One Year In

It’s hard to believe that it is now more-or-less a year since our kick-off workshop to launch our curriculum revision project. Right on schedule, we celebrated the occasion with our planned second all-lecturer workshop, this time with the goal of converging the curriculum outline.

In order to have a concrete starting point for discussions, the project team prepared a draft curriculum proposal in advance of the workshop date. We generated a suggested semester-by-semester sequence of topics (at the level of “Quantum Mechanics”, etc.), as well as a detailed content (at the level of “solving the Schrodinger equation for an electron in a box”, etc.), all the time trying to incorporate and merge the input from the earlier lecturer and student workshops, as well as the feedback from our Sounding Board and our employer surveys.  We left completely open, however, how the content would be taught.

We distributed the draft, and provided “tours” of the outline — which was spread over the walls of our meeting room —  before the workshop date, and a number of colleagues took advantage of this to provide useful feedback in advance.

We broke down the detailed content into one-sentence summaries printed onto individual sticky notes, so that we could efficiently use the workshop time to distribute them between the topics. A specific goal of the workshop was to decide which contents would be best taught in the integrative semester-long design projects, which fit best in a more traditional classroom format, and which should be incorporated into laboratory or hands-on learning modules. Our new assistant Bettina (who is supported by a generous grant from our rector’s office through their Innovedum program) ran a series of experiments to determine which glues were sticky enough to prevent the notes from falling off, but allowed for multiple rearrangements. You can see below that she was successful; we are a materials department after all 😉

We found that we were able to agree fairly quickly on the format of the first two years, with a number of helpful adjustments emerging from the discussions but no major restructuring from the draft outlines. This allowed us to move to the interesting part of distributing the content of years one and two. As always we kept a large blank section of wall available for content that we felt could be omitted or at least saved until the MS program in order to make some space in the curriculum. As during previous discussions this stayed rather blank although we did manage to part with a couple of small things. Step by Step I guess…

Let me tell you about two new structures that emerged from the discussions that I am particularly excited about: The first is “Characterization Modules”: the tools and techniques that students need for measuring and modeling the properties of materials will be available in guided-study blocks so that they can be mastered whenever each student finds they need a particular skill in order to progress with their project. Second, we introduced “Introductory” and “Wrap-up” weeks at the start and end of some of the semesters, reserving blocks of time for kicking off and wrapping up project work, and with a focus on different themes (synthesis, manufacturing, etc.).

For the third year, the project team made two proposals since the input we had gathered was so distributed. The first was to structure student learning around classes of materials — metals, semiconductors, ceramics, polymers, etc. — and within each class discuss properties (optical, electronic, magnetic, thermal, structural, etc.). The second approach was to structure the learning around properties, then analyze the applicability of the different material classes for each property. Choosing between the options (or proposing others) led to some quite energetic debates with excellent pros and cons offered for both approaches and for some new ones. To try to break the stalemate we took a vote and remained exactly divided. And so we decided to proceed by forming a new working group, with two representatives from each “side” to make a new proposal. We deliberately didn’t include anyone from the project team on the grounds that we have exhausted all of our ideas, but hopefully the working group is working away busily at this at the moment without our nagging them.

So what next:

First, an analogous workshop with a student group, this time with a slightly more refined starting point that incorporates the round of feedback from the lecturers, but still with the expectation that the document is a draft proposal seeking modifications. And of course a decision on the pending proposal for the third year. Then we will be ready for the hard work of matching groups of people with the different topics and unleashing them on the development and coordination of the detailed learning segments. And that, I think, is where the fun will really start…

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The Alumni Sounding Board

As a no-longer-very-junior Professor, who is (I think) not entirely unreasonable in meetings, I spend a large and increasing fraction of my time serving on scientific advisory and steering boards. If you will permit me one small grumble, I’m convinced that I do this far more than my male colleagues now that many institutions aim for a bit of gender balance on such committees (which is of course a good thing) but didn’t yet get around to hiring a gender-balanced cohort of faculty (which is a bad thing). But that is a topic for another occasion.

So, when embarking on our curriculum revision, the question of how we could most effectively benefit from external expert input immediately came to mind. Since our Department is composed (by construction) entirely of academics, it was clear to us that our weakest internal aspect is the industry perspective, and that our advisors should have strong industry representation. We decided that a good source of advice would be our alumni, both for their familiarity with our existing program, and because they have a vested interest in seeing the value of an ETH Materials degree remain high! And since we envisage a relationship along the lines of an ongoing feedback from a group that we can bounce our ideas off, rather than a more formal advisory or consultancy role, we settled on an “Alumni Sounding Board” as the appropriate forum.

Our Educational Developer, Sara, is an active member (and former president) of our Materials Alumni society, and so was able to identify potential Sounding Board members, spanning recent and less-recent graduates from a wide range of small and large companies with diverse expertise. Everyone who we asked agreed enthusiastically to join, and we now have a Board of eight members representing Sika, QUO, RUAG Space , Sonova, ABB, Straumann and the Swiss Society for Materials Science and Technology, as well as our sister Institute, EPFL. Interestingly, one alumnus, from a company that now employs many of our graudates, agreed to join because he finds our existing graduates so well prepared that he wants to make sure we don’t mess up.

In preparation for our first meeting last month we thought hard about what input would be most useful to us at this stage of our process, and how we could most effectively use the time of our Board members. We settled on the following questions for a specific feedback:

– From your personal experience as a student, what experience/knowledge stuck with you from your studies and what did you forget quickly? Looking back, is there anything you feel that you should have learned which was not included, or conversely anything you would omit?

– As an employer, do you find qualities in Materials Scientists from other study programs that you find lacking in our graduates from ETH Zurich?

–  (a tough one!) How would you expect your own job profile to develop over the next ten to fifteen years? What skills will become more important?

and met one evening from 5-7pm at ETH to discuss these topics in depth. Discussions continued less formally over dinner in a very pleasant local (in spite of its being called Ticino Grotto) restaurant.

Of course we received many diverse opinions and ideas, but consensus was largely reached on the following comments. The most long-lasting learning experiences were the thorough grounding in the basics (concepts and terminology of Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, especially Analysis & Mechanics) as well as the practical experiences in projects and practicals and connections to applications through guest lecturers from industry. Many of our board felt that a stronger focus on programming techniques and practicalities of coding (in Matlab, Python, Excel, CAD, etc.) would have been useful. Our Board was about as poor as we have been ourselves in suggesting what could be omitted with no real agreement; one Board Member mentioned that he had never used the concept of the Brillouin Zone since the exam. in his Materials Physics class but of course I immediately discounted leaving that out… From an employer’s perspective, our students could benefit from a stronger engineering background, in particular in construction and design and “engineering thinking”, although I’m not sure we converged on exactly what that involves. Interestingly, our graduates were criticised for their insecurity in making decisions, for example in writing materials requirements or considering budget and deadlines; moving beyond assessing and analyzing the pros and cons is not something we prepare them well for (another great German word for this one: they lack “Entscheidungsfähigkeit”). Our Board Members found the 10-15 years question as difficult to answer as I do: Overall they expect their projects to become shorter and more diverse and the pace to become faster, so that both a broad basic education is very important and interconnected thinking will become more important.

All very useful feedback which we now work to incorporate in the first draft of our new curriculum that we hope to have ready soon. And a very pleasant evening with brilliant and interesting people who have gone on to do great things since they left the ETH. Even though most of them had already graduated before I arrived, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of institutional pride. And I now understand better the comment that our graduates are already so good we must be careful not to mess things up with our curriculum revision.

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Long Silences and the BSc Profile

Every summer I promise myself that I will start the Fall Semester so well prepared that I will not reach Christmas in a state of organizational meltdown, surrounded by backlogs of reviews, student projects waiting for feedback, unread literature, ungraded homeworks and neglected committee assignments, and suffering from diseases caused by deficiencies of vitamins that are not contained in take-out sushi.  And every year I fail. This year I am doing particularly poorly because I had been happily delusional (or if you’re feeling kind, optimistic) about the time demands of a curriculum revision. And so, in the triage of abandoning anything non-life-threatening, or at least not shouting at me the loudest, this blog lost out.

But here I am on an 8-hour flight to the Materials Research Society Fall meeting in Boston with tomorrow’s talk prepared, and a lot to tell you about.

Let’s begin with the BSc Profile. Our idea with the BSc Profile was to produce a document with an amount of detail somewhere between the Qualification Profile — which is a short summary of our graduates’ competences and knowledge — and the learning outcomes for each course. We wanted to articulate both subject-specific and non-subject specific (the “nicht-fachliche Kompetenzen” I mentioned last time) components so as to have a working document to guide us as we develop the details of the curriculum. While we certainly expect that the BSc Profile will evolve as we flesh out the curriculum, a rather thorough statement giving us a common ground to start from seemed like a good plan.

Our approach was to produce a draft among the core project team as an input for colleagues to comment on. While this felt like a lot of work for a small number of people at the start, I think it was quite an efficient choice; the discussions with the entire faculty could immediately be concrete.

We found that we continually needed to remind ourselves that we are revising only the BSc curriculum, and that our students have another two years of training at the Masters level before they are unleashed into the community as practicing Materials Scientists. So we decided to start with a kind of “executive summary” to help us remember that we don’t need to pack every possible topic into the first three years of study:

“The Bachelor’s degree provides students with the fundamentals of material science and engineering, giving the students a toolbox to design new materials or to select existing materials for engineering applications, and prepares them for advanced studies in materials science and engineering.”

Then we divided the profile into three sections:

  • Domain-specific knowledge and understanding
  • Analytical and design skills
  • Personal and social competences

The domain-specific section starts with quantitative and qualitative problem solving in the basics of chemistry, physics, engineering and mathematics. Then the topics that distinguish us from those specialities: Structure formation, structure-property-processing relationships, thermodynamics and kinetics (all of those phase diagrams), characteristics of various materials, and simple material design problems.

We grouped the analytical and design skills broadly into characterizing, modeling, making and selecting materials. First, we decided that our graduates should be able to characterize the composition and structure of materials from the atomic to the macroscopic level. To do this they will need to be able to explain how common chemical, mechanical, microscopic, spectroscopic and electronic characterization methods work, interpret data collected with those characterization methods and choose the appropriate method for determining a particular property. On the modeling side, they should understand the approximations and applicability of various modeling and simulation methods so that they can select and apply a suitable approach to solve a given problem. Our graduates should be able to carry out simple laboratory syntheses, and describe processing and manufacturing routes for common materials. For materials selection, they should understand the materials (and associated environmental and economic) challenges posed by common applications, and be able to analyze failure of components, so that they can evaluate an interdisciplinary problem and derive and implement a solution. Finally, they should be able to build, adapt and program simple equipment or parts of equipment. I have the feeling that we will find that we’ve been a bit ambitious with this section, and might need to rethink some of the huge volume of content, or at least the level at which we include it, later.

For the personal and social competences, we decided to focus on more “technical” aspects such as lab safety, record keeping, data analysis, literature comparison, presentation and discussions skills and good scientific practice, saving areas such as project design, team skills and leadership for the Masters level. Here I think we have been quite realistic with what skills can be developed in the time available.

In the end we left some things undecided, feeling we could make a more informed decision when we have a more complete picture of the overall curriculum structure. In particular, how much biology and computer programming to include, as well as which materials applications to focus on will be decided later. We also have quite a few gray areas (and even some disagreements) regarding the division between BSc and MSc competences, and I’m sure there will be some shuffling back and forth of topics at that boundary over the next months. Overall, though, I’m convinced that we have a good solid “launch pad” for the next step of fleshing out the detailed curriculum.

Ooof, now some recommendation letters are clamouring loudly for attention. So the stories from our stimulating and instructive meeting with our Alumni Sounding Board will have to wait until next time…

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What do employers want?

Our studies coordinator, Andrea, had a busy summer interviewing the people who hire our graduates; she talked to industry representatives in both management and research and development roles, as well as human resources personnel, from a wide range of different companies with different specialities. Now that we are all back from Summer travels, and have survived the first week of the new academic year, we spent our latest curriculum team meeting poring over her findings.

First of all, I should say that we were enormously encouraged and grateful to find so many very busy people willing to donate their time to help us with our curriculum revision process; it’s clear that the professional community genuinely cares about our program and our graduates. We were a little bit flattered too, at their enthusiasm for the technical and scientific competencies of our graduates. All of the employers emphasized the excellent reputation of our institute, the rigorous education in fundamentals that our graduates are renowned for, their extensive practical and laboratory skills and the “swiss quality” of our brand.  So far, so good.

I was personally astonished, though, at their astonishment that we would want to change anything. In fact many employers even seemed somewhat concerned that we might be about to really mess things up. I learned that many aspects of our program that we consider a bit unmodern  — “traditional” materials science such as empirical processing methods, or the division of knowledge into materials “classes” rather than cross-cutting concepts — are considered strengths. And that the details of the new stuff that we had planned to teach our students — environmental issues and sustainability for example — are not terribly important to our employers, and certainly not at the expense of a rigorous training in basics. Maybe the time for post-modernism in Materials education has not yet come?

When pressed further, however, the topic of skills beyond the technical (the german phrase for this — nicht-fachliche Kompetenzen — is fabulous) came up repeatedly. The importance of teamwork, communication and presentation skills, industrial internship experience, goal-setting and self-learning, and so on. These are certainly competencies that we plan to address with project-based learning approaches. Inter-cultural competencies and language skills were also mentioned; it will be challenging to incorporate these into the time available for the degree, assuming that my North-of-England heritage and dialect is not what they had in mind.

The criticism that I am struggling with most, which came up repeatedly, is that our graduates are too picky, in that they expect work that is too interesting and salaries that are too high. Now while we of course don’t want to be releasing cohorts of arrogant prima donnas into the workforce (and as a newcomer to Switzerland I can objectively say that swissness is antithetical to primadonnaness), a bit of pickiness in terms of how interesting one’s work should be strikes me as something we should be trying to nurture rather than discourage. I can wish nothing better for our graduates than that they find stimulating and interesting ways to contribute to society. And I see no downside to our women graduates in particular (finally) negotiating aggressively for their starting salaries. But that is a subject for another very long discussion…


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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…

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So who is she then?

Well, here we are at the end of our promised series of “The Materials Scientist, Who is She?” workshops. Before I give you the answer to our eternal question, first let me tell you what worked well with the logistics: We proposed three different dates and let the colleagues choose which to attend; this was a good plan because there was a natural mix of technical expertise and personalities and it kept the discussion groups to a manageable size. We set a strict time limit (2.5 hours) for each session so that the end was always in sight. And we had a good espresso machine in the discussion room.

Beforehand I attended a “Facilitating meetings and workshops” training course and I practiced some of my new tricks on my colleagues. My favorite turned out to be the “silent sticky note” technique, in which everyone writes down ideas on sticky notes which are then stuck to the wall and rearranged in silence by the team before any discussion is allowed. This approach was absolute torment for some of us who almost exploded with the desire to start arguing immediately, but certainly gave the quieter participants more of a voice than usual. Here’s an example of the ideas that got organized into a “Structure – Properties – Processing” block.

We structured the discussion around “Knowledge” — all the stuff that a materials scientist should know, “Soft skills” — the useful bits needed for survival in a professional environment, and “Practical skils” — labs, equipment and so on, all the while keeping in mind the question “What will we require for admission to our MS program in 2030?” We generated many new ideas (and reinforced many old ones) and even one of my more ornery colleagues declared the process to be not a complete waste of his time. All in all rather positive.

So positive that the piles of cheerfully colored sticky notes crammed full of creative ideas became high. Very high. We decided to make an executive summary which was eleven pages long. In small font. We agreed not to panic. And slowly, over the course of a few meetings of the core project team a structure started to emerge…

Now we find ourselves grouped into three “themes” which we are fleshing out into detailed profiles:

  1. Designing of Materials: Given a bunch of atoms, how does their arrangement determine the properties of a material.
  2. How do we characterize and model materials?
  3. Designing with Materials: Given a particular application, how do we choose or make the appropriate material?

Not rocket science I guess, but someone else gets to design that curriculum…

Were there any surprises? Well, we held a dedicated workshop for our students hoping they would be more innovative without the constraint of us old folks being around, but they were actually the most conservative, with their suggestions largely reflecting our current curriculum. Perhaps we should not be surprised by that though — certainly when I was an undergraduate I thought that our Professors had some kind of profound perspective that was determining what we were learning and why. A big surprise though was the almost complete convergence regarding what the defining aspects of our field are, with all of us basically agreeing with each other on the core aspects. And that, as any veteran of faculty meetings will agree, is a truly remarkable outcome.

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On Project Management

Like many academics I am woefully untrained for many aspects of my job. My route to my position, which I think is a fairly common trajectory, was to spend much of my life learning how to solve other people’s science problems, then to go on to find that I have a knack for generating interesting problems of my own. This led to my very nice Professorship where I spend much of my time teaching, training young researchers, coordinating, motivating, assessing and advising, traveling, talking, writing, and — as this blog has been reporting — developing undergraduate curricula.

For most of my tasks I manage to muddle along quite effectively, but after a few scary nightmares in which Day 1 of our new curriculum arrives and we have missed something really fundamental (in one middle-of-the-night panic attack we had forgotten to recruit any students) I realized it was time for some professional help.

This is a good time for me to introduce the superb Studies team that we have in the Materials Department at ETH so as to give you an idea of the human resources that we have available for our curriculum revision: Andrea is the Studies Coordinator and takes care of everything to do with regulations, coordination with the Rector’s office, formal processes and so on. Sara is our Educational Developer in charge of the entire pedagogical side. Martin coordinates all our lab-based and practical courses and we are ably supported by Christina in administration. Not everyone is full time so we are about 2.7 humans in total and we are recruiting for an extra 0.5 to support us during the curriculum revision process.

After catching me gazing in horror at an Excel spreadsheet during a team meeting, Andrea and Sara had the excellent idea that we should hire a Management Coach. They were anyway keen on some formal management training for their own professional development, and a coach could provide us with that as well as shepherd us through our process in a consultant role. Brilliant! We contacted ETH Human Resources who directed us to Bachmann Coaching and Consulting because of their experience working in an academic environment. Christian Bachmann agreed to get started with a one-day workshop for the core project team.

So, Sara and Andrea, three of my faculty colleagues, one colleague from the ETH Teaching Development office and myself sat down for a crash course in project management. Christian did a superb job of cramming the theory and practical essentials that we will need to survive the process, with every example and exercise geared directly to the needs of our project. This one day investment of our time probably saved us weeks of ineffectiveness as well as many sleepless nights. By sometime around mid-morning, though, I started to wonder if I would make it to lunchtime let alone the end of the day as I reinforced my suspicion that management pedagogy is really not my thing. I mean really really not.

But now we understand our goals and objectives, our stakeholders and our various roles and tasks. We’ve developed a “Project Agreement” to clarify who does what and when and why, decided on our next steps, and even taken a few of them. I would strongly recommend this tactic for a project of this size if you don’t have project management experience.

It’s also good for ending nightmares.

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Eternal Questions

My first tentative toe-dip into the Blogosphere turned out to be less scary than I imagined: No abusive messages or trolls, a little bit of enthusiasm via Twitter, email and the “Responses” section on the blog, and even an encouraging “Pingback” (thank you Hortense), which was certainly a new concept to me. Perhaps the most interesting response, however, came from my husband whose breakfast-time german-irregular-verbs memorization I interrupted by placing a printout of my blog pointedly next to his birchermuesli. “You can’t call What is Materials Science? an eternal question”, he said after a few minutes’ perusal, “It hasn’t been around long enough”.

Now for the sake of domestic harmony, I do have to admit he has something of a point. The first academic Materials Science departments started to emerge from Classical Metallurgy or Ceramics departments only around 60 years ago, prompted in part by US fears of Soviet supremacy in the Cold War. According to the Northwestern University Materials Science and Engineering Department’s web page, they were the first Department of Materials Science to be established (in 1958) in the world, with other institutions in the US and Europe following soon after. For a detailed history of the development of Materials Science and Engineering as a teaching discipline, I found this article by Clive Ferguson very informative.

But in terms of Materials Science as an activity, I would argue that I am on safe ground, since questions about the science of materials have occupied us, maybe not quite for eternity, but at least since the start of human consciousness. In fact, from the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, to today’s Silicon Age, every major advance in human civilization has been driven by a fundamental development in Materials Science, so much so that we even name our historical eras after the materials that dominated at the time. Without the early materials scientists who figured out processing techniques for natural materials such as stone, tools for grinding or cutting would not have been developed and there would have been no Neolithic Revolution. And whoever worked out the smelting process to extract metals from their ores (a truly remarkable development, since it needs a temperature above the melting point of the metal and a reducing atmosphere!) ushered in the Bronze Age with its establishment of cities and the beginnings of craft and trade. Through the Iron Age and ultimately culminating in the industrial revolution, metallurgists rightly held a highly respected place in society; my personal favourite is the responsibility borne by the “Anvil Priesthood” blacksmiths of Gretna Green, charged with marrying young couples who eloped to Scotland to escape the confines of the 1753 English Marriage Act.

Now we have moved on to the Silicon Age, with silicon-based transistors forming the core of the microelectronics that enable much of our modern way of life. And we have grown accustomed to tremendous ongoing improvements in silicon devices driving the “Moore’s Law” exponential increase in their capabilities that allows ever more automation and convenience in our everyday activities. We know, however, that we are starting to run into fundamental physical limits, set by the size of the individual silicon atoms, that will prevent ongoing miniaturization of silicon-based devices. We know that to continue the march of human progress, we will soon be forced to develop new device paradigms based on entirely new materials; to figure out the next step beyond the Silicon Age.

So the Materials Scientists that we are educating today will be charged with defining the next era of human civilization, and we are charged with training them in how to do that. That’s quite a challenging task! But at least these days we have another profession taking care of the wedding ceremonies…

(You can watch a video version of these thoughts combined with a mildly political diversity manifesto (and see me very very nervous) here.)

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The Materials Scientist in 2030, Who is She?

Whenever I ask one of my Physics Department colleagues what it means to be a Physicist, while she might not be able to give me a straightforward answer, she usually has a very clear picture in her head of who she is professionally and why. Likewise, Chemists and Biologists, or Mechanical and Civil Engineers, rarely have issues with their sense of identity. We Materials Scientists, on the other hand, repeatedly ask ourselves the question “What is Materials Science?”. Are we even a science at all, when many Materials Science Departments actually sit in Engineering Faculties? (At my former institution, UC Santa Barbara, we carefully called ourselves the “Materials Department” to side-step this issue).

To an outsider this existential angst might seem like so much professional naval gazing, especially when Time Magazine declared Materials Science the lowest stress profession.  But to an educator, charged with shaping the next generation of professional Materials Scientists it acquires a fundamental importance. What skills should a graduate of a leading Materials Science program take with them into the world. What do they need to be able to do and what should they know.

This blog documents our efforts in the Department of Materials Science at ETH Zürich to find the answer to this eternal question and to implement a new curriculum based on what we discover. Maybe we will never find the answer. But we’re convinced that our search for it will generate creative new ideas that will enhance student learning. And help our students develop into professional Materials Scientists with the best possible skill set for launching their careers in today’s rapidly evolving work environment. I hope that you will enjoy reading about our process and that both our mis-steps (hopefully not too large or too many) and successes (hopefully resounding and numerous) will help you in your own insititutions.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is entirely my blatant one-sided view and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of ETH or any of my colleagues. Since I obviously can’t say that any resemblance to real people is accidental, instead I will try to be nice and hope that no-one sues me. All (preferably constructive) feedback gratefully and enthusiastically received.

So what did we do so far? Well, we agreed that while our curriculum is fabulous (of course) it is time for a shake-up before we start to feel out of date. We decided that we will plan ahead and try to identify the skill-set that our graduates will need in 2030, and that we will aim for Autumn 2020 as the start-date for our new program. I proposed “BS2020” for our project title but my colleagues vetoed it. Darn. But I have to agree that our final choice “The Materials Scientist in 2030, who is she?” is a bit more stylish. Oh, and we had a friend with design skills help us make this snazzy logo:

Our first concrete step has been a day-long retreat to walk through our current curriculum, in which we presented the learning goals of our classes to each other in the chronological order that we impose them on our students. We had two goals for the day: First to make sure that we all know what our students learn and when, and second to identify redundancies so as to make space for introducing new things. We succeeded with the first task, and I think we all found it very useful, even though it took a bit of a long time; our students really learn a lot of stuff! But it’s safe to say that we failed resoundingly with the second objective, in spite of what I thought was a rather cunning approach: Since I was sure no-one would willingly give up any of their own content, we made worksheets for each class so that the colleagues could suggest omissions from classes that were not their own. Kind of like those reality (?) TV shows in which the least popular people get voted off islands. I’m not sure if the colleagues didn’t get the concept or are just too nice, but we all loved everyone’s existing content and had helpful ideas for possible additions. But we didn’t find anything that wasn’t terribly important, nothing that we could let go. Hmmmm.

On the bright side, I guess we all ended the day feeling that our colleagues highly appreciate our teaching and maybe we now even like each other a bit more. Not a bad starting point from which to embark on the intensely collaborative project of a major curriculum revision.

So what next? Well, we learned that “making space” for changes in an existing curriculum is hard. So we decided to take the opposite approach — let’s imagine that we are starting completely from scratch and think about what we want to include.  Next time I will tell you about our series of small-group workshops on “The Materials Scientist, Who is She?” — what are the competencies we want our students to acquire? —  and “Curriculum Redesign” — what kinds of learning modules might be most effective for teaching which skills? Stay tuned…

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