on the implementation of sustainable energy technologies through appropriate policy and business initiatives.

SET students in an introductory lecture with Prof. Smets

SET students in lecture with Prof. Smets

The growth of this program is strongly correlated to the increasing demand for sustainable energy in the Netherlands and around the world. Consequently, over 95% of students from the program typically find employment within 6 months of graduation. Through this journey, however, the renowned Dutch emphasis on work-life balance is never lost. Whether it’s the evenings in the faculty pub where students and professors kick back after a hard day’s work (Prof. Smets is the treasurer for the EEMCS Slash Pub and regularly joins us for the weekly SET evening), or other activities organised through the week by the numerous clubs and associations on campus, you are never left short of things to do.

For me, the program offers the opportunity to challenge many opinions I had about science and engineering and their interaction with the world at large. Being exposed to courses from a broad array of disciplines forces me to question my foundations and rebuild them to include all sorts of new connections. This process of discovery requires effort, but the rewards are worthwhile. Perhaps my favourite part of the course is the ability to do a project, internship and thesis in three separate fields to gain exposure to parallel paths of development in sustainable energy.

Are you interested in saving the world? Or would you just like a couple of years in a beautiful medieval town, in a country where nearly everyone speaks English and which has excellent access to most parts of Europe? Then you may find your place at TU Delft. Applications are already open!

© 2011 TU Delft