What do other departments do?


Whenever you have a hard problem to solve, check first whether someone has already solved it.


Not wanting to reinvent the wheel (and hoping to benefit from the hard work of others) we decided to take a look at the processes used by other Materials departments to introduce project-based learning into their programs. Feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed after vacation (recommendation: If you missed last month’s total eclipse of the sun, absolutely  go and see the next one) we started analyzing the data generously collected by my colleague Markus Niederberger over the summer.

I recommend this exercise to anyone feeling a bit disenchanted with higher education: The worldwide level of effort, enthusiasm and rigor that is being invested in developing stimulating programs to best facilitate student learning dispels any skepticism regarding the commitment of University Professors to teaching. Perhaps not surprisingly there is tremendous creativity too, with a wide range of approaches and implementations designed to accommodate different student backgrounds and to meet different educational goals.

Perhaps the most dramatic is the approach of University of Twente, which has adopted an entirely modular curriculum structure they call the Twente Educational Model, or TOM (because “Educational” starts with an “O” in Dutch). Each module includes a variety of teaching and learning formats, technical subjects and assessment modes, has a project about a real-world problem at its core and follows a student-driven learning approach in which students reflect on where they need faculty input in order to meet the learning objectives. It sounds absolutely fabulous (there are some nice “personal interest” stories here) and in my next life I will definitely choose this program for my own studies. (At least as long as there’s some plate tectonic activity in the meantime to arrange for some better mountains nearby). It’s on a bit of a grander scale than we can take on in our current curriculum revision — to be effective I think it needs an entire institutional change — but maybe our DMATL efforts can provide a step in this direction for the ETH.

Most helpful for us is the experience of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which adopted a similar approach to that which is emerging in our own discussions, and did a tremendous public service by thoroughly documenting it. (See for example R. N. Savage, K. C. Chen and L. Vanasupa, Integrating project-based learning throughout the undergraduate engineering curriculum, Journal of STEM Education 8, 1 (2007) and K. C. Chen et al., Creating a project-based curriculum in materials engineering, Journal of Materials Education 31, 37 (2009).) At Cal Poly an increasing fraction of credits is spent on projects in each academic year, starting with a small-scale community service project (for example the design and implementation of a solar water system for a local elementary school) in the first year and culminating with an industry-sponsored design project before graduation.  The projects are balanced with traditional lecture & laboratory learning activities and assessments. Their list of ongoing challenges — designing suitable projects, assessment techniques, team teaching, resisting overstuffing the curriculum and so on — is a bit daunting but their conclusion that these are outweighed by the benefits is reassuring.

And there are many other approaches too — ranging from the largely extracurriculuar Center for Engineering Innovation and Design at Yale University for example, to an almost entirely project-based syllabus at Olin College of Engineering. Our challenge now is to figure out which combination of approaches will work best in the ETH context. How best to help young people who have grown up in the unique Swiss social, cultural and economic environment to become the best possible citizens for Zürich, Switzerland, Europe and the world…

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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