The Transition Period

“What’s going to happen with the second year students that I usually teach in the old curriculum when I’m teaching the new curriculum to the first years?” asked a colleague. YIKES! Somehow I had naively pictured our entire student body morphing smoothly into our new program in Autumn 2020, and had entirely repressed the reality that the Fall 2019 incoming class will be taught via our current syllabus which will therefore need to continue until they graduate. And however helpful and flexible my colleagues try to be, I see that it will be tricky for them to be (either mentally or physically) in two classrooms at the same time. Thus my introduction to the current phase of our curriculum revision project, “The Transition Period”.

Fortunately, as you might have already realised over the course of this blog, our staff are smarter than I am, and in the process of working on our new regulations with Marco Salogni in the Teaching Regulations office, Sara had already started to address the transition phase. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse than I feared: In the worst-case scenario of a student failing some assessments and deferring a couple of semesters, we might in principle need to offer courses and exams from the old syllabus for another five years! That’s even longer than the UK has spent so far in trying to leave the European Union! “We could just pass everyone for a year or two” I suggested hopefully, to justified stony mutterings about what that would do to the reputation of our degree quality. Instead, Marco helped us to construct a complex interweaving of transfers and course equivalences that will provide a coherent pathway for “old system” students to reach graduation with the time and support that they need, even after some of their early instructors are enjoying their retirement writing the Great American Novel on the beach.

But back to our original problem of how to be in two classrooms at once. Well, Sara is currently preparing individual schedules for every instructor, outlining which classes from the old and new curriculum they should teach in which semesters until 2023. Armed with this information, we’ll be asking instructors whose teaching load would be unmanageable to self-identify so that we can find a solution — extra assistants or even replacement instructors — in good time. And that, I’m guessing, is an email that won’t be mislaid in my colleagues’ Inboxes.

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On Project Leadership

While history is likely to associate March 2017 with the United Kingdom declaring Article 50, it also marked a more constructive event: The launch of the ETH Materials Department “Materials Scientist 2030, Who is She?” project. Here, two years in, are some reflections on project leadership based on what I have learned from making my own mistakes in our project in parallel with watching those being made across the Channel.

1) Leadership is different from Management. In one of my earliest blogs I discussed how we structured the management of our project , but I soon learned that this is quite a different beast from leading it.

2) Every project has its ornery characters. Engage them to work on the aspects that they are most ornery about, but don’t appoint them foreign secretary. I can’t offer any insights into how to respond to the ornery folks who are trying to steal your job, since for some reason there isn’t a big queue of old Etonians jostling to take over as Person Responsible for the DMATL Curriculum Revision.

3) Minimize the red lines. Stuff that is illegal or blatantly unethical should be out of course, the Young’s Modulus and titrations non-negotiably in. By being flexible, you might discover better ideas than your own, and even if not, no-one will cooperate if you tell them what you want the answer to be.

4) Practice by leading small projects before starting on big complex ones. Also a good idea for citizens when it comes to voting in referendums.

5) Be inclusive. Diverse teams reach better outcomes. You need all possible inputs to reach the best decisions, and everyone who is going to have to live with the outcome needs to feel vested in the process. Have fabulous staff and colleagues, and delegate.

6) Only take advice from your spouse / partner / family / friends if they are not going to benefit financially from the outcome.

At the start of our project, the two years that we allotted to reach this stage seemed like a long time, whereas in fact it has gone by very quickly and has kept us quite busy. But from my current position sulking in the Guardian echo chamber  it’s clear that we have done rather well: We have a plan that we agree on and that looks firmly towards the future. And that will probably be implemented while I am still an EU passport holder.

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Student Feedback

After a few weeks of consolidating and tidying up the ideas generated during the retreat, the project team managed to converge a reasonably coherent curriculum structure, and decided that the next step was to run it past our current students for a feedback. In particular, we realized that our current and recently graduated students would be better able than us to spot if something essential was missing, or if we were somewhere assuming prerequisite knowledge that only came later. And we persuaded ourselves that we wanted a general feedback, while secretly hoping that they would mostly like the new approach. 

So we enlisted Bachelor, Master and PhD students (who had gone through our Bachelor’s training) representing all stages in the study programme and 17 of them kindly volunteered an evening of their time to help us out in exchange for some rather good (in my opinion) prosciutto, ruccola and parmesan sandwiches. I started off by reminding us all of the goals of the revision, since it felt like a few hundred years ago since we defined them: 

  •  The curriculum has a strong engineering and design component and retains its scientific rigor.
  •  The curriculum reflects the contemporary description of materials science.
  •  The curriculum is based on contemporary learning formats that promote active learning, such as project-based learning.
  •  There are clearly specified opportunities to develop both subject-specific qualifications and personal skills such as team work and communication.

Then I reviewed the process and the timeline, in particular the upcoming tasks. Sara then took over and walked us through the new structure, the credit points, the projects and the proposed assessment modes before we broke out into brainstorming groups and the aforementioned (really very good) sandwiches.                             

So what were the most important outcomes. Well first, to my relief, there was general enthusiasm for the new structure, in particular for the increased hands-on component and the focus on cross-cutting themes rather than materials classes. Also, we made considerable progress on re-balancing the workload and assessment structures between the different semesters, based on the students’ experience of which topics and skills they need most time to master. But perhaps the most useful feedback for me was an awareness of the changes that will instill the most fear: The increased self-study aspect associated with skills acquisition through project work, combined with the uncertainty introduced by different projects covering different topics in different amounts of depth. How would we ensure, for example, that no student accidentally missed out on learning about Young’s Modulus? From the PhD students’ side, there was concern about the additional demands on their time as teaching assistants for the projects. And we discussed at length how to fairly assess group work without really finding a good answer.

So now we have a curriculum structure that’s almost ready for checking by our Department’s Teaching Committee and approval by the Department Conference! A big thank you to everyone who has worked so hard towards this moment, not only in this last discussion session but over the last two years. Our new curriculum structure has benefited tremendously from diverse inputs from members of the Department at all levels, our colleagues in the Educational Development and Technology Office, as well as our Sounding Board and kind supporters from other Departments and Insitutions. The result is a study program that will be far more effective, interesting, balanced and stimulating than any small sub-group of us could have achieved. And that (hopefully) we all feel vested in ensuring will be successful. 

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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…

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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”.  

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Graveyard of old habits and opera house of emotions

I’m a big fan of the “Tomorrow’s Professor” blog from Stanford University. Their motto is “Online faculty development 100 times per year” and during term time, 10 minutes of reading a handy tip about how to be better at my job is sadly all the professional development I can manage to fit in. 

Last week’s topic was Change Leadership in Higher Education. The article discussed two hypothetical scenarios in which a University struggling with falling enrollment and funding hires a new President to help it redirect itself. In Scenario 1, the new President promptly assembles a leadership team that develops a strategy together with the governing board. In Scenario 2, the new President spends many months discussing the issues with the members of the University, establishes committees and working groups, engages students, staff and faculty, and nudges everyone along through a collaborative strategy-development process. The resulting strategy is more-or-less the same as in Scenario 1.

Interestingly, I learned that there are technical management theory terms for both approaches: Change Management, with a Change Model (Scenario 1) and Change Leadership, with a Change Journey (Scenario 2).

Now anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes in a faculty meeting will be able to immediately predict the outcome: Scenario 1 — the Change Management option — was a spectacular failure. There were protests from students, alumni and the local community, as well as outright rebellion from staff and faculty. The plan could not be implemented, the President quit to return to her research lab (the professional equivalent of wanting to have more time for family) and the University went broke. Scenario 2 — the Change Leadership approach — on the other hand, was implemented successfully, and when the president stepped down highly respected after her full ten years in office, the University was thriving. 

Now while of course implementing a curriculum revision is not in the same league as turning around a struggling University, many of the issues strike me as remarkably similar. If you’ve been following my blog over the last couple of years, you will know already that we are using the second approach (which thankfully I now learn is the “correct” one!) in our curriculum revision. And so I find that much of the discussion about the difficulties associated with Change Journeys resonates with our experience. It’s encouraging to read that heated arguments and differences of philosophy between those who favour more or less drastic change are entirely normal. And during these dark days of hard work with the content details, I am happy to hear that after the “depression stage of the change process, the acceptance stage is just around the corner”! But by far my favourite part of the article is the hypothetical president’s tactic for managing the difficulties: to “good-naturedly tease that the university is just making a short side trip to the graveyard of old habits or the opera house of emotion.” 

“Graveyard of old habits” and “Opera house of emotion.” Two very handy terms that I intend to adopt for use in future curriculum revision meetings 😉

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Hard Work

The fun philosophical part of the curriculum revision is over and we are now slogging through the day-to-day drudgery of where / when / what the content and learning elements should go / happen / be. And this is hard work.

For obvious reasons (that I have no other skills) I am in the Materials Physics sub-group, together with my colleagues Manfred FiebigPietro GambardellaLaura Heyderman and Sebastian Stepanow. The Materials Physics curriculum poses some interesting challenges. Exactly where the boundary between “Physics” and “Materials” lies is, in my opinion, an unanswerable question. I am often falsely accused of being a Physicist, for example, in spite of my being a Chemist masquerading as a Materials Scientist. How comfortable working with Quantum Mechanics should a Materials Scientist be, both for their work — maybe they will be designing semiconductor devices one day — and to qualify as a contemporary renaissance citizen? And should we teach Quantum Mechanics as a separate block, the way that we teach Linear Algebra or Analysis, or should it be woven through the beginning Solid State classes?

The biggest shock though, was the realization that we actually have fewer credit points dedicated to Materials Physics than we had in our previous curriculum. Although intellectually we realised that we had collectively dedicated a large number of credit points to the integrative design projects, somehow we had not connected this with a reduction in our personal credit point budget. We tried negotiating a bit with the other sub-groups (how much Thermodynamics or Materials Chemistry or Mathematics do students really need?) but didn’t meet with a lot of enthusiasm.

At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, out of crisis came opportunity, and after a bit of grumbling, we found a solution: To move some of the learning elements that had previously been taught in the classroom into the laboratory-based part of the new curriculum. We started to think about how Electronics, for example, could be more effectively taught in a practical setting. Maybe we could even find a way to incorporate some hands-on quantum mechanics into the projects? (All ideas in that direction are welcome). And we put in a request for a couple of lab-based credit points per semester to be dedicated to Materials Physics in anticipation of the other working groups realising the desirability of this approach resulting in a land grab.

We even made some decisions over who would teach what: Sebastian and I will alternate teaching the second year so that we don’t get bored and start forgetting whether it was last year’s or this year’s class that already mastered this week’s concept. And Pietro will teach the third year because he prefers to focus on improving one class rather than changing between teaching different topics.

Next step: coordination meetings, particularly with the Thermodynamics working group so that we can make sure that the prerequisite knowledge we assume is there when it’s needed. And to check whether they really need all those credit points 😉

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An unusual source of inspiration

In the introductory project management course that we took at the start of our curriculum revision process, we learned about the importance of defining the boundaries of a project, and not succumbing to the ever-present temptation of project inflation. Up until now, we have managed to be quite disciplined and have repeatedly restrained ourselves from drifting into modifying our Master’s program. We resolved that revision of the MS degree will be a separate project that should wait until the BS revision is completed.

The purpose of this blog is to share with you a spectacular failure.

Last month, Sara, Andrea, Markus and myself from our project team, as well as another DMATL colleague, Prof. Peter Walde, joined the staff of the Rektorat, the Educational Development and Technology Group, and the other Studies Directors and Coordinators at a teaching retreat in beautiful Emmetten overlooking the spectacular Vierwaldstättersee. The topic of the retreat was master studies, and we expected to enjoy some philosophical discussions about what constitutes a good MS program in anticipation of the hard work we would start doing on ours in a couple of years’ time. Indeed. we heard a particularly interesting plenary talk from Prof. Dr. Pierre Vandergheynst, the Dean of Education at our sister school in Lausanne, who piqued our interest in introducing minor specialities during the masters studies, had break out discussions on the admissions process and program structure, and spent some social time getting to know motivated and enthusiastic new colleagues.

The last session was a Department discussion, and due to a shortage of conference rooms, the DMATL team was located in the hotel fitness center. Since, as you might remember, we have been addressing the question of whether to move our Industrial Internship from the bachelor to the master, we decided to focus on the structural impact that such a move would have on our MS curriculum. Our first task, though, was to try to switch off the rather loud piped workout music; while I have to confess to being a closet ABBA fan, their Greatest Hits would not have been my first choice of background music for serious curriculum discussions. After only managing to find switches that either plunged us into darkness, or activated the jets on the whirlpool, however, we instead embraced the foot-tapping and got down to work. Half an hour later (somewhere around “If you change your mind…”) we realized that our flip chart contained, seemingly by accident, an elegant new dual-track MS degree structure, which could alleviate some of our existing structural inconsistencies and allow us to implement an improved program rather efficiently.

Now of course it is rather easier to agree on a new curriculum structure with five colleagues than with an entire Department. But maybe allowing ourselves a little bit of flexibility to continue the MS discussion out of our agreed-on sequence will not be such a diversion after all. Particularly with our secret source of inspiration.

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On reporting and pedagogy

While writing lots of proposals to fund my research is not something I miss about my pre-ETH existence, I was reminded this week of one aspect of my former proposal-supported research life that had some value: Reporting. This reflection was prompted by the visit of Sara and myself to the “Freitagsrunde” — a weekly (on Friday of course) meeting of a teaching committee made up of staff from the Rector’s office, the Teaching and Learning Center and the Curriculum Development office. About a year ago, the same team had enthusiastically supported our request for financial support for our curriculum revision and so asked for an update on our progress.

As a result, in a bit of a last-minute panic, Sara and I started preparing summary slides with a reminder of what we had originally planned (why the committee had given us the resources in the first place), a summary of what we have achieved so far (why funding us was a good choice) and our current activities and next steps (why they should continue their support!).

As a reminder, we are 1.5 years into our revision process, which is a little less than half way until we welcome our first students in Fall 2020. And to be honest, on some days it feels to me that everything is taking a really long time and that our progress is a bit slow. But compiling a list of our achievements was really quite encouraging and made us realise that we hadn’t just been sitting around slacking. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve done so that you don’t need to go back and read my entire blog:

  • We got ourselves organized, clarified the roles of the project team, identified our stakeholders and thought about our communication concept;
  • We made a nice logo, I started this blog (yes, you are part of our “communication concept”!), built an internal Wiki with all our documents, and put “Curriculum Revision” as a standing agenda item in our Department, Teaching and Professors’ Committee Meetings;
  • We held a series of workshops with faculty and students to collect the competences of the 2030 Materials Scientist and to develop ideas for new curriculum structures;
  • We made a survey of project-based Materials Science curricula around the world, as well as a job-market survey with companies that hire our graduates, and
  • We established and met with our Alumni Sounding Board to hear about their most important experiences and their suggestions for changes.

At the end of this we have a complete “profile” of our ideal Materials Science graduate, a first draft of an exciting new curriculum — with overarching engineering projects, a completely new structure organized around integrative themes rather than traditional materials classes, and focussed “block weeks” at the starts and ends of semesters. Small working groups are now busily defining the details of the learning outcomes and content.

Not bad.

So we found that the exercise of preparing our summary was entirely worthwhile in reminding ourselves to celebrate our progress. There was an important difference, too, from the “old days”, when the annual reports that I wrote on my research grants disappeared into a dusty cupboard (or the dusty ether) never to be disturbed by human eye. In our curriculum revision case, in contrast, our summary presentation was accompanied by a lively and productive discussion. We discussed best practices for curriculum reform from other study programs, new ideas that we have uncovered that could be transferred to other departments, modes of assessment, modifications to regulations, additional strategies for communications, etc. These specific points are of course all useful feedbacks for us. And in addition we are starting to realize that our revision process is an active research experiment in curriculum design pedagogy. And that maybe we will have something useful to contribute in that direction too…

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A complete curriculum outline. Almost.

Having left you in suspense last month, I can now report that we have chosen the modernization option for our new curriculum! Materials Science at the ETH will no longer be taught according to the old materials categories but rather in grand, over-arching themes, (hopefully) revealing deep connections between materials and concepts, facilitating student learning and equipping the next generation of materials scientists for a lifetime of productive and satisfying problem-solving. While we intend that our students will still emerge knowing what distinguishes a metal from a ceramic from a semiconductor from a polymer, they won’t spend a semester sitting in a class called “Metals”, followed by one called “Ceramics”, etc. I am personally very excited about this, although I recognize that it is going to be a coordination challenge, and there might be times in the next year or two when I question the wisdom of the decision. Or at  least regret that I am responsible for implementing it.

Our general plan goes like this: We will start in the 1st and 2nd semesters with exploring the structure-property-processing-performance relationships in the different materials classes (so there will be a bit of Metals, Ceramics, Polymers, etc.), with a focus on motivation and understanding the fundamentals. By their first summer, students will have an understanding of the physical and chemical fundamentals behind structure and properties and will be able to reason why a particular material would be chosen for a certain simple application. During the 3rd and 4th semesters the focus will lie on understanding the structures of materials (as well as learning characterisation tools to be able to determine them) and acquiring the scientific background to understand and explain functional properties. The 5th semester will integrate the materials fundamentals and focus on discussing structure-property relationships in over-arching classes on for example Optical Properties, Transport Properties, Electronic Properties, Structural Properties etc. The 6th semester will emphasise materials processing, as well as design and selection and will close the loop to the 1st semester.

We still have one unsolved problem: Where to put the industry internship. Currently our students are required to do a 3-month industry internship in order to complete their Bachelor’s degree. Everyone likes the concept — the students enjoy the experience and the stipend; the employers like the opportunity to check out our students in a working environment. In principle the internship should take place in the summer after the 6th Semester allowing the students to complete their degree within three years, but in practice this rarely happens. A company might not have an opening starting exactly the day after a student’s exams finish, for example, and often the student and the company prefer a longer project. This almost always means that the start of the Masters degree is delayed until after Christmas, which is fine if one has a Humboldtian philosophy of spending a long time accumulating a broad education, but less good if one would like to finish and get a job. It also looks a bit bad on our statistics if our average “time to degree” is longer than the advertised length of our program. So one of the goals of our revision has been to make sure that a normal student is able to finish within the allotted three years even if they have to retake one or two exams, and perhaps with a week or two of vacation somewhere in the three years.

Easy, we thought! Let’s take only half of the 6th semester for coursework and free up those extra weeks. But these were then immediately occupied by a capstone project or Bachelor’s thesis which we didn’t feel we could give up. Actually, looking at our existing program it’s not clear to me how the students fit in their Bachelor’s thesis at the moment, so perhaps we have gained something from this approach but certainly not as much as we need. Our students had a good suggestion, which is to save the internship for the beginning of the Master’s degree. Now while this might just seem like delaying the problem, they pointed out that companies pay more for interns that have already completed their BS degree, which in my opinion is a really good argument! It could be tough to arrange for international students who have just arrived but surely we could find a solution. We decided to make this a topic for our next Alumni Sounding Board meeting…

So the next task involves trying to keep all the colleagues happy in distributing the course preparation tasks followed by trying to keep everything coordinated as the preparations start. Yikes.

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