Unconscious Bias Consciousness

I’m writing this post from the wonderful Kartause Ittingen where 25 DMATL lecturers, as well as our teaching administration and a colleague from  the ETH Educational Development Center are “Retreating”. Exactly two years and many hundreds of person-hours work since our kick-off retreat, my hope is that our curriculum will magically come together as a coherent and glorious whole, or at least that we will agree on the formal structure that we need in order to start the legal steps of formalizing the new regulations.

We have three specific tasks:

1) To decide on the themes for the integrative design projects, and in turn which components of the lectures could be moved into hands-on format in the project block,

2) To agree on the appropriate forms of assessment for each learning element, and also who will teach what


3) To decide on a core of essential lab/computing skills that we will teach as short practical modules in parallel with the integrative design projects.

I set us one important ground rule: A ban on the use of “but”. I would strongly recommend trying this in every discussion. Whenever you want to disagree with a colleague (or your spouse), substitute “and” instead of “but” and watch how it transforms the tone. “That’s not a bad idea and we could build on it with my really clever extension” is so much more collegial than “That’s not a bad idea but mine is much better”.  By the end of Day 1 we have had only one violation — a “but but but but” from me — provoked by the Crystallography group making a stealth move on three of my Mathematics credit points in the 3rd Semester.

Discussion of the integrative design projects raised an interesting issue. The enthusiasm or lack thereof for a project on Da Vinci machines (yes of course they are super cool and / but many of them were designed for killing people) was not entirely uncorrelated with the gender of the colleagues. This led us to the question of whether or not our curriculum and teaching are gendered and if so how to change this. In the break before dinner we decided to all take the “Implicit Association Test” on Gender and Science — designed to reveal whether one associates sciences or liberal arts with males or females — from Harvard University. Our results led to a lot of protesting that the test tricked us or we got confused or it was unfair: In spite of our conviction that we are unbiased, all but a couple of us showed a mild to strong bias for associating science with males and liberal arts with females. Very interesting.

What to do about this finding is another question. Of course it led to some lively discussions (and some concrete ideas — gender-neutral project themes, restructuring office hours, different teaching formats) in the bar that I hope will continue to inform our teaching going forward. But perhaps the most important outcome — or at least a good first step — is our new collective “unconscious bias consciousness”.  

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former 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.
This entry was posted in Education, Materials Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *