Teaching concepts rather than categories

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Still likes to teach at the good old black board: materials Nicola Spaldin. (Pho
Still likes to teach at the good old black board: materials Nicola Spaldin. (Photo: Friedrun Reinhold)

In her prior role as Director of Studies, Professor Nicola Spaldin oversaw the comprehensive revision of the curriculum for the bachelor’s degree course in the Department of Materials. In this interview, the ETH professor describes the most important changes and the benefits she hopes they will bring.

What was the motivation for revising the degree programme? We wanted to modernise the curriculum in order to present materials science in a contemporary format. Whether in scientific research or in practical applications, it’s unusual to work on a single class of materials, such as metal, ceramics or polymers any more and many of our professorships are no longer named after the traditional materials classes. For example, they are called the Professorship for Hybrid Materials or Soft & Living Materials. Another important reason was to create a balance between science and technology. We felt that the old study programme was too heavily biased towards the scientific side and wanted to strengthen the engineering component.

How has the teaching changed? We hope that we can better help our students meet the learning goals, and at the same time make the study of materials more attractive through introducing new teaching methods. We are moving away from the traditional teacher-centred format, such as lectures, and instead encouraging active learning, particularly through new semester-long design projects and using approaches such as flipped classrooms. It will be interesting to see how this goes down with the students.

Is it difficult to sell materials science to future students’ Not at all. I think the problem is rather that students don’t know what materials science is. In school, they are taught the classical natural sciences, and in Switzerland, of course because of all the bridges and tunnels, students know what mechanical and civil engineers do. But materials science is a fairly young discipline and many prospective students have never heard of it. It was exactly the same for me: when I started my course, I never even dreamt of becoming a materials scientist. I didn’t even know this discipline existed.

So what exactly is materials science? Is it engineering based, or a natural science? That’s a good question. We called our curriculum revision project "Materials Redesigned BSc 2020", and spent a lot of time at the start discussing what materials science actually is. It is not as well defined as physics or chemistry, for example. On the other hand, materials science and engineering permeate all of the other natural science and engineering disciplines. An engineer, for example, has to understand materials to make faster microelectronic devices or smarter robots. It is therefore becoming more important that everyone understands the basics of materials and that materials scientists can communicate well with experts from other disciplines. So a materials graduate needs to be both a scientist and an engineer.

What skills does the new degree course teach, apart from fundamental knowledge? Our challenge was to come up with a curriculum that gave students space to develop expertise in Design Thinking and Engineering Design, with more freedom to be creative, without neglecting the scientific fundamentals. Meeting all these demands and bringing them together without designing a course that lasts for ten years was quite a task.

What’s been left out of the new curriculum that was taught previously? A couple of specific topics have been moved to the masters level, but I would say that the biggest change has been in restructuring the learning goals around concepts rather than content. We want to ensure our students are able to mix different material concepts and combine them effectively. In particular, they should be able to deal with intellectual conundrums. They should not see studying as something that provides them with all the answers.

When will the first students take the new bachelor’s study programme? In the Autumn Semester 2020.

What about students still following the old curriculum? They will stick with the old curriculum and the same framework, although of course we start to introduce some of the new teaching approaches and ideas that we developed for the new curriculum into our current courses. By the way, the input from the current stream of bachelor’s and masters students has been very valuable and we have incorporated many of their suggestions in our new curriculum.

What about the master’s course? Will you be updating this as well? Yes, but that won’t be my job. It will be the task of my successor as Director of Studies. The master’s curriculum must be updated to ensure continuity with the bachelor’s course.

Do you have a favourite teaching method? When I started teaching, the only format that I had ever experienced was lectures. So I gave lectures. Soon after that I tried the "flipped classroom" approach before it was really established as a method, and it didn’t work well at all! But admittedly that was a few decades ago and there was less understood about flipped classroom pedagogy. Nowadays I use blended teaching formats with a mixture of lecturing, practical exercises and hands-on learning components. With some teaching content, I still haven’t discovered how to teach something to the students without going through the stuff step by step on the board. I still think this is one of the most effective teaching methods. Although it’s a little old-fashioned, the students seem to appreciate it. I never use powerpoint unless I think my students need to catch up on their sleep.

When you were writing your personal blog as you were managing the project, you compared the process of overhauling the bachelor’s curriculum in materials science with Brexit. Why is that? Our project started at almost the same time as the Brexit vote, and our new regulations were approved just before the UK’s January 31st departure from the EU! At the start of the revision, our project team took a basic project management course and so it was even more striking to me how badly the UK was managing its exit from the EU. I have to admit that being British myself, I was also suffering from a kind of "Brexit depression" at the time that I wrote that blog entry. In any case, the blog was very helpful in keeping up communication about the study programme reform within the project team and the department.

So would you say the worst is now behind you? Things were never actually bad with the project. There was just an awful lot to do. We have now finished most of the work on the "philosophy" of what a materials graduate should be able to do, and the structure and learning goals of the study programme. The learning goals for each module have been agreed. Now we need to develop the details of each individual teaching modules. That’s a job for the individual lecturers. In terms of workload, it’s comparable with preparing new lectures or teaching projects.


Nicola Spaldin was Director of Studies in the Department of Materials from 2015 to 2019. Since 2011 she has been Professor for Materials Theory and has received numerous honours and awards in teaching and research, including the ETH Golden Owl Award and the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist 2019.

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