Stories about Studying and Teaching
In traditional seminar and lecture formats, instructors explain a topic, while students present and discuss their ideas. But these formats are increasingly complemented by new, innovative approaches to learning, many of which are being developed right here at UZH. Read on to find out just how innovative and imaginative our approaches are.
Researchers are known for their avid curiosity, passion for discovery and thirst for knowledge. But how do they awaken the same passion and curiosity in their students? With research-based teaching and learning settings, students take on the role of scientists and immerse themselves in the subject matter using their own research questions. “This way, students are more motivated and also learn how research works,” says bioinformatics expert Jonas Grossman.
Together with his former colleague, molecular biologist Lucy Poveda, he developed the Research Cycle in Genomics block course to test this approach. Starting with an experimental data set, the students have to find out how staphylococci adapt to more challenging environmental conditions. In the process, as well as learning about the subject itself, the students acquire interdisciplinary skills such as skim-reading papers and presenting results.
Working independently in this way is challenging and it is not uncommon for the students’ research to hit a dead end. But that is all part of the learning process: “We believe that students learn more when they have to figure out the route for themselves, and that includes making mistakes along the way,” says Grossmann. The students are not left completely to their own devices: Grossman and his colleague Natalia Zajac are on hand to provide coaching and support. The motivated group of students and teachers is then able to work like a real research group, approaching a question in different ways and supporting each other’s ideas.
At UZH, students can design their own education according to their future goals by selecting an optimal combination of modules and minor programs. The course catalogue lists learning objectives for each module so that students can identify which courses will help them acquire the skills they will need for their dream career.
“The job market today demands cross-disciplinary knowledge, such as machine learning, alongside subject-specific expertise,” says professor of physics Titus Neupert. In cooperation with the Digital Society Initiative, Neupert has therefore designed an introductory, interdisciplinary machine learning module at the School for Transdisciplinary Studies which is open to UZH students from all faculties.
Which algorithms are suitable for which data types? When are traditional statistical analyses more useful? What applications can machine learning have in the natural sciences, linguistics, law or theology, for example? The module includes lectures by instructors from various disciplines on how they use machine learning in their research. There are also practical sessions with individual feedback to enable students to hone their own programming skills and reflect on the implications of machine learning for individuals and society. Teaching assistants support the students as they work toward achieving the learning objectives.
The pilot project “Machine Learning – an Interdisciplinary Introduction” has also provided helpful input for the curriculum development of a planned new minor program in digital skills. Master’s students taking the DSI Minor Digital Skills will gain an overview of the digital transformation of society and the research landscape, and work on interdisciplinary projects.
“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Let me do it me and I’ll learn.” This aphorism is attributed to Confucius, who already knew about the importance of actively engaging students some 2,500 years ago. The best way for students to learn about something in depth is to get them involved and have them develop their own ideas. This way, they also learn new methods and acquire transferable skills.
A prime example of this philosophy is “The Silicon Valley for People”, a seminar in which Master’s students and PhD candidates from a range of disciplines explore innovations that might reshape how organizations manage human resources. What will the world of work look like in the future? Which services and tools could help leaders and managers tackle the needs of their employees?
The UZH Innovathon, meanwhile, focuses on interdisciplinary when it comes to the novel application of digital technologies.
Both of these innovation courses require students to come up with creative solutions and new products. They do so using design thinking, a method that is often used by start-ups in the tech sector. The students quickly transform their ideas into prototypes, which they then present to industry experts. Using the feedback from these specialists, they can revisit and refine their products. Throughout the entire iterative process, the teams of students have the support of mentors. “Being asked to develop and present ideas in mixed teams is very common in today’s workplace,” says assistant professor Lauren Howe.
Having teaching materials that are rooted in the real world isn’t only motivating, it also makes it easier for students to link new insights to what they already know. The innovative seminar enables students to acquire skills that they will need in their future professional life, such as presenting an idea in a convincing fashion or getting and implementing constructive criticism.
Michael Reinehr is an explorer of human cell structures: in his histopathology classes, he takes his students on a tour of tissue samples that have been altered by disease. A new program, MyMi.mobile 2.0, now enables students to follow microscope examinations from the comfort of their home and take a virtual tour of the cell structures, guided by Reinehr and his colleagues. The students can also access the online collection of samples on MyMi.mobile 2.0 anytime to continue learning independently.
Thanks to digital tools, students can work on or repeat learning content at their own pace. This is particularly useful in histopathology. “Tissue samples can seem rather abstract, and the new program means students can take as much time as they need to become familiar with them,” says pathologist and clinical instructor Reinehr. The virtual microscope also gives them access to scans of anatomical specimens, allowing them to compare healthy and diseased tissue and link the new information with their prior knowledge. MyMi.mobile 2.0 can also be used to set tasks for students and evaluate their learning success. The Institute of Molecular and Cellular Anatomy at Ulm University is currently working with the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence on an algorithm for the program to track students as they search for structures and provide them with feedback. “Students will be able to choose whether to use this feature. If they do use it, it will give me valuable data with which to improve my teaching,” says Reinehr. He is currently busy preparing specimen scans to share with students via the platform. For Reinehr, this is just the beginning: he envisages an entire interdisciplinary learning world where students can learn independently with the help of podcasts, links to further content and virtual tutors.
What is transdisciplinarity? When researchers from different disciplines work together with stakeholders from society to examine real-life problems and situations, we can call it transdisciplinarity. Such problems are often complex and global, and tackling them requires a combination of knowledge from theory and practice. “This is called co-production of knowledge,” explains Jeannette Behringer of the UZH Sustainability Team. Together with the general manager of the Right Livelihood Centre of the University of Zurich, Aline Steinbrecher, she organizes the Ringvorlesung “Sustainability Now!” in which students can get a taste of transdisciplinary research. The public lecture series delivered by the School for Transdisciplinary Studies is open to Bachelor’s and Master’s students from all faculties as well as interested members of the public, and consists of panel discussions with Right Livelihood Award recipients. The award honors people who have made a successful and significant contribution to solving global problems.
A special feature of this series is that the panel discussions are hosted and chaired by UZH students. To perform this role, the students have to familiarize themselves with the speaker’s area of specialization and their biography. “In doing so, students learn that sustainability is a complex collection of issues, with branches extending into a variety of disciplines,” says Behringer.
In preparation for the big event, the students receive training in which they practice balancing various perspectives and translating complex content into comprehensible summaries for the audience. “They learn from experts working in the field how to initiate change processes as an individual, and at the same time acquire moderation skills,” says Steinbrecher. Both sets of skills are in demand in today’s job market and form the basis for transdisciplinary collaborations. Behringer wants students to understand that as scientists, they must work hand in hand with societal stakeholders in order to successfully apply their findings and bring about change.
For Leonie Laux, who studies Earth system science, the opportunity to speak with the Right Livelihood laureates was very valuable: she realized that learning nice neat concepts in theory is one thing, but putting them into practice in reality can be complex and fraught with difficulties.
There’s a Yiddish saying that goes, “Two mountains can’t come together, but two people can.” At the UZH Department of Geography, however, people have come together because of the mountains. The transnational research seminar called Sustainable Mountain Development is taught in parallel at the University of Zurich and the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) in Georgia.
“The two country’s mountain regions have a great deal in common. There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” says researcher Annina Michel, who oversees the course. Teaching staff at UZH and TSU give lectures on their specialist areas, which include conservation, climate change, regional development and migration, and hold discussions to put the various mountain regions’ challenges into context.
An app specifically developed for the course enables the students to share their observations about the Alps and the Caucasus mountains and to interact with each other. “Students not only learn about a different country but also get to meet new people at a different university and use new methods,” says Annina Michel. The project broadens students’ horizons and helps boost research in the field. “Getting an outside view of your own research is extremely valuable,” says the conservation scientist, who is planning to travel to Georgia next year to join a local research project.