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…

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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