Having left you in suspense last month, I can now report that we have chosen the modernization option for our new curriculum! Materials Science at the ETH will no longer be taught according to the old materials categories but rather in grand, over-arching themes, (hopefully) revealing deep connections between materials and concepts, facilitating student learning and equipping the next generation of materials scientists for a lifetime of productive and satisfying problem-solving. While we intend that our students will still emerge knowing what distinguishes a metal from a ceramic from a semiconductor from a polymer, they won’t spend a semester sitting in a class called “Metals”, followed by one called “Ceramics”, etc. I am personally very excited about this, although I recognize that it is going to be a coordination challenge, and there might be times in the next year or two when I question the wisdom of the decision. Or at least regret that I am responsible for implementing it.
Our general plan goes like this: We will start in the 1st and 2nd semesters with exploring the structure-property-processing-performance relationships in the different materials classes (so there will be a bit of Metals, Ceramics, Polymers, etc.), with a focus on motivation and understanding the fundamentals. By their first summer, students will have an understanding of the physical and chemical fundamentals behind structure and properties and will be able to reason why a particular material would be chosen for a certain simple application. During the 3rd and 4th semesters the focus will lie on understanding the structures of materials (as well as learning characterisation tools to be able to determine them) and acquiring the scientific background to understand and explain functional properties. The 5th semester will integrate the materials fundamentals and focus on discussing structure-property relationships in over-arching classes on for example Optical Properties, Transport Properties, Electronic Properties, Structural Properties etc. The 6th semester will emphasise materials processing, as well as design and selection and will close the loop to the 1st semester.
We still have one unsolved problem: Where to put the industry internship. Currently our students are required to do a 3-month industry internship in order to complete their Bachelor’s degree. Everyone likes the concept — the students enjoy the experience and the stipend; the employers like the opportunity to check out our students in a working environment. In principle the internship should take place in the summer after the 6th Semester allowing the students to complete their degree within three years, but in practice this rarely happens. A company might not have an opening starting exactly the day after a student’s exams finish, for example, and often the student and the company prefer a longer project. This almost always means that the start of the Masters degree is delayed until after Christmas, which is fine if one has a Humboldtian philosophy of spending a long time accumulating a broad education, but less good if one would like to finish and get a job. It also looks a bit bad on our statistics if our average “time to degree” is longer than the advertised length of our program. So one of the goals of our revision has been to make sure that a normal student is able to finish within the allotted three years even if they have to retake one or two exams, and perhaps with a week or two of vacation somewhere in the three years.
Easy, we thought! Let’s take only half of the 6th semester for coursework and free up those extra weeks. But these were then immediately occupied by a capstone project or Bachelor’s thesis which we didn’t feel we could give up. Actually, looking at our existing program it’s not clear to me how the students fit in their Bachelor’s thesis at the moment, so perhaps we have gained something from this approach but certainly not as much as we need. Our students had a good suggestion, which is to save the internship for the beginning of the Master’s degree. Now while this might just seem like delaying the problem, they pointed out that companies pay more for interns that have already completed their BS degree, which in my opinion is a really good argument! It could be tough to arrange for international students who have just arrived but surely we could find a solution. We decided to make this a topic for our next Alumni Sounding Board meeting…
So the next task involves trying to keep all the colleagues happy in distributing the course preparation tasks followed by trying to keep everything coordinated as the preparations start. Yikes.