Hard Work

The fun philosophical part of the curriculum revision is over and we are now slogging through the day-to-day drudgery of where / when / what the content and learning elements should go / happen / be. And this is hard work.

For obvious reasons (that I have no other skills) I am in the Materials Physics sub-group, together with my colleagues Manfred FiebigPietro GambardellaLaura Heyderman and Sebastian Stepanow. The Materials Physics curriculum poses some interesting challenges. Exactly where the boundary between “Physics” and “Materials” lies is, in my opinion, an unanswerable question. I am often falsely accused of being a Physicist, for example, in spite of my being a Chemist masquerading as a Materials Scientist. How comfortable working with Quantum Mechanics should a Materials Scientist be, both for their work — maybe they will be designing semiconductor devices one day — and to qualify as a contemporary renaissance citizen? And should we teach Quantum Mechanics as a separate block, the way that we teach Linear Algebra or Analysis, or should it be woven through the beginning Solid State classes?

The biggest shock though, was the realization that we actually have fewer credit points dedicated to Materials Physics than we had in our previous curriculum. Although intellectually we realised that we had collectively dedicated a large number of credit points to the integrative design projects, somehow we had not connected this with a reduction in our personal credit point budget. We tried negotiating a bit with the other sub-groups (how much Thermodynamics or Materials Chemistry or Mathematics do students really need?) but didn’t meet with a lot of enthusiasm.

At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, out of crisis came opportunity, and after a bit of grumbling, we found a solution: To move some of the learning elements that had previously been taught in the classroom into the laboratory-based part of the new curriculum. We started to think about how Electronics, for example, could be more effectively taught in a practical setting. Maybe we could even find a way to incorporate some hands-on quantum mechanics into the projects? (All ideas in that direction are welcome). And we put in a request for a couple of lab-based credit points per semester to be dedicated to Materials Physics in anticipation of the other working groups realising the desirability of this approach resulting in a land grab.

We even made some decisions over who would teach what: Sebastian and I will alternate teaching the second year so that we don’t get bored and start forgetting whether it was last year’s or this year’s class that already mastered this week’s concept. And Pietro will teach the third year because he prefers to focus on improving one class rather than changing between teaching different topics.

Next step: coordination meetings, particularly with the Thermodynamics working group so that we can make sure that the prerequisite knowledge we assume is there when it’s needed. And to check whether they really need all those credit points 😉

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 Hard Work

  1. Ludwig says:

    ich denke, du solltest dir dieses Buch, “Jetzt: Die Physik der Zeit” von
    Richard A. Muller, Sebastian Vogel., ansehen. Es ist wirklich gut geschrieben….ausser dem Kapitel über Entropie und Zeit.
    Its also available in English!
    Best
    Ludwig

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