Retreating on

Moving on from the revelation that we are all biased in spite of our best intentions, Day 2 of our curriculum revision retreat started with the task of defining the essential lab skills that every graduating materials scientist should have in their repertoire, then thinking about suitable short (half-day) experiments that would allow our students to acquire them. In order to leave time for the semester-long projects, it was clear that there could only be two or three such experiments per course per semester and so we faced some difficult decisions. In particular, this is a drastic departure from our existing system, in which the students spend much of their practical time in focussed lab activities, and we anticipated a sense of loss in having to let some of beautiful existing experiments go!

We divided into three teams, roughly representing Chemistry, Physics and Materials, with our lab. coordinator, Martin trying to be in three places at once to answer questions about the details of the existing experiments. I was in the Physics team, which in some ways had the easiest task: Since physics experiments are not strongly featured in our existing lab courses it was easier for us to follow the instructions  of first defining the essential skills, and after that developing the experiments to train those skills. While we still have a lot of work to do in the details of the experiment design (illustrating some of the quantum mechanical principles will be particularly tough!), we have a clearer picture of what we want our students to be able to do and how we might be able to fit the training into our allotted time allowance.

At the end of the break-out session, we collected our results on sticky notes on four pin boards, one for each semester in the first two years, and it became immediately clear that the Chemistry and Materials groups were hopelessly over their limit. Since many of our existing lab modules emphasise Chemistry and Materials skills, they were in the difficult situation of having to decide what to leave out, and at the risk of sounding uncollegial I would say that they did rather poorly at it. On the positive side, I was reminded to be happy that we approached our curriculum revision as a whole by first deleting everything and starting from zero otherwise the entire process would have followed this pattern.

Soon our retreat time ran out and our heads were too full to continue. Since I’m not a huge fan of a large group of people reflecting in series on their experiences, we closed by individually writing down what we like best about the new curriculum structure, and what we expect to present the biggest challenge. Then we collected the opinions. No big surprise perhaps that “Project-based learning” in one form or another came out top in both categories. I am sure there must be an ancient proverb about that and if anyone knows I would be very happy to hear it…

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.
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2 Responses to Retreating on

  1. Alexander W says:

    Thanks for the insightful blog post about the curriculum revision retreat! I’m not sure but maybe you are looking for the following proverb in the context of “Project-based learning”:

    “Tell me and I [will] forget. Show me and I [will] remember. Involve me and I [will] understand.” – Xun Zi


    • Nicola Spaldin says:

      Thanks Alexander! I was thinking of something along the lines of “anything worthwhile is going to be a struggle” 😉

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