Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Teaching with a vision

 Teaching with a vision

I mentioned in a recent post that I haven’t yet detected any great vision or philosophy behind the medical teaching in Cambridge. Today, I’d like to write about a place where I have actually experienced teaching with a vision: at the university where I did my undergraduate degree.
Ok, admittedly I did not go to a large state-funded university, but the small private University Fresenius (where I did a chemistry degree), but I don’t think it’s necessarily the source of funding that makes a difference here.
In Germany, the name Fresenius (for an article on the Chemist Carl Remigius Fresenius, see here) is associated with excellence in analytical chemistry. One strong point of studying at Fresenius Uni is still a strong background in analytical chemistry to this day. However, being named after the great founder of analytical chemistry does not mean that the university is resting on its laurels. A quick visit of the website reveals that the chemistry course has undergone several transformations since my graduation year, proof of ongoing improvements and adaptations in times of change. Already when I was a student, the curriculum had been refined over the years by constant feedback from industry, ensuring that it was up to date, but also that the graduates would be happily recruited and employed. Furthermore, I found the content of the course very well constructed, both in terms of what was taught and what content was omitted (that's also important!), as well as in terms of organisation. (To be completely honest, I sometimes wished at the time to learn particular topics in a bit more detail, such as quantum chemistry, but that still has not changed even today as a student in Cambridge. So it’s obviously more to do with my personal ideas than anything else). 
It seemed as if someone had sat down initially to really think about what knowledge makes a good chemist and then built up the curriculum from first principle, open to constant improvement. The key 
philosophy seemed to be the communication of what is the most comprehensive "working knowledge" of a chemist, and to really bring across these principles. One way in which this was achieved was the high amount of practical lab teaching, more than 50% of the time if I remember correctly. Apart from the obvious different disciplines of chemistry, the overall masterplan also includes the possibility to integrate minor studies in other subjects such as economics and languages, in order to develop a well rounded set of skills.
I think this overall strategy really brings home the content and still does not prevent anyone from indulging in more detailed studies, now able to fall on the fertile ground of a sound foundation of knowledge.
Germany is different to the UK in that there aren't (m)any elite universities with longstanding traditions (although there is a discussion if this should be changed), and there is a much more common-sense attitude towards the significance of school grades. As one example, there is no restriction on the A-level average of a student wanting to study Chemistry at Fresenius or anywhere else (apart from the fact that they don't fail, of course). However, I am convinced that every student going through the Fresenius system, no matter how academic or not, won't be able to help him/herself but to emerge with a sound knowledge of chemistry in the end. I think this steady output of good graduates is quite an achievement in the light of the generous admission policy and is certainly tribute to the educational philosophy. In Cambridge and Oxford on the other hand, where only the best A-level students of the country are admitted, I don't think it's as surprising that the graduates are excellent, because they were already excellent in the first place. Sometimes I even think they are excellent despite the teaching they have encountered, not because of it.
To sum up, as a result of an overall vision, I think that the people produced at Fresenius enter the professional world with a great foundation and working knowledge of Chemistry, perhaps not excessively familiar with the academic intricacies of the most advanced chemical topics, but well rounded and ready to be placed in any lab and start working. I don’t think this is the result of chance, but of a well thought through approach to produce exactly the type of person needed in the world of chemistry.

I definitely think that every university course on offer in an institution should at least aim to stand out in some way and give their students something special along the way, and Fresenius definitely shows that this can be done, even on a smaller budget and without relying exclusively on the best students in the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment