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  • “We’ve got to keep our curriculum up to date”

    The energy transition is not only having an effect on industry, but also on teaching institutions. At the Ruhr University in Bochum, Prof. Dr. Viktor Scherer is increasingly orienting the department of Energy Plant Technology towards new technologies.

    Professor Scherer, you graduated from the University of Karlsruhe in 1984 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Looking back, would you say that you were a good student?
    1984 was a long time ago. By the way, 1984 is about the year in which the ‘Growian’, the first large wind turbine to generate electricity, went into operation in Germany. It wasn’t a success at the time, but then new technologies often need a second try. And yes, I was a good student, admittedly not the fastest, as it took me nearly six years to finish. At that time I deliberately listened to lectures that went beyond the minimum requirements of the course, simply because I was interested.

    And what is your impression of today’s students?
    A favorable one. Today’s students are just as curious as I was in 1984. They want to change something, contribute to important topics, to things like the energy transition. But they also have to learn that curiosity alone isn’t enough. Even today, mechanical engineering is still a course of study that demands consistency and stamina. But I notice that the mobility of students has increased. In 1984 a semester abroad was still the exception, while today it’s nothing unusual any more – that is in itself a good reason to be a friend of the EU.

    The energy transition is now shaping many areas of life – how has it changed your teaching?
    Of course, we have to adapt our teaching to take account of social, technological and industrial changes, including the transformation of the energy system. Students are also demanding this, and that is a good thing. In my lecture on thermal power plants, for example, the focus has shifted from coal-fired power plants to combined cycle power plants, which will play an important role in Germany’s energy transition. We also address current political developments, such as the decision to phase out coal, and identify the changed framework conditions, consequences and possible solutions which arise. In my department, we have also responded by introducing new lectures, such as those on CO2 capture from industrial processes.

    Have new study programs emerged as a result of the energy transition?
    More than ten years ago, we founded the Environmental Technology and Resource Management program together with the civil engineers in Bochum. The focus is on environmental protection topics and the recycling of raw materials. The course has been very well received and has led to an increase in the number of young women studying engineering in Bochum. However, we have also established new professorships that cover topics related to the energy transition. For example, Professor Thomas Müller has been teaching in Bochum since this year. His Chair of Carbon Sources and Conversion investigates closed material cycles for carbon.

    To what extent is it important for you to teach in a practical way and how do you check the effectiveness of that practical orientation?
    The basis of each lecture is first of all to convey the theoretical principles in order to be able to understand technical processes. That ought to be the basis of every good university course. But it would still be bad if I, of all people, did not give practically oriented examples. I worked in industry for ten years and try to pass my experience on. For example, the fact that the process with the greatest efficiency is not necessarily the optimum one in industrial practice. In the field of student research, we cooperate with external partners such as STEAG. This has led to a whole series of projects, for example on redox flow batteries, liquid air storage power plants or estimates of the potential of hydrogen management. This, too, is an opportunity to combine university studies with industrial practice.

    Has the subject matter become more complex owing to the diversity of energy forms and has this also changed the way that subject matter is conveyed?
    Not necessarily. But the range of topics has indeed become more diverse. Whereas in the past there were only thermal power plants to generate electricity, there are now also solar thermal power plants, wind power and photovoltaics. Storage issues have taken on a completely new meaning. Therefore, it is important to first give students an overview of these topics so that they can put them into context and get to know their advantages and disadvantages. The individual lectures then go into the technology in depth, and that is still just as challenging and demanding as it was before.

    Prof. Dr.-Ing. Viktor Scherer has been teaching at the Ruhr University in Bochum since 2000. He currently holds the Chair of Energy Plant Technology. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, where he received his doctorate in 1989 and subsequently worked as a research assistant. In 1990 Viktor Scherer moved to the energy and automation technology group Asea Brown Boveri, where he worked in various positions. Now 61, he was awarded the VGB Innovation Award for his findings in the field of power and heat generation. He also turns the attention of his department to new topics. For example, Dr. Martin Müller from Forschungszentrum Jülich has been giving a lecture on electrochemical energy converters, i.e. electrolysis for hydrogen generation and fuel cell technology, since this semester.

    Ruhr University, Bochum
    The Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) is currently one of the ten largest universities in Germany with 43,015 students. The RUB was the first university to be founded in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1962 (with the start of teaching operations in 1965) and has been a progressive, reformist university from the outset. Well-known graduates of the RUB are Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, former Minister for Construction and Transport in NRW and current State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy Oliver Wittke, as well as Norbert Lammert, President of the German Bundestag for many years. In addition, the former council chair of the Lutheran Church of Germany Margot Kässmann and the musician Herbert Grönemeyer studied there.

    Does this practical orientation change the students’ chances of entering the profession at a later date?
    The primary task of the study program is to create a sound theoretical basis. A study program should also provide insights into practical applications at an early stage, but it cannot replace industrial practice. Some things can only be learned on the job. But students can do a lot to improve their chances of starting a career. Even today, this still includes good grades, consistency in academic performance and a carefully considered selection of modules: In the eyes of an employer, does this provide a coherent overall picture? Was I mobile – did I do a semester abroad or an internship abroad? Did I choose the internships that fit in well with my studies?

    How has the focus of the students changed – are they more focused than before on practical applications?
    There have always been more determined and less determined students. All in all, however, I have the feeling that people are studying more purposefully today. We have more students who complete their courses in the standard time, subjectively rather more than when we had our traditional diploma courses. As already mentioned, international mobility has increased, which is a very good development.

    Take a look into the future: What could study programs in your department look like in ten years’ time?
    By then, two things will have changed significantly: Programs will focus even more strongly on energy from renewable sources, and this will be accentuated by the appointment of new professors who learned their trade at the time of the energy transition and worked and researched in that environment. And more courses will be taught in English. Here we are still far behind countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands or Scandinavia.

    Prof. Dr. Scherer, thank you for talking to us.

    Photos: Ontyd/Ruhr University Bochum WISSEN