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.

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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One Response to Why it matters

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    There is much to be said for taking your class online. My (most recent) alma mater, King’s College London, actively encourages students to spend time during their degree elsewhere. For one of the people on the same course as myself that involved taking a module at UCL; others go away for a year to a University in another country. That still requires travel and the logistical preparations associated with it. If you could teach your class, not only to those physically in Zurich but also to those elsewhere who are qualified to and may want to attend it, then it opens up the possibilities for students who may want to take a specific class but don’t necessarily want to spend a lengthy period at a university in another country. I look forward to reading about your experiences with online teaching once this pandemic is over.

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