EPFL and ETH Zurich launch their first joint doctoral programme

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The new joint doctoral programme is especially aimed at Master’s graduates

The new joint doctoral programme is especially aimed at Master’s graduates from the STEM fields. Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

Switzerland’s two federal institutes of technology have teamed up to offer a new joint doctoral programme in the learning sciences. It aims to train experts to draw on their technological and scientific knowledge in the interests of forwarding the research, teaching and learning.

Anyone who’s sat in a classroom knows how important it is to have the right learning environment, teaching methods and study materials in order to learn a subject properly. Learning sciences are a field of study that combines fundamental research into human cognition with information and communication technology to improve teaching outcomes and enhance the learning experience.

The learning sciences sit at the crossroads of several disciplines. They require experts from an array of fields who are eager to put their expertise to work to improve education while advancing the understanding of human cognition and learning. The new joint doctoral programme is especially aimed at Master’s graduates from the STEM fieldsscience, technology, engineering and mathematicswho have a keen interest in learning and education.

A significant step

"Our goal is to train experts who can address education-related issues by drawing on a scientific background," says Professor Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education and head of EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning & Instruction (CHILI) laboratory. He conceptualized and designed the joint doctoral programme with Professor Manu Kapur, who holds the Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich and heads up ETH Zurich’s Future Learning Initiative.

Our goal is to train experts who can address education-related issues by drawing on a scientific background.

"Research shows that traditional methods of teaching are often not optimal," says Manu Kapur who has experience as a mathematics teacher himself. For example, the professor has shown that the systematic use of productive failure is significantly more effective than teaching by means of lectures. "Data science, artificial intelligence and robotics open up new research approaches that further promote such insights. " He adds: "The joint programme is a significant step for the learning sciences in Switzerland, but also for science in general, as it sets the framework for joint programmes in other fields to be established."

In fact, this is the first doctoral programme offered jointly by the two universities, each of which has extensive experience in the learning sciences (read below). "There are great synergies and opportunities between our schools and we look forward to more joint doctoral programs in the near future!", says Luisa Lambertini, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Postgraduate Education.

The new EPFL-ETH Zurich programme lasts four years and is being funded by the Jacobs Foundation. "Collaboration is key to driving innovation, which is why we are delighted that these two high profile institutions are jointly offering this programme which will shape the future of learning," says Simon Sommer, Co-CEO of the Jacobs Foundation.

Students must obtain at least 12 credits during the programme, including a total of eight credits from two mandatory courses (worth four credits each) taught each year at ETH Zurich and at EPFL. The first course looks at the theories of learning sciences, the latest research findings and different perspectives on the field. It focuses on two questions: How do people learn? And how can we improve the learning experience? The second course explores the interdisciplinary methodological toolkit of various research, data-collection and data-analysis methods that learning scientists employ.

The joint programme is a significant step for the learning sciences in Switzerland, but also for science in general, as it sets the framework for joint programmes in other fields to be established.

Students can also choose from a wide range of optional courses on topics like machine learning, how to learn and digital technology for education. The programme will also feature joint colloquia, seminars, summer and winter schools, and events for strengthening the community of learning science experts both within the programme in Switzerland at large.

"At the beginning of every innovation is learning. Our education system must build on current research knowledge at all levels - from childhood to adulthood - in order to meet an ever more rapidly changing world. In this regard, the new doctoral programme is an important step", says Sarah Springman, the Rector of ETH Zurich.

Making abstract concepts tangible

With this new programme, the two universities aim to produce a generation of learning scientists who leverage advanced research and cutting-edge technology to improve the way subjects are taught across the entire educational system. The goal is to develop teaching methods that equip students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of our rapidly transforming society.

Aditi Kothiyal, a scientist at CHILI and EPFL executive director of the new joint doctoral programme, gives an exemple: "Intuition is very important in science and engineering - it’s what lets us pull together different concepts in a fluid manner. But the trick is how to instill this kind of intuition in students and help them grasp highly abstract concepts. That’s the challenge I find particularly interesting in the learning sciences. At CHILI lab at EPFL we have developed the Cellulo robot, for example, which lets students run experiments on electrical forces and see their effects - even though the forces themselves are invisible." Kothiyal, who decided to specialize in learning technology after obtaining a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, is also a postdoc at EPFL’s Center for Digital Education.

Students can take the joint doctoral programme through either EPFL or ETH Zurich, depending on where their primary thesis supervisor is based, although they will also be co-supervised by a professor from the other university. Their doctoral degree certificates will bear the logos of both universities. People wishing to apply for the programme should submit their application by 1 December 2021; another application round will be held in the Spring 2022.

Two universities with an extensive experience in the learning sciences

ETH Zurich has been training baccalaureate school teachers in the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - since it was established. It initiated programmes for the development of digital technology for teaching and learning in 1999. Since then, it has also set up three learning centers to develop more effective teaching methods for STEM subjects at all grade levels, and is steadily increasing its research efforts in the learning sciences.

EPFL has over 15 years of in-depth experience in digital technology for educational applications. The School opened its LEARN Center in 2018, which brings together learning-science researchers, practitioners and local businesses - including the 85 startups in the Swiss EdTech Collider program - to develop innovative teaching materials and methods. The R&D conducted at LEARN spans all levels of the Swiss educational system.


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