The MSc-level course "Analytical Strategy" at the D-CHAB is based entirely on solving real-world problems. The course format with case studies and a pool of external experts has been a great success for years and can be transferred to other subject areas. The students practise creative and critical thinking through the openness of the assignments and learn to work efficiently with peers who have a different background. Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations of ETH Zurich, is also convinced of this format and is involved in the course as faculty.
In the professional life of chemists, including those who have studied at ETH Zurich, analytical chemistry is most strongly represented. In order to prepare students optimally for this, the course „Analytical Strategy“ at the MSc-level has a very high practical orientation. External experts play a key role – they provide the students with very concrete and realistic problems from everyday life. To solve these problems, the students apply their repertoire and basic knowledge of analytical chemistry and various analytical methods. Over the years, a pool of experts has been established, most of whom are happy to get involved again and again. The students are very active, are introduced to various concrete questions and are heavily involved in the problem solving process. They clearly recognise the value of the theoretical basis they have learned, because they can now solve concrete problems independently. As a side benefit, they become familiar with possible future professional fields of activity.
The range of topics is very broad and changes every year. The tasks range from microplastics and food safety to forensics or doping. Since there are usually different possible approaches for solving the problems, the students can apply and develop their critical and creative thinking. Depending on the situation, they have to adapt and react, e.g. to cost pressure, a time budget or a special situation.
In addition, the literature is critically assessed and the following questions are always asked: „could this be solved in a completely different way? Where and how could further relevant information be found?“
Preparation for professional practice
Small teams of students are given a concrete analytical question from the external experts, including background information and a list of literature. The teachers and the experts have agreed on the question in advance. The students then independently propose a solution, which they present in class in the presence of the expert who posed the problem and faculty. Typically, many stimulating discussions arise from questions from students, experts and teachers. Each week, a different student team gives a presentation on a topic from a completely different area. With a smaller class size (approx. 15), every student gives two presentations per semester, usually with a different partner. In larger classes (approx. 25), participants get to present once.
In the week preceding the presentation, the entire class participates in a preparatory meeting with one of the four faculty in charge. Here, difficult points are elaborated, gaps in knowledge are filled and questions of understanding are addressed. Because these explanations and discussion are based on real problems and questions from students, they receive a much higher relevance and attention from the students than if they were presented in purely theoretical lectures. Complementary topics, perspectives and the faculty’s research is sometimes also discussed. This provides an opportunity for students to better understand the faculty member’s expertise and possibly get involved in a project in his/her group.
Student solution gets compared with expert solution
In the second part of the teaching sequence, the experts explain how they themselves have solved the problem. Often, they give further insight into their professional life and into related cases. The exchange between students and experts is stimulating and informative for both sides. It sometimes even happens that ideas from students are taken up and pursued by the experts, or that contacts result in internships or even professional positions.
The students also receive feedback from peers, teachers and external experts. By using all of these aspects constructively to devise a problem-solving strategy, they can develop the competence to adapt to new conditions and to deal with change. In this way, they also develop more self-awareness and recognise how they can inspire others.
Course format – transferable to other subject areas
- concrete problem definition is given to the entire class
- teams of 2-3 students work together to propose and present a solution
- student teams are heterogeneous, to practice teamwork and cooperation
- preparatory meeting of the entire class with a faculty, in the week preceding the presentation
- student teams present their solution to the problem in the plenum
- faculty, external experts and students ask questions – joint discussion
- experts and faculty give feedback on the solution
- experts present their approach to the same problem and explain aspects of other possible solutions
- student teams receive feedback on communication, design and the style of their talk from the faculty member immediately after the presentation
- the case studies and the teams‘ solutions are made available online, in the “Analytical Strategy” course and on the website of the responsible faculty Prof. Renato Zenobi.
RESULTS & LESSONS LEARNED
By dealing with the topics in depth, the students ask more insightful questions compared to conventional courses. They are very alert and often ask questions, because the discussions are always related to real situations that can be easily imagined. For example, in the “forensics” topic, a reference was made to a heaping series of ATM blastings.
It is important to organise the division of groups and assign topics at the beginning of the semester. Only when students have definitely signed up for the course will they be assigned a problem.
If possible, the topics should be distributed according to interests, so that everyone feels addressed. The choice of topics is designed in such a way that different analytical methods are used.
Feedback from faculty:
The teachers feel challenged by the course, because it is different every year. There are new topics and experts to be found and brought up-to-date. However, they also receive a lot in return through exciting discussions and solution ideas as well as highly positive feedback from the students.
Feedback from students:
Students have repeatedly stated that Analytical Strategy was one of the best courses they have taken during their M.Sc. studies at D-CHAB / ETH. It is very motivating and helpful for them to work with such concrete problems from the real world
- Analytical Strategy
- This course focuses on the problem-oriented development of analytical strategies and solutions. Experts from industry and administration present particular problems in their field of activity. Students develop strategies for the optimal application of chemical, biochemical and physico-chemical methods in analytical chemistry when solving predefined problems. The principles of sampling are discussed.
- To learn how to develop solutions for particular analytical problems
- W, Eligible for credits
- Teaching Power:
- Written & oral exam