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?

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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