Physics of Exotic Atoms

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These competencies are explicitly fostered and described in Competence View.
These competencies are fostered in this course but are not explicitly described in Competence View. Please contact the responsible person for further information. Competencies in grey are fostered in this course but are generally not the focus of Competence View, which focusses on cross-disciplinary competencies.

The “Exotic atoms” course works with modern and intriguing research topics and the individual interests of students to overcome the classic problem of applying new knowledge to solve novel problems. Students are given a large amount of freedom to choose which “novel question” they want to work on and present in class. They are even encouraged to change the topic during the semester based on any new learnings they receive from their peers and the faculty. This way, students develop a sense of adaptability, curiosity and creative thinking.

Bridge the gap between standard class exercises and scientific research

Students often show deficits transferring their knowledge to novel problems with undefined solutions. They are accustomed to standard class exercises and lab courses where the procedure and outcome is known. In scientific research, outcomes are often unexpected or exotic, and students will quickly find the standard textbook approach is not suitable for a real-world experiment. The aim of the teaching approach presented here is to bridge this gap between standard class exercises and scientific research through self-exploration and presentation of modern research.


Foster curiosity, interaction and critical thinking

The overarching goals of the lecture are fostering curiosity, incentivizing interaction, and forcing critical thinking. To achieve these goals, we will draw on the Flipped Classroom pedagogy. Here, the student will choose a modern research topic related to the course content that is tailored to the student’s interests. Guided by the instructors, the student will develop a “novel” question that they could explore with their research topic.

The topic and exploration are then presented by the student in the exercise class, giving the student the platform to expand their scientific communication and research presentation skills.

Lesson Sequence





With a small non-elective course with less than 20 students, the proposed exercise mode engages the students by letting them choose a topic interesting to them that is related to course content. The formulation of the small project is also done through discussions with instructors such that the approach can be tailored to the student’s needs/abilities/interest. For example, the student can choose to explore their topic through a computational, analytical or conceptual method. With continuous feedback from the teachers and presentation to the other students, a highly interactive environment is created and maintained.

  • The first lecture starts with a quick introduction round. This will assess the background of the different students, and determine if they performed work which is relatable to one of the topics of the course. If so, their previous work could potentially be one of the projects on which they could expand.
  • Every student is required to pick a topic and do a presentation during the semester
    • A presentation date per student is chosen early that also tries to accommodate the student’s requirements
    • Max 2 students per exercise/class lesson are requested to present
    • Some example topics which align with the course content are offered but the students are free to propose their subject
    • Presentation of own previous work is encouraged if it fits to the course.


Presentation topic may be changed

  • The chosen topic may be changed at any time, as it is acknowledged that individual questions/interests by students can evolve during the course when learning the new topics.
  • At least 2 weeks prior to the presentation date, a meeting with the lecturer & exercise class assistant is organized in order to discuss the chosen subject.
  • 1 week before the student presentation, a meeting with the lecturer & exercise class assistant to present a skeleton of the talk and to discuss open questions.
  • After the individual presentations a question round is held.
  • Starting with self-critical feedback, the whole class is asked to give oral feedback
  • Slides/work is made available for review on moodle



Being able to react to novel questions

In the first 5 minutes of the oral exam, the students have to hold a presentation on a topic of their choice that was covered in the course.

The examiner then uses this topic as a starting point for subsequent questions.  The discussion can, however, explore many different avenues and the students get the chance to demonstrate their adaptability, flexibility and creative thinking.

Students are graded on the way in which they react to open and novel questions, in addition to their subject knowledge.


Benefits & lessons learned

• The high level of interaction with the individual meetings with the students leads to a strongly increased engagement of the students in the lecture.
• The open appreciation/evaluation of the work done towards the presentation, results in a visible boost of confidence towards the lecture topics
• Students who came later to do a semester project/thesis in the group had comparably better skills in reflecting and presenting their work
• It takes extra amount of time especially from the teachers, however this is very rewarding and thus worthy!





Results & Testimontials from anonymous lecture evaluation

What would you keep or change?

What I would keep unchanged: – The passion with which the lecturers present the topics – The interest for each individual student and the care when answering each question – The presentation + feedback sessions (interesting topics and valuable advice!)
Keep: – lecture content: the topics covered are all very interesting and the order of the topics is pedagogical meaningful – exercise hour used to have student presentation – relaxed, familiar atmosphere encourages to ask questions.

Future plans

• Written feedback combined with oral – Students are often too shy to give proper critical feedback
• Teach also on ‘how to give’ and ‘how to receive’ feedback
• Develop a catalog of good vs bad presentation habits together with the students in the early lectures

Course Description

Physics of Exotic Atoms
This course reviews the status of physics with exotic atoms including the new exciting advances such as anti-hydrogen 1S-2S spectroscopy and measurements of the hyperfine splitting and the puzzling results of the muonic-hydrogen experiment for the determination of the proton charge radius. Both theoretical and experimental aspects are covered. The focus is set on the systems which are currently a subject of research in Switzerland: positronium at ETHZ, anti-hydrogen at CERN and muonium, muonic-H and muonic-He at PSI.
Having learned the theory of exotic atoms and reviewing the critical design elements of the experiments used in those studies the students are able to students to follow recent advances in this field. Under this prospect they learn to review publications and to present their ideas and interpretations accordingly.
Lecture & Exercise
D-PHYS, Interdisciplinary Science, D-CHAB
Teaching Power:
Oral exam