Student Feedback

After a few weeks of consolidating and tidying up the ideas generated during the retreat, the project team managed to converge a reasonably coherent curriculum structure, and decided that the next step was to run it past our current students for a feedback. In particular, we realized that our current and recently graduated students would be better able than us to spot if something essential was missing, or if we were somewhere assuming prerequisite knowledge that only came later. And we persuaded ourselves that we wanted a general feedback, while secretly hoping that they would mostly like the new approach. 

So we enlisted Bachelor, Master and PhD students (who had gone through our Bachelor’s training) representing all stages in the study programme and 17 of them kindly volunteered an evening of their time to help us out in exchange for some rather good (in my opinion) prosciutto, ruccola and parmesan sandwiches. I started off by reminding us all of the goals of the revision, since it felt like a few hundred years ago since we defined them: 

  •  The curriculum has a strong engineering and design component and retains its scientific rigor.
  •  The curriculum reflects the contemporary description of materials science.
  •  The curriculum is based on contemporary learning formats that promote active learning, such as project-based learning.
  •  There are clearly specified opportunities to develop both subject-specific qualifications and personal skills such as team work and communication.

Then I reviewed the process and the timeline, in particular the upcoming tasks. Sara then took over and walked us through the new structure, the credit points, the projects and the proposed assessment modes before we broke out into brainstorming groups and the aforementioned (really very good) sandwiches.                             

So what were the most important outcomes. Well first, to my relief, there was general enthusiasm for the new structure, in particular for the increased hands-on component and the focus on cross-cutting themes rather than materials classes. Also, we made considerable progress on re-balancing the workload and assessment structures between the different semesters, based on the students’ experience of which topics and skills they need most time to master. But perhaps the most useful feedback for me was an awareness of the changes that will instill the most fear: The increased self-study aspect associated with skills acquisition through project work, combined with the uncertainty introduced by different projects covering different topics in different amounts of depth. How would we ensure, for example, that no student accidentally missed out on learning about Young’s Modulus? From the PhD students’ side, there was concern about the additional demands on their time as teaching assistants for the projects. And we discussed at length how to fairly assess group work without really finding a good answer.

So now we have a curriculum structure that’s almost ready for checking by our Department’s Teaching Committee and approval by the Department Conference! A big thank you to everyone who has worked so hard towards this moment, not only in this last discussion session but over the last two years. Our new curriculum structure has benefited tremendously from diverse inputs from members of the Department at all levels, our colleagues in the Educational Development and Technology Office, as well as our Sounding Board and kind supporters from other Departments and Insitutions. The result is a study program that will be far more effective, interesting, balanced and stimulating than any small sub-group of us could have achieved. And that (hopefully) we all feel vested in ensuring will be successful. 

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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