GPP14: Day 2 – UZH, ETHZ, and the Swiss Education System

It seemed like a very long day, but yet it was over before we know it. Day 2 of GPP14 had a super packed itinerary, as we visited both University of Zurich (UZH) as well as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ). An interesting thing about these two vastly different higher educational institute is that they are literally across the street from each other in Zurich. In fact, when ETHZ was first founded, it shared facility with UZH. Of the two universities, UZH is the larger (the largest in Switzerland, in fact), more comprehensive university, while ETHZ is the prestigious technical school that is world renown in their engineering and natural science programs.

One of the main discussion topic we focused on during our visit to both institution was on the uniqueness of the Swiss educational system. One of the major differences between the Swiss educational system and the ones in other countries is the importance and respect they put in a vocational (or applied/professional) education route. In this route – which is actually what most Swiss youths would choose over what we would consider an academic university route – place a great emphasis on practical training and apprenticeship. After lower secondary education (similar to US junior high), if the student chooses the vocational route, they would enter an apprenticeship in an occupation of their choosing. Methods to determine admission to the apprenticeship varies from canton to canton, but usually some kind of entrance examination is involved. During the apprenticeship, the student would work for a few days out of a week, then go to school for a couple of days. This so-called dual system of vocational education enabled very hands on practical training. The closest approximation we have in the US is perhaps a co-op, but that really only exist in a higher education context.

I am curious on the historical context of such an apprenticeship educational model. The theory on how it works seems sound, and obviously it must work well since it’s been the norm in Switzerland for so many years. Is the development of such a system mostly cultural? I’m trying to imagine if the apprenticeship model would work in the US at all. We’ve had discussion both in the PFP and GEDI class about whether a college education is necessary for all youth to have a successful career. The perception, at least in my experience in the US, seems to overwhelmingly favor college education for career development. Whereas in Switzerland, only a small percentage of their youths would go to what we would consider a traditional college career. Making college education more accessible certainly does have its advantage, but does it also carries the risk of diluting the uniqueness of that experience and opportunity? On the other hand, one can also argue limiting college education to the elite is, well, elitist.

Moving forward to day 3, we will head on over to Strasbourg, France, and visit the University of Strasbourg. These are all questions and thought we need to keep in our minds.

GPP2014: Day 1 – Of course, after that came dessert.

Here we are. After a whole semester of preparing and building up, the 2014 Global Perspective Program (GPP2014) cohort has arrived at our first destination: Zurich, Switzerland. Thus begin our wonderful journey to explore higher education in a global context. Our cohort had already made some interesting initial observation about Zurich, Switzerland, and perhaps Europe. The prevalence and convenience of public transport is definitely one of the first thing we noticed. Some of us also observed that the city seems to be quieter in comparison to other US cities of similar scale. Most of us were shell shocked at how expensive everything was; a regular beer at a bar can cost 10 CHF (about 11 USD)! Combined that with a decent dinner, a couple bar hop with a beer or two at each location, let’s just say that our initial estimate of the amount of cash we would need was grossly inaccurate.

Some cultural differences are immediately obvious, while others can be quite subtle. We’ve already began to continue our discussion about the in-and-outs of Swiss higher education. We’ve noted that Swiss universities obtain most funding from the government (be it federal or cantonal), with maybe a small portion from other external sources. This is exactly the opposite situation in USA. Having a steady supply of funding from a reliable source enables Swiss universities a very different paradigm in how they conduct research work. For example, research activity might be much less publication driven. This may lead to a vastly different graduate education experience. As our fellow GPP member Katy noted, the workload of a Swiss doctoral student can be less demanding when comparing to some US doctoral students, where they might be expected by their advisors to produced 4 to 5 refereed publication by the end of their graduate education career.

We end the night with some casual conversations and amazing food and drinks. Not contended to just have fondue or raclette, WE HAD BOTH. The amount of cheese I consumed is probably not healthy to even THINK about, but it brought me great joy, so I have to believe it was all worth it? IT WAS ALL WORTH IT. Of course, after that came dessert. Glorious dessert.

Tomorrow we will explore and learn about University of Zurich as well as ETH Zurich. Two vastly different institution but in very close proximity. Both, incidentally claim Einstein as their own.


Boycotts and Publishing

So people who knows me understand that I’m generally against boycotts. Recently a Nobel laureate announced that he will no longer published in ultra-high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and Cell. His argument is that these journals have inflated scientific perceived-values that are abused. It’s really the same arguments we’ve been having regarding scientific publishing for the past 20+ years.

There are some truth to his points, but the main thing about this that is completely bogus, as pointed out by Ars Technica, is this: It is 100% hypocritical. Publishing in Nature/Science/Cell is probably a huge part of what got him the Nobel Prize to begin with. This is like, after winning the Olympics, you say, “Hey yall, the Olympics is totally bogus. Yeah it worked for me, but… you all really just shouldn’t do it because of reasons.”

I think scientific publishing is definitely a little broken with too much power in for-profit publishing houses such as Elsevier, and that the way we measure impact is probably not much more accurate or meaningful than the Nielson Ratings for TV programs. But high impact journals such as Nature and Science are prestigious not solely because of sinister reasons. They really just have a much higher publishing standard, plain and simple. It’s easy to paint with a broad brush and say: “Oh Science/Nature is bogus; remember that one time they published papers from that plastic fantastic guy? What a joke.” But the logical fallacy there is that it’s not as if lower-impact journal doesn’t publish crap, like, all the time.

So, long story short: Scientific publishing has a long way to go to fix some of its broken-ness; boycotting is probably not the answer; biting the hand that feeds you is tacky.

What does being a faculty member in higher education mean to me?

Being a faculty in the twenty-first century is much more than just being a teaching. I believe a successful and responsible professor must work hard and aim to excel in three areas: to educate the future members of our society; to further knowledge through scholarly research, and to provide service to the community that we are involved in. Above all else, as a faculty member I must do all these things with integrity, with ethical values, and treating with respect everyone I interact with.

Educating learners is a tremendously dynamic and complex task. Students differ greatly from one another and their learning styles are diverse. As a faculty member I must remember that students don’t all learn the same way I do. Although it is impossible to accommodate to learning styles, as a teacher I must constantly be aware of my students’ learning needs and be ready to adapt. I also believe that the ultimate achievement in teaching is the ability to inspire passion for knowledge in my students. When a student finds his or her own motivation and incentive to learn education will be the most effective.

It is the responsibility of a faculty member to investigate the unknown. I have always hunger for knowledge, and my curiosity to science fueled my passion for research work. I also believe that as a faculty member I must be able to recognize holes in the current state of knowledge, just that the results of my research can be utilized by others to benefit our world. A faculty member, I believe, must also be able to articulate his or her research findings in peer-reviewed journals such that knowledge may be disseminated. Research is also a means to educate. As a faculty member one of my chief responsibilities is to be a good mentor to my graduate students, such that they can perform quality research work, as well as preparing them for their professional future.

I also believe that a faculty member should involve himself or herself in the community. I have served in an administrative role in university governing commissions as a graduate student representative and have found those experiences greatly valuable. As a faculty member it will be very important to be aware and attentive, as well as voice opinions to the need of the faculty community to the university administration. I also enjoy greatly the experience of applying my knowledge to service programs in various student organizations I was involved in (American Water Works Association; Environmental Water Resource Institute etc.), which I feel that as a faculty member I must continue to be active in these organizations, and moreover, encourage student participation in these organizations. I believe that as a faculty member I have the responsibility to communicate to the general public in the importance of scientific findings, which is another form of education as well.

I believe being a faculty is a learning experience. The standard is set very high and it is not realistic to believe I will be able to achieve all I have mentioned thus far. However, the experience is tremendously rewarding. I will use those experiences to improve myself as a faculty member, such that my work may benefit others.

Dear China

Did you know that China, a country that spends east and west a far as the United State does, has only one time zone? A friend of mine asked once how that were possible. My answer was simple: You can do whatever you want when you are a totalitarian state.

The Chronicle reported the a professor at Peking University – which is very prestigious, kind of like being a professor at Harvard in China – was fired under dubious condition. Professor Xia had numerous American collaborator who were all supportive, but that was not enough to save his job. In the report by the Chronicle, several interviewed academics expressed that academic freedom standards should not varied (some even say IS not varied) by nation. However, other faculty disagree, and maintained that it is clear the the practice of such freedoms vary across nations. For example, certain topics  that maybe common place to discuss in a academic context might be completely taboo in another culture, and this can have an impact to academic freedom practices.

Some researcher in the Chronicle noted that it is nigh impossible to operate with the same standard of academic freedom authoritarian regimes such as China. They argue that in such a situation, one would have to either compromise his or her own integrity, or be forced to walk away. There is probably much truth in that. Until China either cease to be an totalitarian state, or that those who are in power make it a priority to conform to a higher academic freedom standard, there are probably very little guarantee that one would not find themselves in a catch-22 situation.

Lectures and technologies

Lectures without any visual aids are difficult to follow. Different teachers have a different preference of what this visual aid might be. Some prefer the old school way about it with chalk and blackboard. While I was in high school, as well as some time in college certain teachers prefer to teach from transparencies. In one of my current class the professor is fond of using the document scanner. In a lot of my other classes though, the teachers like to use computer presentation software such as Microsoft Powerpoint or Apple Keynote. I must say that although I do not dispute these software’s effectiveness in aiding a presentation, I find them not very not very good well used in a class setting, at least for me. Often times professor will make slides that are very wordy, or that they simply read word for word from the slide. Other times professors may go through the slides too fast for me to take my notes on. I also find that the fact the my “notes” were already given to me as a set of slide print outs makes it harder for me to focus. Perhaps I am just too conditioned to the old ways of board and chalk; that’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I respond the best to.


My relationship with lectures is conflicted. On one hand, when given by a teacher that is not particularly good at it nor charismatic enough to compensate, lectures can be painfully dull. Yet on the other hand, when given by a teacher who knows how to effectively deliver a lecture and- dare I say it? – be entertaining at the mean time, it is the preferred method for me to learn. Lecture seems to be the most straightforward method to teach. Nothing is simpler or more direct then to convey knowledge in speech and writings. However, often times the simpler the method the more expose it is for the presenter. I respond pretty well to lecture and that particular style of teaching, and often dislike when professors try to “engage” us with more “creative” ways of teaching such as group activities and discussions. I once discussed this with my adviser and while he agrees with me that he often dislike those teaching methods as well while he was a student. However, he made a good point when he explained that grad students and professors are weird people we can actually respond (or learn to respond) well to lectures. To many other students lectures may not be the best method to education. But if lectures are not the answer, what is?


This is a problem near and dear to my heart. New technology in education. I’m quite conflicted about this, as while in everyday life I’m all about new technology and gadget, when I’m teaching I like to go old school, with blackboards or document projectors. Perhaps I’ll discuss my preference in teaching technology in later posts.

The Chronicle reports that online classes and the exponential growth rate of the prevalence of mobile devices placed a burden on faculty to integrate new technology into their teaching style. The trouble is that a good amount of these faculty members maybe not be very technology-prone, and also on the other hand, some doubts has been cast on the true effectiveness of these technology in teaching.

With the increased popularity of MOOCs such as Khan Academy and others, many faculty are finding them playing catch up with new technology that are being rapidly released. Some of these include class room technology that would work on smart phones and other new platforms. Some may argue the necessity of adapting to these new technology in an education context. However, I think it is inevitable, and maybe essential. We as educators can’t always be playing catch up. We need to move to the times, or even be ahead of the times. Utilizing new technology to better educate students should be an advantage, not a burden.

catching up

Well that was just great. The shutdown, I mean. Now that it’s over, we can all take a deep breath until it all happens again in February. I have numerous friends who work at the federal government and they were impacted the most. They were furloughed, were not paid during that time, and also had no idea when they can resume with their lives. It is fortunate that the shutdown did not occur longer than it did, but we can argue that never really needed to happen. Anyway, that political charged discussion is for another time and another place.

For people at high education, the level of impact we felt varies. For example, my stipend and research spending are from a Federal source, so the impact on me was minimal. However, as the Chronicle reports, for those who may rely on federal facilities to do their research, they are out of luck. Some researchers projects are biologically time-sensitive, and certain projects can be ruined due to not being able to continued with experiments because of the shutdown.

At federal funding agencies, the grant applications backlog are also problematic. Most of these agencies are already behind on their deadlines because of the shutdown, and the backlog that are now coming their way is only creating more chaos toward spring 2014.

We are all glad that it’s over, but we all wish it never happened.

Such diversity

Here’s an interesting one. We all joke about how it is essentially futile to ask someone what they are going to do after they get their PhD. The choices are just so diverse these days, and with very few exceptions, most of my colleagues who are getting their PhD change their mind about their career plan every few days, some even saying they can’t decide.

Well, here’s six very different outcome as reported by the Chronicle. We have Lloyd Klein, who wanted a tenure-track academic position, but either wasn’t able to get one or wasn’t tenured. Judith Lilleston never really wanted a tenure-track position, but somehow ended up with a high level administrative position at a university. In fact, David Sehr became a high school teacher, and still is one today. Patricia D’andrade didn’t get a Phd until much later in her life, and was pretty much an adjunct through the rest of her career until she retired. Only John Mason and Kathleen Smith were in the 「traditional」 academic, tenure-track position. Smith even was promoted to a Dean later in her career.

The diversity of career path for PhD grads seems to be much more diverse than I originally though, and that’s just within academia! The data is limited, as the Chronicle reported only sociology PhDs from CUNY. However, it is interesting such diversity exists even within such a minority group.