Why it matters

There’ve been a few times during the last couple of weeks, as we’ve been shutting down our labs to an accompaniment of tragic news reports of horrible human suffering around the world, that I’ve asked myself whether struggling on with an on-line version of my class on Quantum Properties of Materials is worthwhile. There have even been passionate (and well-liked!) pleas on social media to close down University teaching for the duration of the pandemic.  I’ve convinced myself that, for those of us who are able, it is important to continue, and here’s why:

My students matter. I am a bit freaked out and I guess many of you are too. While I didn’t previously recognize the mental health benefits of Quantum Materials, I’m happy that they can provide us with some stability in that we know exactly what we will be doing every Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon until the end of May. I also want, from a selfish standpoint, for my class to graduate on time; my students are brilliant young people (all of them are above average) who are going to go on to be our leaders in science and engineering, industry, commerce and politics. Twenty years from now when there is another crisis and I am well and truly in the high-risk category, I want you guys to be running the show, and I don’t want you to be delayed in getting there.

Materials science and engineering matters. Here it’s clear that the frontline medical professionals, as well as the virologists and epidemiologists who are developing vaccines and working to slow disease transmission have the moral high ground. But we would all be in a lot more trouble without modern materials science and engineering. Materials scientists and engineers develop antiviral coatings, protective fabrics and filters for tiny particles, all of which help keep our first responders safe. We work on nanoparticles, emulsions, microencapsulation and microfluidics for drug delivery. We make better biomaterials for vascular interventions, and we pioneer microscopy and imaging tools for diagnostics. While the Quantum Materials that my team develops might seem a bit less relevant, try to imagine home-officing without the dazzling array of information technologies that we are suddenly entirely dependent on, all of which are based on electronic and magnetic materials with exotic quantum properties. My students are going to invent the materials that will make the world of tomorrow a better, safer place, and it’s my job to help them develop the skills to do that.

Universities matter. Part of the fabric of societies is their cultural institutions, and here in Zürich we have an abundance — the Opera House, the Tonhalle, world-class Universities, the Landesmuseum and Kunsthaus, Rote Fabrik, to name a few. These institutions bring us together to learn, engage, enjoy, and celebrate our shared heritage. Most of them are currently unable to operate. So why must the Universities be different? Well, I’m not generally a big fan of mission statements, particularly long ones, but there are a couple of points in ours which I think are relevant at the moment. First, that “we seek to enable young people to find their orientation in a complex and rapidly changing world”. Right now, faced head on with rapid change and complexity, is not the time to give up on that enabling. And second, that “in the context of global civilisation, we must respond to changing conditions, identify new problems, and assume a leading role in seeking solutions”. Wow, that’s a call to action for us to raise our game, both in our research and our teaching, so that we — and the young people that we help to educate — can continue to contribute to solving the world’s most urgent societal problems.

Please add your own thoughts about the online continuation of the teaching semester (and particularly any tips for enabling on-line learning, such as how to operate my new iPad!) in the comments below.

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Sounding Board 2

It’s been almost two years since I introduced you to our Alumni Sounding Board, who have been helping us to keep in mind the industry perspective since the very beginning of our curriculum revision. Now that we are deep in the trenches developing the detailed project-based learning activities, we decided it was time to once again call on their expertise, in particular regarding how to prioritize the engineering competencies that will be taught via the projects.

Our choice of the start of both the ‘flu season and the end-of-year rush was perhaps not the best timing to call a meeting, but we managed to assemble a hardy and enthusiastic sub-set for a productive evening at Hönggerberg. We began with a quick presentation from Sara of the completed curriculum outline and clarified a few questions: Programming will be taught in both Matlab and Python; Statistical data evaluation will be integrated into several courses; Materials databases will be used extensively; Communication and creativity as well as economic and ecological aspects, will be emphasised in the projects. We then had a “sticky-notes discussion” in which the participants were asked to prioritise the following set of transferable skills:

  • Teamwork / idea generation / creativity
  • Oral reporting
  • Information searching in times of information overload
  • Careful experimenting
  • CAD design
  • ICT Tools, programming
  • Planning of projects
  • Engineering design methodology
  • Critical thinking
  • Safety
  • Ethics
  • Frustration tolerance
  • Each person had four green sticky notes to vote for the skills they found most important and four orange post-its for their least important choices.

There was general agreement about the most important skills:

  1. Teamwork / idea generation / creativity, with a focus on idea generation rather than evaluating the ideas,
  2. Engineering design methodology, including problem analysing, prototyping and testing,
  3. Critical thinking, and
  4. Information searching in times of information overload. Here the importance of being able to identify a suitable expert, and in turn the importance of alumni networks was emphasized; our plan of having more advanced students mentoring their junior cohorts in the projects will be ideal for fostering networking between class years.

Surprisingly to me, frustration tolerance and ethics — both of which are top of my list for incoming PhD students — were at the bottom of the list. Although on further discussion (and maybe a bit of grumbling from me) it was agreed that they are important, but should perhaps be acquired outside of the study programme. CAD was also not highly rated — making and interpreting simple designs is enough — on the grounds that if industry wants a design engineer it would not recruit a materials scientist.

There was some disagreement too: Oral reporting received both red and green sticky notes, with the red voters calling for emphasis on all types of communication, and the green favoring the agility that rapid oral reporting offers. And Safety received mixed votes, although after a short discussion the word “Safety” was replaced with “Risk awareness, including environmental risks” and universally supported.

Finally, we asked our participants to formulate learning objectives and rate them according to importance and the frequency with which they should be appear in the syllabus. Here, our Alumni totally outclassed myself and my colleagues, both with their use of active verbs (such as adapt, plan, evaluate, gather rather than the passive “learn” or “understand”) and in their ability to shuffle some things to the Master’s program. The following overview was created.

At the end, we retreated to quench our thirst and replenish some calories after an evening of hard work. Over a beer, one of the participants commented that the central skill that should be acquired is learning how to learn. I hope that our new curriculum will help students do exactly that, and that as educators we never lose sight of that goal.

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Project-based learning and craft-brewed beer

One of the most enjoyable of my curriculum-revision tasks over the last weeks has been my participation in the “P2 team”, that is the Project team for Project-based learning (we could probably have done better with one very long german word for our name, but P2 seems to have stuck). On some days it is not entirely clear to me how (or indeed whether) I am contributing; one of our responsiblities, for example, is to prioritize the equipment needs for our new Materials Design Lab., which is a job best not left to a theoretician. But when it comes to developing project topics that are both engaging and ensure that our students acquire the technical competencies that we have defined, then I certainly have opinions, and hopefully occasonially a helpful one.

One role that I have inadvertently assumed is that of project-based-learning-gender-police-person. As we discussed at our retreat in January, we are trying to ensure that our curriculum, and in particular our project activities, appeal to students with a diversity of backgrounds, including to those who are not male. Since I fall into the latter category, a rather unscientific and certainly not statistically representative test of a new project idea is to see if it is something I can imagine getting enthusiastic about. But more broadly, I start to think that it’s not a bad idea for project teams in general to have someone asking “isn’t that a bit gendered?” every now and then.

Consistent with our projects starting out more structured and becoming more open ended as the students progress, we have decided on a reverse-engineering study in the first semester. One project that has passed the enthusiasm test is the reverse engineering of an aluminum can. While this did not immediately strike me as the most engaging topic , it turns out there is a ton (well, actually more like 15 grams) of interesting materials science and engineering in an aluminum can (there’s a great video from “Engineer Guy” Bill Hammack here): Why is it a cylinder? Why the dome on the bottom and the narrow bit at the top? How come it doesn’t collapse when I stand on it when it’s filled? Why doesn’t my drink taste metallic? How does the recycling work? What’s with the nifty pull-tab thingy?  There’s even an opportunity to sneak in a discussion of the beta to alpha transformation in tin possibly contributing to the failure of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 Antarctic expedition!

Our discussion led us to the important question of whether it is more environmentally friendly to drink one’s preferred beverage from an aluminum can or a glass bottle. While our students will have to figure this out, I’m guessing that the best option, apart from drinking water out of the tap, will turn out to be buying locally produced beverages in re-usable glass bottles. So, at Lorenzo’s suggestion, and for purely professional purposes of course, on Friday I made the trip to Hirnibräu Brauerei, just near the Bucheggplatz tram stop, for some research. I can indeed confirm that the best of both worlds is possible: Excellent craft beer, brewed locally, in re-usable glass bottles, and a perfect start to the weekend chatting with the brewer over a tasting. Hmmm, an opportunity for project-based field trips?

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The Transition Period

“What’s going to happen with the second year students that I usually teach in the old curriculum when I’m teaching the new curriculum to the first years?” asked a colleague. YIKES! Somehow I had naively pictured our entire student body morphing smoothly into our new program in Autumn 2020, and had entirely repressed the reality that the Fall 2019 incoming class will be taught via our current syllabus which will therefore need to continue until they graduate. And however helpful and flexible my colleagues try to be, I see that it will be tricky for them to be (either mentally or physically) in two classrooms at the same time. Thus my introduction to the current phase of our curriculum revision project, “The Transition Period”.

Fortunately, as you might have already realised over the course of this blog, our staff are smarter than I am, and in the process of working on our new regulations with Marco Salogni in the Teaching Regulations office, Sara had already started to address the transition phase. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse than I feared: In the worst-case scenario of a student failing some assessments and deferring a couple of semesters, we might in principle need to offer courses and exams from the old syllabus for another five years! That’s even longer than the UK has spent so far in trying to leave the European Union! “We could just pass everyone for a year or two” I suggested hopefully, to justified stony mutterings about what that would do to the reputation of our degree quality. Instead, Marco helped us to construct a complex interweaving of transfers and course equivalences that will provide a coherent pathway for “old system” students to reach graduation with the time and support that they need, even after some of their early instructors are enjoying their retirement writing the Great American Novel on the beach.

But back to our original problem of how to be in two classrooms at once. Well, Sara is currently preparing individual schedules for every instructor, outlining which classes from the old and new curriculum they should teach in which semesters until 2023. Armed with this information, we’ll be asking instructors whose teaching load would be unmanageable to self-identify so that we can find a solution — extra assistants or even replacement instructors — in good time. And that, I’m guessing, is an email that won’t be mislaid in my colleagues’ Inboxes.

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On Project Leadership

While history is likely to associate March 2017 with the United Kingdom declaring Article 50, it also marked a more constructive event: The launch of the ETH Materials Department “Materials Scientist 2030, Who is She?” project. Here, two years in, are some reflections on project leadership based on what I have learned from making my own mistakes in our project in parallel with watching those being made across the Channel.

1) Leadership is different from Management. In one of my earliest blogs I discussed how we structured the management of our project , but I soon learned that this is quite a different beast from leading it.

2) Every project has its ornery characters. Engage them to work on the aspects that they are most ornery about, but don’t appoint them foreign secretary. I can’t offer any insights into how to respond to the ornery folks who are trying to steal your job, since for some reason there isn’t a big queue of old Etonians jostling to take over as Person Responsible for the DMATL Curriculum Revision.

3) Minimize the red lines. Stuff that is illegal or blatantly unethical should be out of course, the Young’s Modulus and titrations non-negotiably in. By being flexible, you might discover better ideas than your own, and even if not, no-one will cooperate if you tell them what you want the answer to be.

4) Practice by leading small projects before starting on big complex ones. Also a good idea for citizens when it comes to voting in referendums.

5) Be inclusive. Diverse teams reach better outcomes. You need all possible inputs to reach the best decisions, and everyone who is going to have to live with the outcome needs to feel vested in the process. Have fabulous staff and colleagues, and delegate.

6) Only take advice from your spouse / partner / family / friends if they are not going to benefit financially from the outcome.

At the start of our project, the two years that we allotted to reach this stage seemed like a long time, whereas in fact it has gone by very quickly and has kept us quite busy. But from my current position sulking in the Guardian echo chamber  it’s clear that we have done rather well: We have a plan that we agree on and that looks firmly towards the future. And that will probably be implemented while I am still an EU passport holder.

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Student Feedback

After a few weeks of consolidating and tidying up the ideas generated during the retreat, the project team managed to converge a reasonably coherent curriculum structure, and decided that the next step was to run it past our current students for a feedback. In particular, we realized that our current and recently graduated students would be better able than us to spot if something essential was missing, or if we were somewhere assuming prerequisite knowledge that only came later. And we persuaded ourselves that we wanted a general feedback, while secretly hoping that they would mostly like the new approach. 

So we enlisted Bachelor, Master and PhD students (who had gone through our Bachelor’s training) representing all stages in the study programme and 17 of them kindly volunteered an evening of their time to help us out in exchange for some rather good (in my opinion) prosciutto, ruccola and parmesan sandwiches. I started off by reminding us all of the goals of the revision, since it felt like a few hundred years ago since we defined them: 

  •  The curriculum has a strong engineering and design component and retains its scientific rigor.
  •  The curriculum reflects the contemporary description of materials science.
  •  The curriculum is based on contemporary learning formats that promote active learning, such as project-based learning.
  •  There are clearly specified opportunities to develop both subject-specific qualifications and personal skills such as team work and communication.

Then I reviewed the process and the timeline, in particular the upcoming tasks. Sara then took over and walked us through the new structure, the credit points, the projects and the proposed assessment modes before we broke out into brainstorming groups and the aforementioned (really very good) sandwiches.                             

So what were the most important outcomes. Well first, to my relief, there was general enthusiasm for the new structure, in particular for the increased hands-on component and the focus on cross-cutting themes rather than materials classes. Also, we made considerable progress on re-balancing the workload and assessment structures between the different semesters, based on the students’ experience of which topics and skills they need most time to master. But perhaps the most useful feedback for me was an awareness of the changes that will instill the most fear: The increased self-study aspect associated with skills acquisition through project work, combined with the uncertainty introduced by different projects covering different topics in different amounts of depth. How would we ensure, for example, that no student accidentally missed out on learning about Young’s Modulus? From the PhD students’ side, there was concern about the additional demands on their time as teaching assistants for the projects. And we discussed at length how to fairly assess group work without really finding a good answer.

So now we have a curriculum structure that’s almost ready for checking by our Department’s Teaching Committee and approval by the Department Conference! A big thank you to everyone who has worked so hard towards this moment, not only in this last discussion session but over the last two years. Our new curriculum structure has benefited tremendously from diverse inputs from members of the Department at all levels, our colleagues in the Educational Development and Technology Office, as well as our Sounding Board and kind supporters from other Departments and Insitutions. The result is a study program that will be far more effective, interesting, balanced and stimulating than any small sub-group of us could have achieved. And that (hopefully) we all feel vested in ensuring will be successful. 

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Retreating on

Moving on from the revelation that we are all biased in spite of our best intentions, Day 2 of our curriculum revision retreat started with the task of defining the essential lab skills that every graduating materials scientist should have in their repertoire, then thinking about suitable short (half-day) experiments that would allow our students to acquire them. In order to leave time for the semester-long projects, it was clear that there could only be two or three such experiments per course per semester and so we faced some difficult decisions. In particular, this is a drastic departure from our existing system, in which the students spend much of their practical time in focussed lab activities, and we anticipated a sense of loss in having to let some of beautiful existing experiments go!

We divided into three teams, roughly representing Chemistry, Physics and Materials, with our lab. coordinator, Martin trying to be in three places at once to answer questions about the details of the existing experiments. I was in the Physics team, which in some ways had the easiest task: Since physics experiments are not strongly featured in our existing lab courses it was easier for us to follow the instructions  of first defining the essential skills, and after that developing the experiments to train those skills. While we still have a lot of work to do in the details of the experiment design (illustrating some of the quantum mechanical principles will be particularly tough!), we have a clearer picture of what we want our students to be able to do and how we might be able to fit the training into our allotted time allowance.

At the end of the break-out session, we collected our results on sticky notes on four pin boards, one for each semester in the first two years, and it became immediately clear that the Chemistry and Materials groups were hopelessly over their limit. Since many of our existing lab modules emphasise Chemistry and Materials skills, they were in the difficult situation of having to decide what to leave out, and at the risk of sounding uncollegial I would say that they did rather poorly at it. On the positive side, I was reminded to be happy that we approached our curriculum revision as a whole by first deleting everything and starting from zero otherwise the entire process would have followed this pattern.

Soon our retreat time ran out and our heads were too full to continue. Since I’m not a huge fan of a large group of people reflecting in series on their experiences, we closed by individually writing down what we like best about the new curriculum structure, and what we expect to present the biggest challenge. Then we collected the opinions. No big surprise perhaps that “Project-based learning” in one form or another came out top in both categories. I am sure there must be an ancient proverb about that and if anyone knows I would be very happy to hear it…

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Unconscious Bias Consciousness

I’m writing this post from the wonderful Kartause Ittingen where 25 DMATL lecturers, as well as our teaching administration and a colleague from  the ETH Educational Development Center are “Retreating”. Exactly two years and many hundreds of person-hours work since our kick-off retreat, my hope is that our curriculum will magically come together as a coherent and glorious whole, or at least that we will agree on the formal structure that we need in order to start the legal steps of formalizing the new regulations.

We have three specific tasks:

1) To decide on the themes for the integrative design projects, and in turn which components of the lectures could be moved into hands-on format in the project block,

2) To agree on the appropriate forms of assessment for each learning element, and also who will teach what


3) To decide on a core of essential lab/computing skills that we will teach as short practical modules in parallel with the integrative design projects.

I set us one important ground rule: A ban on the use of “but”. I would strongly recommend trying this in every discussion. Whenever you want to disagree with a colleague (or your spouse), substitute “and” instead of “but” and watch how it transforms the tone. “That’s not a bad idea and we could build on it with my really clever extension” is so much more collegial than “That’s not a bad idea but mine is much better”.  By the end of Day 1 we have had only one violation — a “but but but but” from me — provoked by the Crystallography group making a stealth move on three of my Mathematics credit points in the 3rd Semester.

Discussion of the integrative design projects raised an interesting issue. The enthusiasm or lack thereof for a project on Da Vinci machines (yes of course they are super cool and / but many of them were designed for killing people) was not entirely uncorrelated with the gender of the colleagues. This led us to the question of whether or not our curriculum and teaching are gendered and if so how to change this. In the break before dinner we decided to all take the “Implicit Association Test” on Gender and Science — designed to reveal whether one associates sciences or liberal arts with males or females — from Harvard University. Our results led to a lot of protesting that the test tricked us or we got confused or it was unfair: In spite of our conviction that we are unbiased, all but a couple of us showed a mild to strong bias for associating science with males and liberal arts with females. Very interesting.

What to do about this finding is another question. Of course it led to some lively discussions (and some concrete ideas — gender-neutral project themes, restructuring office hours, different teaching formats) in the bar that I hope will continue to inform our teaching going forward. But perhaps the most important outcome — or at least a good first step — is our new collective “unconscious bias consciousness”.  

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Graveyard of old habits and opera house of emotions

I’m a big fan of the “Tomorrow’s Professor” blog from Stanford University. Their motto is “Online faculty development 100 times per year” and during term time, 10 minutes of reading a handy tip about how to be better at my job is sadly all the professional development I can manage to fit in. 

Last week’s topic was Change Leadership in Higher Education. The article discussed two hypothetical scenarios in which a University struggling with falling enrollment and funding hires a new President to help it redirect itself. In Scenario 1, the new President promptly assembles a leadership team that develops a strategy together with the governing board. In Scenario 2, the new President spends many months discussing the issues with the members of the University, establishes committees and working groups, engages students, staff and faculty, and nudges everyone along through a collaborative strategy-development process. The resulting strategy is more-or-less the same as in Scenario 1.

Interestingly, I learned that there are technical management theory terms for both approaches: Change Management, with a Change Model (Scenario 1) and Change Leadership, with a Change Journey (Scenario 2).

Now anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes in a faculty meeting will be able to immediately predict the outcome: Scenario 1 — the Change Management option — was a spectacular failure. There were protests from students, alumni and the local community, as well as outright rebellion from staff and faculty. The plan could not be implemented, the President quit to return to her research lab (the professional equivalent of wanting to have more time for family) and the University went broke. Scenario 2 — the Change Leadership approach — on the other hand, was implemented successfully, and when the president stepped down highly respected after her full ten years in office, the University was thriving. 

Now while of course implementing a curriculum revision is not in the same league as turning around a struggling University, many of the issues strike me as remarkably similar. If you’ve been following my blog over the last couple of years, you will know already that we are using the second approach (which thankfully I now learn is the “correct” one!) in our curriculum revision. And so I find that much of the discussion about the difficulties associated with Change Journeys resonates with our experience. It’s encouraging to read that heated arguments and differences of philosophy between those who favour more or less drastic change are entirely normal. And during these dark days of hard work with the content details, I am happy to hear that after the “depression stage of the change process, the acceptance stage is just around the corner”! But by far my favourite part of the article is the hypothetical president’s tactic for managing the difficulties: to “good-naturedly tease that the university is just making a short side trip to the graveyard of old habits or the opera house of emotion.” 

“Graveyard of old habits” and “Opera house of emotion.” Two very handy terms that I intend to adopt for use in future curriculum revision meetings 😉

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Hard Work

The fun philosophical part of the curriculum revision is over and we are now slogging through the day-to-day drudgery of where / when / what the content and learning elements should go / happen / be. And this is hard work.

For obvious reasons (that I have no other skills) I am in the Materials Physics sub-group, together with my colleagues Manfred FiebigPietro GambardellaLaura Heyderman and Sebastian Stepanow. The Materials Physics curriculum poses some interesting challenges. Exactly where the boundary between “Physics” and “Materials” lies is, in my opinion, an unanswerable question. I am often falsely accused of being a Physicist, for example, in spite of my being a Chemist masquerading as a Materials Scientist. How comfortable working with Quantum Mechanics should a Materials Scientist be, both for their work — maybe they will be designing semiconductor devices one day — and to qualify as a contemporary renaissance citizen? And should we teach Quantum Mechanics as a separate block, the way that we teach Linear Algebra or Analysis, or should it be woven through the beginning Solid State classes?

The biggest shock though, was the realization that we actually have fewer credit points dedicated to Materials Physics than we had in our previous curriculum. Although intellectually we realised that we had collectively dedicated a large number of credit points to the integrative design projects, somehow we had not connected this with a reduction in our personal credit point budget. We tried negotiating a bit with the other sub-groups (how much Thermodynamics or Materials Chemistry or Mathematics do students really need?) but didn’t meet with a lot of enthusiasm.

At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, out of crisis came opportunity, and after a bit of grumbling, we found a solution: To move some of the learning elements that had previously been taught in the classroom into the laboratory-based part of the new curriculum. We started to think about how Electronics, for example, could be more effectively taught in a practical setting. Maybe we could even find a way to incorporate some hands-on quantum mechanics into the projects? (All ideas in that direction are welcome). And we put in a request for a couple of lab-based credit points per semester to be dedicated to Materials Physics in anticipation of the other working groups realising the desirability of this approach resulting in a land grab.

We even made some decisions over who would teach what: Sebastian and I will alternate teaching the second year so that we don’t get bored and start forgetting whether it was last year’s or this year’s class that already mastered this week’s concept. And Pietro will teach the third year because he prefers to focus on improving one class rather than changing between teaching different topics.

Next step: coordination meetings, particularly with the Thermodynamics working group so that we can make sure that the prerequisite knowledge we assume is there when it’s needed. And to check whether they really need all those credit points 😉

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