Pandemic Planning

At the start of our curriculum revision process three years ago I read many pedagogical articles about project-based learning. In addition to espousing the benefits and relating success stories, some of these articles detailed risks; difficulty in ensuring that all students are exposed to the key concepts, problems with adjusting to the learning style especially for first-generation college students, and the challenge of fairly assessing that the learning goals are met were discussed in particular.  Not one of the education pedagogy experts touched on effectively implementing project-based learning during a global pandemic. While to be fair project-based learning probably wasn’t a big thing during during the 1918 ‘flu epidemic, I am still a bit unhappy that our beautiful shiny new curriculum, all ready for its first students in September, is quite so badly optimised for social distancing.

The Swiss Influenza Pandemic Plan opens with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” and so, in good Swiss style, Thomas, Lorenzo and Martin, who coordinate our project-based learning activities, made a plan: projects from home in socially distanced teams. And to test the plan, what better victims than our existing first-year students, who were already locked down at home anyway.

For the project focus, the humble aluminum soda can that we had discussed previously  was perfect in terms of availability. The learning goals were the same as a “real” project: to analyze the materials, to identify the development and optimization steps, and to gather information on the economic and environmental factors. Each group of four students was assigned a different final presentation mode (poster, wiki, secondary school lesson or technical report for a new manager) and the instructions were left deliberately vague, with the students tasked with describing the drink can of 2050, in particular its shape and weight and thickness, the materials and manufacturing process and the economic and environmental costs. The students “met” for two dedicated afternoons a week apart (over ZOOM of course), and the final presentations came at the end of the second meeting. Importantly, only videos, pictures and data generated by the students themselves could be used in the presentations.

So what was the outcome? Well, first we learned that experimental project work can be designed to be performed safely at home. In spite of my initial skepticism, nothing was badly broken, or at least there were no complaints from parents, local hospitals or neighbors about kitchen explosions, injured students or disturbances to peace and tranquility. (Note that these second semester students had already been through a semester of lab work and our safety training program, so I reserve the right to worry again if our freshmen start dissolving aluminum cans at home). And second, we found that it is even possible to meet learning goals in this format! Experiments were run, data were gathered and all of the students answered positively to the feedback question “Did the task open up new aspects of the subject area for me or deepen existing knowledge?” There was some discomfort, as expected, with the absence of detailed instructions — for many students this was their first exposure to defining their own questions and designing the experiments to answer them. Also, it became clear that envisaging improvements to such an already sophisticated product is not straightforward, so perhaps the soda can is not the best choice of object for future study. Regarding the modes of presentation, there was enthusiasm for the secondary school lesson and the wiki, both of which are very different from the usual lab reports; more diversity in presentation formats is certainly something I will include in future assignments. 

What next? Well, with three months to go until the start of the next academic year, we will be working out how this remote format can be extended to longer projects with more ambitious learning goals. Hoping all the time, of course, that our hard work won’t be needed, and that we can instead welcome our new class — the first to study in our new curriculum — onto a stimulating, vibrant and social Campus.

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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