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Lab 1: Theory U as process model for transdisciplinary education – STEAM+ Innovation Lab in Venice ‘Citizen Science for Marine Conservation’ – 18-23 of July 2021

By Maryvonne Nieboer, lecturer at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, the Netherlands and participant in the Innovation Lab

In the STEAM+ project, that is supported by the EU’s Erasmus+ program in Key Action 3 (support for policy reform), 3 Innovation Labs will be organized. The 1st Innovation Lab in Venice (July 2021)  was structured according to Theory U, ( In this blog will be reflected on this choice.

“Is Theory U an effective model for transdisciplinary education?”

In the STEAM+ Innovation Lab in Venice, 9 lecturers and 9 students from 9 different European universities participated. The participants had different educational backgrounds and (years of) working experience. These participants were supposed to work together to come up with Citizen Science projects for Marine Conservation in Venice. The organizers of the Lab chose Theory U as process model to generate change and foster transdisciplinary cooperation during the Lab.

First of all, the participants were asked to prepare for the Lab by reading scientific articles about the ecological and sociological aspects and problems of the Venetian lagoon before travelling to Venice. This gave them a common knowledge base.

At the first day the participants were welcomed at San Servolo, the base of the International University of Venice. With some first assignments the participants got to know each other a bit already. Herewith, the first phase of Theory U, Convening, was covered.

The second day of the Lab was aimed at gaining even more detailed background information about the situation in the lagoon given by local experts. With the preparation at home and the second Lab day, the second phase of Theory U, Observe , was covered, because it provided the participants with information about the issues at hand from multiple perspectives.

At day three an excursion to an Ecological Reserve in the lagoon, Ca Roman, was planned, covering phase three of Theory U, Presencing. At Ca Roman the participants got even more information about the reserve from their guide (the forester of the reserve) and they could observe the local situation themselves reflecting on what they already knew about the situation.

Day 4 was aimed at crystalizing & prototyping, which meant the clustering of questions raised, the forming of multidisciplinary groups of lecturers and students based on common interests and the brainstorming in those groups on possible Citizen Science projects. This day covered the first part of phase 4, Action.

At day 5 the participants continued working on phase 4, Action, because they were supposed to actually design and present their Citizen Science projects.

And then, at day 6 the group took the time to Harvest, phase 5 of Theory U. The participants reflected on the work done during the Lab and especially on the assignments and working methods used. The harvest of this first Lab will be used as input for the second STEAM+ Innovation Lab that will be organized by Klaipeda University, Lithuania, this autumn.

The use of Theory U

The use of Theory U provided the Innovation Lab with the necessary structure. It promoted the cooperation of participants with totally different backgrounds and made sure that there was a logical sequence of activities. The quality of and variety in Citizen Sciences projects designed by the groups, proves that the collaboration of such a diverse group can ensure that results are achieved. The contribution of every single participant was valued and used in the end products of the groups.

But, the specific knowledge and competences of the participants could have been made more visible and better used. It’s such a unique opportunity to have so many disciplines present in one project that this should be used optimally. This is an aspect that should be improved in the next Lab.

Based on the experiences in this first STEAM+ Innovation Lab, choosing Theory U seems to have been a good choice. It worked in this project in which finding solutions for complex 21st century issues using not only the STEM input, but the input of All other disciplines as well was the key goal.

The organizers of the STEAM+ Innovation Lab were in the lucky circumstances that they could design a program based on Theory U during a complete week. It would be interesting to use Theory U in transdisciplinary projects covering a shorter time period like for instance one day or even one lesson. Would it work in such projects as well?

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