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…

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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