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.

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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One Response to The Alumni Sounding Board

  1. Nic Spencer says:

    V. nice, Nicola, and the new curriculum is an exciting prospect.

    The Brillouin Zone issue is a tricky one. Of course most of our graduates won’t need it, but who knows when they might? As a former industrial type, I think there is a virtue to having heard about things, so that you recognize when they may be useful…and then you seek expert help. This is certainly true in my field of surface science, where, years later, alumni in industry call me when they have (correctly) determined that XPS could solve their problem, but dont have access to it themselves.

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