“Tackling Environmental Problems” course wins KITE Award 2020

A team led by Christian Pohl received the KITE Award 2020 for the course “Tackling Environmental Problems”. The course allows Bachelor’s students at the Department of Environmental Systems Science to begin acquiring skills to deal with complex sustainability issues in their first year of studies.
Winning team: Pius Krütli, Marlene Mader, Bin Bin Pearce, Urs Brändle and Christian Pohl with President of the ETH Board Michael Hengartner, KdL President Ulrike Lohmann and ETH Rector Sarah Springman (fltr). (Photo: Oliver Bartenschlager/ETH Zurich)

Is good teaching more akin to top-tier or grassroots sports? President of the ETH Board Michael Hengartner discussed this question in his keynote address at the KITE Award 2020 ceremony last night. “As one of the world’s leading universities, it is ETH Zurich’s duty to achieve excellence in all areas – in research, in knowledge transfer, and in teaching,” he said in his introduction. He added that the KITE Award is an important symbol to recognise high-quality teaching and is much like a trophy in the world of top-tier sports. An award like this also encourages other teachers to serve as role models for students and to spark broad interest, to inspire people and make them eager to engage with particular topics. His conclusion: good teaching is akin to both top-tier and to grassroots sports – the perfect analogy to describe the mission of the Lecturers’ Conference (KdL), which presented the KITE Award for the third time.

In her own opening speech, KdL President Ulrike Lohmann, who hosted the event, also highlighted how important it is for all teaching staff to be engaged. She was full of praise for the even greater level of dedication shown this year for the switch to online teaching formats during the lockdown. The crisis was a true show of everyone’s incredible commitment. Due to the coronavirus situation, the award ceremony was held under special circumstances this time: the event, with only a few guests on site, was streamed live for the first time from the Audi Max.

«The team has developed a stimulating course over the years.»      Nicolas Gruber, President of the KITE Award jury about the winning team

In total, 34 teaching concepts were submitted; four were shortlisted. Nicolas Gruber, President of the KITE Award jury, emphasised what “a challenging task” it was. What impressed him most of all was the diversity of the projects, which would address all teaching levels from undergraduates to doctoral students. Some required highly complex technologies, while others focused on organisational matters and approaches.

The KITE Award 2020 was presented to the team led by Christian Pohl, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Systems Science(D-USYS), for the course “Tackling Environmental Problems”. The jury was impressed by the highly innovative concept, which also offered an effective breadth of content. “The team has developed a stimulating course over the years,” says Gruber.

The course combines system and design thinking, enabling students not only to comprehend complex environmental problems but also to develop concrete methods in a team. This offers Bachelor’s students in the environmental sciences a hands-on opportunity, even during their first year of studies, to work on solutions to sustainability issues.

“We offer students a positive learning environment where they have the time and space to share ideas,” said Pohl’s team colleague Bin Bin Pearce, explaining the approach. In addition to learning specialised skills, students most importantly discover that failure is part of the learning and research process.

The KITE Award was presented by ETH Rector Sarah Springman, who highlighted how excited she was to see the excellence and motivation exhibited by all four finalists. Thus, not only the winning team but also the other finalists received an exclusive construction kit of the ETH main building. These were presented by Lukas Fässler, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and winner of the KITE Award 2018. As in the past, the winners from last time were asked to come up with a surprise for the award ceremony. “We set ourselves the challenge of using as few components as possible,” said Fässler, explaining what made the creation unique.


Understanding complex environmental systems

Christian Pohl, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Systems Science, together with Bin Bin Pearce, Marlene Mader, Urs Brändle and Pius Krütli, introduces students to a complex sustainability issue in Switzerland in the “Tackling Environmental Problems” course. During the first semester, they learn approaches; the objective during the second semester is then to develop real solutions through interaction with local stakeholders.


Discovering principles on their own

Juraj Hromkovič, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, together with Hans-Joachim Böckenhauer and Dennis Komm, reworked the concept for the introductory lecture “Fundamentals of theoretical computer science”. In the process, they used critical thinking to introduce students to complex mathematical concepts, enabling the students to comprehend the processes and find the solutions on their own by testing their own ideas and trial-and-error.

Developing biocompatible materials

The course “Practical Methods in Biofabrication” requires being proactive. Marcy Zenobi-Wong, who is a professor specialising in tissue engineering and biofabrication and Head of the Institute for Biomechanics, along with her colleagues Karin Würtz and Simone Schürle, begins by teaching students the fundamentals for fabricating tissue and grafts. In the second phase, the students develop a biomedical product on their own. Here, the journey is the destination, and dealing with failure is a core element in the course. In addition to technical expertise, the course focuses on problem-solving skills.

Improving mathematical skills

The online bridge course in mathematics offers Bachelor’s students an opportunity to test out their current knowledge and fill any gaps on their own. To ensure that students are prepared for the examination at the end of their first year of studies, Norbert Hungerbühler, a professor of mathematics, along with Alexander Caspar, Meike Akveld and Heinz Rasched, developed interactive exercises that students can complete from anywhere, at their own pace and in their own time.