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…

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 One Year In

  1. Rafael says:

    Dear Nicola,

    I really enjoyed participating in the last workshop and this series of posts have been very helpful to bring me up to the speed on the progress made during the last year.

    Thanks for putting this together!


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