An open letter to students of Materials Science and Engineering

(first published in The Materialist, May 2021)

Dear Materials Science and Engineering Students,

I congratulate you whole-heartedly on your choice of Materials Science and Engineering for your undergraduate studies.  You are all a whole lot smarter than I am. When I was at your career stage, I had barely heard of Materials Science.  I started out studying Natural Sciences (a bit like our ETH Interdisciplinary Sciences program) at Cambridge University with a focus on Chemistry and Geology, then I moved to the University of California at Berkeley for a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry, and after that to the Applied Physics Department at Yale University for postdoctoral work. It took me quite a while to realize that all the most interesting and important problems are actually in Materials Science and Engineering, and only when I started my independent faculty position at UC Santa Barbara did I find my way to a Materials Department.

So what is so important and interesting about Materials Science and Engineering? Well, you are developing the skills that you’ll need to save the world and to define the future of human civilization.

Let’s start with the future of human civilization. You might have thought you could leave that to your school-mates who chose to pursue the Arts or Politics, but think again for a minute. From the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages, to today’s Silicon Age, every era of human history has been named, not for the prevailing culture or system of government, but for the material that dominated the time.  And the reason is that every major advance in human civilization was driven by a fundamental development in Materials.  Sometimes from an advance in processing, such as the shaping of natural materials such as stone, sometimes from an advance in materials synthesis, for example the smelting of ores to produce metals, and sometimes from increased understanding of structure-property relationships and device design, such as the discovery of transistor behavior in semiconductors. It’s a safe bet that the next era of human civilization will be named after a material, and it’s going to be your job to decide which one.  Maybe it will be a Polymers age. Or (my personal favorite) a Multiferroics Age. Or a Ceramics Age — that would be quite fun because we could make jokes about being back in the Stone Age. Or more likely it will be something that we haven’t heard of yet, because it hasn’t even been imagined.

And that brings us to the saving the world part.  In today’s Silicon Age, silicon-based transistors form the core of the microelectronics that enable much of our modern way of life. And as we become more and more dependent on information technologies, not just in our computers and smart phones, but also for our transportation and supply networks, banking systems, entertainment industries, and so on, we use increasingly more of our global energy budget to operate them; by some estimates half of the world’s energy will be consumed by silicon-based information technologies within a decade! And that is clearly not sustainable.  So to achieve sustainable energy solutions and avoid climate catastrophe, we urgently need to develop new device paradigms based on entirely new materials.

If you are not so keen on device physics, you have many other options for using your Materials Science and Engineering skills to save the world.  Take a look at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and I challenge you to find one that can be reached without advances in materials! You and your classmates will need to develop new biomaterials to improve human health.  You’ll need to invent materials for food packaging and preservation to reduce global hunger. You’ll make filters that improve water quality, develop building materials for sustainable housing, and promote gender equality with your efficent off-the-grid lighting solutions that allow girls in emerging regions to study and finish their education.

So when your studies feel tough — when it feels like we expect you to know your way around the periodic table as well as the chemists, to develop the mathematical literacy of the physicists, to hone your design skills to the level of the best engineers, and to learn an infinity of characterization tools and computational methods — remember, you’re getting ready to define the future of human civilization, and to save the world. And that was never going to be easy…

Very best wishes for your personal and professional success, Nicola

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Following the input from the Rating Conferences that I wrote about in the last blog the MSc curriculum revision project team found ourselves going around in circles:

  • Core courses or not? And if so how many? And what makes a course “core”?
  • Specializations or not? Or Minors? (And is there a difference?)
  • More breadth or more depth? More science or more engineering? More fundamental or more modern? More structure or more freedom?
  • Which brought us back to core courses or not? and around we went again.

To break the deadlock, Lucio suggested we all go away and design our ideal MSc study plan, which we would then share to see if we reached a consensus. While I was a bit skeptical by this stage that I would ever be able to agree even with myself about this, I didn’t have a better suggestion. So I spent the next rainy Saturday curled up on the sofa in my pyjamas contemplating what I would most like to learn about if I had a year or two without lots of committees. (Irrelevant aside, which I know I’ve grumbled about before: If you are old, half-way reasonable and not male, you are really, really popular for committees).

Now I’m a big fan of the Thomas Young Centre for the Theory and Simulation of Materials in London — they’re an interdisciplinary network of around 100 research groups from four London Colleges (Imperial, King’s, Queen Mary University and University College London) all interested in materials modeling — so I decided to snoop around the website of their Doctoral School. To my delight, I found my dream MSc, on Theory and Simulation of Materials, sitting right there.

The Theory and Simulation of Materials MSc course, based at Imperial College, is a 12-month, 90-credit point course that provides a foundation in theoretical materials physics and its applications in simulations across length and time scales. Nice! There’s not much flexibility; courses are required in seven core subjects, from which four are chosen to continue in more depth. But given the topics — mathematics, equilibrium, transformations, electronic structure, field theory, simulations and computational and numerical methods — I would hate to have to leave something out! I fiddled with the numbers a bit and added another research project to bring the credit points up to 120 then submitted my homework to our studies coordinator, Sara.

Fortunately for those of you who are horrified by the idea of a year and a half of materials modeling, the draft curricula of the other project team members were entirely different from mine and very similar to each other. We quickly converged to a concept of 30 credits of core courses, composed of “substantial” courses (that is more than just a couple of credits) from within the Materials Department, a similar number of broadly defined electives, of which half could form a minor emphasis, rounded out by projects and internships plus the ETH-required “Science in Perspective“.

So what’s next? Well, Sara put together a summary based on these ideas, which will be shared with the Materials Department teaching commission at its meeting on March 18th. I’m sure there will be a lot of animated discussion and useful feedback, that I hope will move us forward rather than round in more circles…

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Rating Conferences

Following the SWOT analysis of our master’s degree program, the next step in our curriculum development plan has been a series of Rating Conferences. Introduced as a tool for evaluating and developing curricula almost ten years ago [1], a Rating Conference consists of groups of around 10 students who vote on statements about the degree program, followed by a moderated group discussion. We had three groups — current Master’s students who had been DMATL Bachelor’s students, current master’s students who joined the MSc program from elsewhere, and alumni of our program — with the participants randomly selected within each group. ETH graduate, Medea Fux did an excellent job of moderating in spite of the difficult zoom format. Faculty were not allowed to attend, but one of our groups agreed to have their conference recorded so we got to take a peek later.

Based on the SWOT analysis, and helped by the ETH Curriculum Development team, the project team converged on the following statements:

  1. The MSc in Materials is challenging.
  2. The MSc in Materials is motivating.
  3. The MSc in Materials gives students enough opportunity to pursue their individual interests and chooses courses according to that.
  4. I would like to have the opportunity to deepen my knowledge in pre-defined specialization directions.
  5. There are enough opportunities to learn about engineering in the current MSc curriculum.
  6. I miss opportunities to interact with industry in the current MSc curriculum.
  7. 10 months (two two-months-long projects and a six-months-long thesis) is the right amount of research experience for a MSc curriculum.
  8. The topics of the courses in the MSc program cover all aspects of modern Materials Science.
  9. The MSc in Materials prepares me well for the job market.

and the students could choose to Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree or Abstain with each one.

A first look at the votes alone was already interesting, often with a more-or-less equal division between those who agreed and disagreed with a particular statement. But even more interesting were the reasons behind the votes, as well as the opportunity to comment on aspects not covered by the statements, which Medea teased out during the moderated discussion. These fell broadly into four areas:

First, what is the optimal balance between breadth and depth, between flexibility and specialization, and between fundamental and modern topics? Are there subject-specific skills in Materials that all students must acquire on the master’s level and if so what are they? Or should students be allowed to completely follow their interests because our education on the Bachelor’s level is so broad and uniform? Should we offer specializations? And if so, should there be mandatory courses for each specialization? There was a clear preference for freedom to choose courses across ETH, combined with a desire for structure and guidance. Ideas that came up were soft specialization tracks, major / minor emphases, core courses (or not) and hands-on skills courses.  An interesting related point was raised during the discussion within the project team, regarding the perspective of the instructors: If the new curriculum gives students complete freedom of choice, how much freedom do we give to instructors to choose what to teach? Are there essential courses that must exist on the master’s level, or should instructors choose what they find most important or interesting?

Second, what is the appropriate balance between Science and Engineering? In fact, what do we even mean by Engineering? Should there be two separate tracks? Should we have more interaction with industry, for example mentoring or courses, beyond the internship? And should it be possible to replace the internship with a research project or more courses? It’s important to keep in mind that international students might have problems with finding an internship because of language requirements. That led into the next point:

How to balance the interests of our internal ETH students with those of incoming students who might have a different background and / or expectations. Here, of course flexibility is helpful but there also needs to be guidance, particularly for new students who might otherwise be quite lost.

Finally, a bunch of logistical things, like scheduling, tutoring and mobility. There was some grumbling about the  number of credit points relative to the workload compared with other departments, but there were surprisingly few complaints about 120 credits being too many.

A huge thank you to the students and alumni who participated in the three Rating Conferences, as well as to Medea for moderating and the colleagues who helped us with the implementation. Our next step is to assemble some possible draft curricula based on all of your inputs for discussion in the teaching commission…


[1] Die Ratingkonferenz, Keller, Hans; Heinemann, Elke; Kruse, Margret. Zeitschrift für Evaluation, Vol. 11, Iss. 2,  (Oct 2012): 287-298

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A not (yet) successful experiment in walking office hours.

Faced with the thought of trying to establish interaction with 50 masked students spread to the far-flung corners of an enormous lecture room from behind a perspex screen with my glasses steaming up, I decided from the start of this semester to teach my Solid State Physics and Chemistry of Materials class on zoom.

Not liking, however, the thought of never meeting my students in person, I decided to try outdoor walking office hours, which had tempted me since I first read about them some years ago in the Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter.

Introduced by Fiona Rawle of University of Toronto Mississauga, the concept is that the instructor walks a ~15 minute circular route round campus, and students can join and leave at any time. Rawle started walking office hours to try to be more effective in connecting with her students and found them useful for promoting meaningful discussions about career opportunities, research placements, and subject background. You can read her article about her experiences here.

So on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon in week one of the semester I left my research team enjoying a socially-distanced-individual-cup-cakes-outdoor-party for departing group members and set out on lap one:

Twenty minutes later, having pounced on two unsuspecting new international students who were loitering by the bus stop with notes and looked like they might have a question (if you’re reading, my apologies for terrifying you) I arrived back at the cup-cakes party empty handed. “Someone came” my group shouted enthusiastically. “We sent him in the opposite direction to intercept you”. So off I set again and 10 minutes later found my class member wandering through the forest staring at the maps app on his phone. (Lesson 1 — a shorter and more straightforward route would have been a better choice). He joined me for the next lap and we talked a bit about the class material, as well as about his undergraduate background and how things such as research internships work at the ETH. One lap later and it was time to declare it the weekend. Not bad for a first outing I thought.

Week 2. Pouring rain. I mean really pouring. I quite like walking in the rain (I grew up in England after all) but couldn’t imagine effectively looking at derivations on my iPad under a dripping tree so I shifted office hours to zoom. Significant increase in attendance.

Week 3. This week I learned an important time-management lesson: Don’t schedule two all-day zoom meetings in the same day even if they are in different time zones so it’s temporally possible. Unable to choose between the Editors’ retreat of the Physical Review Journals (gratuitous advertising for my new fully open access journal Physical Review Research) and the Scientific Advisory Board meeting of the UK Neutron and Muon Source, and since attendance didn’t require me to be simultaneously on Long Island and in Didcot, I decided to do both and schedule a zoom office hour in between. Eighteen hours later and barely able to see straight I crawled into bed and woke up some time around Sunday lunchtime with no recollection of whether anyone came to office hours or not.

Week 4. Following a hint that late Friday afternoons might not be the best time for optimizing attendance, I decided to try Wednesdays straight after the Materials Department colloquium instead. Wednesday afternoon saw pouring rain again, but my MeteoSchweiz app assured me that it would stop at precisely 17:31 so I set off at 17:30 in the dispersing drizzle and enjoyed a lovely sunny evening walk through the forest. Not sharing my confidence that all those weather-forecasting CPUs at the Swiss Supercomputing Centre are put to good use, no-one joined me.

Week 5. COVID-19 case numbers are doubling in less than a week, and one no longer even needs the back of an envelope to see that there will be 10,000 cases per day by the start of November. To discourage anyone from making an extra trip to Campus, walking office hours are abandoned, at least for now, until happier times when we can return to learning in the classroom, and maybe the forest too.

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No peace for the wicked

Having coordinated the development of perhaps the most unsocially distanced bachelors’ curriculum imaginable, structured around groups of students working closely together on hands-on projects, only to have it debut during the throws of a major global pandemic, I felt pretty safe that my foray into education pedagogy was well and truly over. So imagine my surprise when our Director of Studies, Markus, asked me to join the project team for developing our new masters’ curriculum. This, of course, needs to be in place in three years’ time from now, so that the students graduating from the new BSc program can transition smoothly into their masters’ studies. “Why on earth me?” I asked. “Well, actually because we really like your blog” came the reply. And faced with such irrefutable logic, I agreed.

So, almost without pause for breath after the most stressful teaching semester most of us have ever experienced, project “DMATL MSc 2023” launched.

Our team consists of some of the usual suspects who you already know from the BSc revision: Our Studies Coordinator Sara Morgenthaler, Educational Developer, Lorenzo de Pietro, and Director of Studies, Markus Niederberger, to whom I am happy to have passed the “Project Leadership” baton. Additional members are our Professor for Soft Materials and Interfaces, Lucio Isa, and, excitingly, three of our current MSc students: Dominique Grimm, Andrea Schneider and Ueli Toepfer.

We decided to start with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of our current program, prompting a long-time Department member to point out that this was done already for the previous two MSc revisions and to suggest that we might want to take a look at those. This was an excellent and helpful suggestion, and, being a bit skeptical that the SWOT concept had existed for so long, prompted me to check on its origins. I found, in fact, that SWOTs originated from research conducted at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, where they were originally called the rather more friendly-sounding SOFT. The acronym represented possible responses to the question “What is good and bad about the present and the future of the operation?” (good in the present: Satisfactory; good in the future: Opportunity; bad in the present: Fault; bad in the future: Threat.) Personally I find the original acronym more helpful, but maybe this reflects an association with the british-english meaning of swot, recently thrust into prominence in its gendered form by the Prime Minister.

But I digress. We would be happy to hear from those of you who are familiar with our existing MSc program about your opinions of our SWOTs and SOFTs, and from those of you in other programs about the SWOTs or SOFTs of those. Our next step is to use the analysis to construct questions for a priority-setting “rating conference”, which I am sure will provide a lot of material for the next posting…

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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.

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Online Courses versus Online Teaching

When the ETH moved all of its classes online six weeks ago I channelled my corona anxieties into scouring the literature for best practices in online teaching pedagogy, and I discovered a wealth of scholarly studies and practical information on what kinds of instructional elements are most effective in online courses for optimising student learning.

Since I still had plenty of anxiety left over, I started frantically implementing some of the suggestions. I generated self-study worksheets and small group exercises, set up new chat forums, and, as advised by the best education researchers, split all of the content into five-minute blocks separated by activities. A whole weekend was devoted to testing a range of fancy software (I decided on a whiteboard app called doceri) and I even started a contest in my research team for designing some engaging graphics.

After a couple of weeks of being subjected to the consequences of this behaviour, my victims (that is the students in my Solid State Physics and Chemistry of Materials class) politely asked if I couldn’t just teach. Properly. Please. So now I plug my iPad into my laptop to simulate a blackboard, make a bunch of extra clicker questions to check that everyone is getting what I’m talking about and try as much as possible to reproduce the classroom from my home office. This is kind of working, although I struggle to gauge the class mood when I can’t see them and I find it very difficult to stimulate discussion. Anyway, I am saving a ton of time, and my students are much happier.

So were those education pedagogy researchers completely wrong? I think not. In retrospect, I realize that while we have been forced into an online environment, my class is very much not an online course. We have a regular classroom schedule with a start date and an end date and the expectation that by the end of May we will all have taken the final exam at the same time. While in real life I often use some online teaching elements as I move more and more to a “flipped classroom” format, I’m still physically in the classroom together with my students for a couple of hours twice a week. An online course is a completely different beast. There are an infinity of different formats, but most can be taken at any time or pace, with more flexible instructor feedback, and might have a broader (geographic and in terms of background) audience.

This leads to the question of next semester. If we still can’t all meet together on campus, should we continue with our current system of trying to replicate regular classroom teaching but doing it less well than if we were there in person? Or should we switch some of our classes to pedagogically sound, fully online courses? My opinion is that a mixture of both might be appropriate, and I would be happy to hear yours.

In the meantime, I am working on becoming very rich by converting those five-minute modules (and new ones) into youtube format and raking in Influencer income. For some reason I have not yet been inundated with sponsors, but you can anyway enjoy the trailer to the new Schroedinger’s Kittens Productions (and also some of the technical content if you like!) here.

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Why it matters

There’ve been a few times during the last couple of weeks, as we’ve been shutting down our labs to an accompaniment of tragic news reports of horrible human suffering around the world, that I’ve asked myself whether struggling on with an on-line version of my class on Quantum Properties of Materials is worthwhile. There have even been passionate (and well-liked!) pleas on social media to close down University teaching for the duration of the pandemic.  I’ve convinced myself that, for those of us who are able, it is important to continue, and here’s why:

My students matter. I am a bit freaked out and I guess many of you are too. While I didn’t previously recognize the mental health benefits of Quantum Materials, I’m happy that they can provide us with some stability in that we know exactly what we will be doing every Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon until the end of May. I also want, from a selfish standpoint, for my class to graduate on time; my students are brilliant young people (all of them are above average) who are going to go on to be our leaders in science and engineering, industry, commerce and politics. Twenty years from now when there is another crisis and I am well and truly in the high-risk category, I want you guys to be running the show, and I don’t want you to be delayed in getting there.

Materials science and engineering matters. Here it’s clear that the frontline medical professionals, as well as the virologists and epidemiologists who are developing vaccines and working to slow disease transmission have the moral high ground. But we would all be in a lot more trouble without modern materials science and engineering. Materials scientists and engineers develop antiviral coatings, protective fabrics and filters for tiny particles, all of which help keep our first responders safe. We work on nanoparticles, emulsions, microencapsulation and microfluidics for drug delivery. We make better biomaterials for vascular interventions, and we pioneer microscopy and imaging tools for diagnostics. While the Quantum Materials that my team develops might seem a bit less relevant, try to imagine home-officing without the dazzling array of information technologies that we are suddenly entirely dependent on, all of which are based on electronic and magnetic materials with exotic quantum properties. My students are going to invent the materials that will make the world of tomorrow a better, safer place, and it’s my job to help them develop the skills to do that.

Universities matter. Part of the fabric of societies is their cultural institutions, and here in Zürich we have an abundance — the Opera House, the Tonhalle, world-class Universities, the Landesmuseum and Kunsthaus, Rote Fabrik, to name a few. These institutions bring us together to learn, engage, enjoy, and celebrate our shared heritage. Most of them are currently unable to operate. So why must the Universities be different? Well, I’m not generally a big fan of mission statements, particularly long ones, but there are a couple of points in ours which I think are relevant at the moment. First, that “we seek to enable young people to find their orientation in a complex and rapidly changing world”. Right now, faced head on with rapid change and complexity, is not the time to give up on that enabling. And second, that “in the context of global civilisation, we must respond to changing conditions, identify new problems, and assume a leading role in seeking solutions”. Wow, that’s a call to action for us to raise our game, both in our research and our teaching, so that we — and the young people that we help to educate — can continue to contribute to solving the world’s most urgent societal problems.

Please add your own thoughts about the online continuation of the teaching semester (and particularly any tips for enabling on-line learning, such as how to operate my new iPad!) in the comments below.

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Sounding Board 2

It’s been almost two years since I introduced you to our Alumni Sounding Board, who have been helping us to keep in mind the industry perspective since the very beginning of our curriculum revision. Now that we are deep in the trenches developing the detailed project-based learning activities, we decided it was time to once again call on their expertise, in particular regarding how to prioritize the engineering competencies that will be taught via the projects.

Our choice of the start of both the ‘flu season and the end-of-year rush was perhaps not the best timing to call a meeting, but we managed to assemble a hardy and enthusiastic sub-set for a productive evening at Hönggerberg. We began with a quick presentation from Sara of the completed curriculum outline and clarified a few questions: Programming will be taught in both Matlab and Python; Statistical data evaluation will be integrated into several courses; Materials databases will be used extensively; Communication and creativity as well as economic and ecological aspects, will be emphasised in the projects. We then had a “sticky-notes discussion” in which the participants were asked to prioritise the following set of transferable skills:

  • Teamwork / idea generation / creativity
  • Oral reporting
  • Information searching in times of information overload
  • Careful experimenting
  • CAD design
  • ICT Tools, programming
  • Planning of projects
  • Engineering design methodology
  • Critical thinking
  • Safety
  • Ethics
  • Frustration tolerance
  • Each person had four green sticky notes to vote for the skills they found most important and four orange post-its for their least important choices.

There was general agreement about the most important skills:

  1. Teamwork / idea generation / creativity, with a focus on idea generation rather than evaluating the ideas,
  2. Engineering design methodology, including problem analysing, prototyping and testing,
  3. Critical thinking, and
  4. Information searching in times of information overload. Here the importance of being able to identify a suitable expert, and in turn the importance of alumni networks was emphasized; our plan of having more advanced students mentoring their junior cohorts in the projects will be ideal for fostering networking between class years.

Surprisingly to me, frustration tolerance and ethics — both of which are top of my list for incoming PhD students — were at the bottom of the list. Although on further discussion (and maybe a bit of grumbling from me) it was agreed that they are important, but should perhaps be acquired outside of the study programme. CAD was also not highly rated — making and interpreting simple designs is enough — on the grounds that if industry wants a design engineer it would not recruit a materials scientist.

There was some disagreement too: Oral reporting received both red and green sticky notes, with the red voters calling for emphasis on all types of communication, and the green favoring the agility that rapid oral reporting offers. And Safety received mixed votes, although after a short discussion the word “Safety” was replaced with “Risk awareness, including environmental risks” and universally supported.

Finally, we asked our participants to formulate learning objectives and rate them according to importance and the frequency with which they should be appear in the syllabus. Here, our Alumni totally outclassed myself and my colleagues, both with their use of active verbs (such as adapt, plan, evaluate, gather rather than the passive “learn” or “understand”) and in their ability to shuffle some things to the Master’s program. The following overview was created.

At the end, we retreated to quench our thirst and replenish some calories after an evening of hard work. Over a beer, one of the participants commented that the central skill that should be acquired is learning how to learn. I hope that our new curriculum will help students do exactly that, and that as educators we never lose sight of that goal.

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Project-based learning and craft-brewed beer

One of the most enjoyable of my curriculum-revision tasks over the last weeks has been my participation in the “P2 team”, that is the Project team for Project-based learning (we could probably have done better with one very long german word for our name, but P2 seems to have stuck). On some days it is not entirely clear to me how (or indeed whether) I am contributing; one of our responsiblities, for example, is to prioritize the equipment needs for our new Materials Design Lab., which is a job best not left to a theoretician. But when it comes to developing project topics that are both engaging and ensure that our students acquire the technical competencies that we have defined, then I certainly have opinions, and hopefully occasonially a helpful one.

One role that I have inadvertently assumed is that of project-based-learning-gender-police-person. As we discussed at our retreat in January, we are trying to ensure that our curriculum, and in particular our project activities, appeal to students with a diversity of backgrounds, including to those who are not male. Since I fall into the latter category, a rather unscientific and certainly not statistically representative test of a new project idea is to see if it is something I can imagine getting enthusiastic about. But more broadly, I start to think that it’s not a bad idea for project teams in general to have someone asking “isn’t that a bit gendered?” every now and then.

Consistent with our projects starting out more structured and becoming more open ended as the students progress, we have decided on a reverse-engineering study in the first semester. One project that has passed the enthusiasm test is the reverse engineering of an aluminum can. While this did not immediately strike me as the most engaging topic , it turns out there is a ton (well, actually more like 15 grams) of interesting materials science and engineering in an aluminum can (there’s a great video from “Engineer Guy” Bill Hammack here): Why is it a cylinder? Why the dome on the bottom and the narrow bit at the top? How come it doesn’t collapse when I stand on it when it’s filled? Why doesn’t my drink taste metallic? How does the recycling work? What’s with the nifty pull-tab thingy?  There’s even an opportunity to sneak in a discussion of the beta to alpha transformation in tin possibly contributing to the failure of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 Antarctic expedition!

Our discussion led us to the important question of whether it is more environmentally friendly to drink one’s preferred beverage from an aluminum can or a glass bottle. While our students will have to figure this out, I’m guessing that the best option, apart from drinking water out of the tap, will turn out to be buying locally produced beverages in re-usable glass bottles. So, at Lorenzo’s suggestion, and for purely professional purposes of course, on Friday I made the trip to Hirnibräu Brauerei, just near the Bucheggplatz tram stop, for some research. I can indeed confirm that the best of both worlds is possible: Excellent craft beer, brewed locally, in re-usable glass bottles, and a perfect start to the weekend chatting with the brewer over a tasting. Hmmm, an opportunity for project-based field trips?

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