On reporting and pedagogy

While writing lots of proposals to fund my research is not something I miss about my pre-ETH existence, I was reminded this week of one aspect of my former proposal-supported research life that had some value: Reporting. This reflection was prompted by the visit of Sara and myself to the “Freitagsrunde” — a weekly (on Friday of course) meeting of a teaching committee made up of staff from the Rector’s office, the Teaching and Learning Center and the Curriculum Development office. About a year ago, the same team had enthusiastically supported our request for financial support for our curriculum revision and so asked for an update on our progress.

As a result, in a bit of a last-minute panic, Sara and I started preparing summary slides with a reminder of what we had originally planned (why the committee had given us the resources in the first place), a summary of what we have achieved so far (why funding us was a good choice) and our current activities and next steps (why they should continue their support!).

As a reminder, we are 1.5 years into our revision process, which is a little less than half way until we welcome our first students in Fall 2020. And to be honest, on some days it feels to me that everything is taking a really long time and that our progress is a bit slow. But compiling a list of our achievements was really quite encouraging and made us realise that we hadn’t just been sitting around slacking. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve done so that you don’t need to go back and read my entire blog:

  • We got ourselves organized, clarified the roles of the project team, identified our stakeholders and thought about our communication concept;
  • We made a nice logo, I started this blog (yes, you are part of our “communication concept”!), built an internal Wiki with all our documents, and put “Curriculum Revision” as a standing agenda item in our Department, Teaching and Professors’ Committee Meetings;
  • We held a series of workshops with faculty and students to collect the competences of the 2030 Materials Scientist and to develop ideas for new curriculum structures;
  • We made a survey of project-based Materials Science curricula around the world, as well as a job-market survey with companies that hire our graduates, and
  • We established and met with our Alumni Sounding Board to hear about their most important experiences and their suggestions for changes.

At the end of this we have a complete “profile” of our ideal Materials Science graduate, a first draft of an exciting new curriculum — with overarching engineering projects, a completely new structure organized around integrative themes rather than traditional materials classes, and focussed “block weeks” at the starts and ends of semesters. Small working groups are now busily defining the details of the learning outcomes and content.

Not bad.

So we found that the exercise of preparing our summary was entirely worthwhile in reminding ourselves to celebrate our progress. There was an important difference, too, from the “old days”, when the annual reports that I wrote on my research grants disappeared into a dusty cupboard (or the dusty ether) never to be disturbed by human eye. In our curriculum revision case, in contrast, our summary presentation was accompanied by a lively and productive discussion. We discussed best practices for curriculum reform from other study programs, new ideas that we have uncovered that could be transferred to other departments, modes of assessment, modifications to regulations, additional strategies for communications, etc. These specific points are of course all useful feedbacks for us. And in addition we are starting to realize that our revision process is an active research experiment in curriculum design pedagogy. And that maybe we will have something useful to contribute in that direction too…

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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