Day 21- June 5th

We enjoyed being with the Basel folks again today. After breakfast we met in our groups and continued our discussion. We broke for a coffee break a couple hours in and the met briefly as a whole group to learn the details about our visit to the Swiss Embassy in a couple of weeks.  We met back in our group hashing out a skeleton of our presentation that we will continue to refine via Google Docs prior to our meeting in Blacksburg in a couple of weeks.

The Villa treated us again to a fabulous three-course lunch with asparagus salad, pasta, and fruit-compote with ice cream.  I can’t say enough about the cooks and the Villa.  We said our goodbyes to the Basel group as they headed back home and gathered our notes and thoughts together before our research topic meeting.

Each of us had picked a topic that directed our thoughts and questions as we visited different universities. Mine was about rewarding excellence in teaching. We gathered as a group and each of us had 15 minutes to present what we learned on our topic and have others give us feedback or add to the conversation on the topic.  Although it took several hours, it was really fun to hear each of us share what we had learned.

We had planned on a closing reception together in the garden, but because of rain we met in the library room. It was bittersweet to reflect on our time together and for me especially. I was struck by the fact that after leaving this group I will no longer be a graduate student. It has served as my identity these last 5 years and I will be leaving that title with this trip. I walk into the unknown now. It has been an incredible journey where I have made life-long friends. It hasn’t been easy, but overall being a graduate student has been incredibly rewarding.  We had another incredible dinner in the Villa and then it was time to celebrate our last night together. We headed to the local spot where on Wednesday nights they do karaoke. We had a blast singing, dancing and enjoying being together.

Day 20- June 4th

The students from the University of Basel arrived today so our morning started out with some free time to get ready for their arrival. We also will be presenting to our own group tomorrow about our research topics so the free time this morning was a blessing to get organized. It also gave me a chance to go for a nice long run along the lake. The beauty here is amazing and I have enjoyed getting a chance to take it in today. We met as a group for lunch and a meeting afterwards where we got to give Dean DePauw feedback on the trip.  The Basel folks arriving at 2:30PM. We moved upstairs for a presentation by Dean DePauw getting us thinking about university and society. This is our topic for our presentation together at the Swiss Embassy.

After a coffee break in the garden we broke into three groups: university, society, and student. I was in the university group and therefore we talked about the role of the university and how that fits into society.  We had really stimulating conversations as it is not very often you bring a group of bright minds together to talk about deep topics.  After great conversation we moved into the Villa for a signing ceremony between the two groups about our collaboration.  Then back into the garden for a wine and appetizer reception where we got to visit more with the Basel students.

Dinner deserves its own paragraph. We had dinner in the Villa and it was over the top.  The starter was squid ink risotto with squid.  Then we moved into the main course of sliced lamb with bacon wrapped potatoes and veggies.  Dessert was mint ice cream.  The Villa out did themselves. I called it a night after that relishing some quiet time although many of the Basal and VT students headed to the local spot for some more socializing.

Day 19- June 3rd

This is our last day to visit universities.  We headed out after breakfast on the train outside of Lugano.  It was a 20 minute walk or so and we arrived at Scuola Universitaria Professionale della Svizzera Italiana or better known as Supsi.  Supsi is an applied science university and all programs are geared towrds the needs of industry.  They focus on the requirements of professional life.  They offer bachelors and masters degrees and have full-time and part-time programs.  It is a lot smaller of a school than the other universities that we have visited with 3951 students.  They graduated 185 masters students in 2012.  They have a low student to teacher ratio with a maximum of 25-30 students in the labs.  There were a couple powerpoint presentations on their research including the Eyesens project, single-cell bioanalyzer, and tlectrochemical DNA sensor array.  The Eyesens project is an implantable system to monitor intraocular pressure for those people who have glaucoma that allows doctors to monitor the pressure reducing vision loss.  The single cell bioanalyzer can measure cell respiration, RT-PCR, and cell impedence.  The electrochemical DNA sensor measures single-strand DNA in blood samples to detect viruses.  A lot of really cool innovative things.

We next visited three labs.  The first was a voice-activated computers to control electronics in an apartment for visually-impaired people.  We then visited a lab that had a table-top touch screen computer fore manufacturing plant design.  Lastly we visited a lab that created polymers for solar panels and used a 3-D printer for making parts.  We had lunch there on campus and a couple of the professors joined us.  I got to ask them about teaching and found out that they do not do a reward system for teaching excellence.  If a professor receives low marks on their evaluations, they have to provide written justification for why the evals were so bad.

After lunch we took two buses into Lugano and visited Universita della Svizzera Italiana or USI.  We were very blessed to have the president speak to us and answer all our questions.  Some of the things we learned were that USI has a high percentage of internatiobnal students with 26%.  They also only have 4 departments: architecture, economics, communication and informatics.  They currently have 2919 students and they want to grow to 3500-4000 students and then cap it at that.  They do offer PhDs and currently they have 292 PhD students.  Once a year they have a community cultural event where they have university awards.  They give one award each year to the best teacher and each year it rotates as to which department the teacher is nominated from.  The award is nominated by the student and the teacher is awarded a 10,000CF cash prize sponsored a swiss bank.  I also learned that they hire many assistant professors where they have a 6 year max. to reach tenure.  They are reviewed at 3 years and tenure is based on publications, grants and teaching.  This system is very similar to what we have in the US.  After the president spoke, a graudate student shared a little bit about her reserach in computer modeling.  Then a recent graduate that has a dual-degree at USI and VT spoke about her personal experience at USI and a bit about her time in Blacksburg.  Both girls were very down to earth and easy to relate to.  Another student gave us a tour of the campus, which was made up of about 5 buildings.  They did offer some student housing, which is a rarity.  After that they treated us to coffee and ice cream in their cafeteria.

We then walked into downtown Lugano for some shopping.  I headed back to Riva for some quiet time before dinner.  As per usual, dinner in the Villa was excellent and the weather has been fabulous the last couple of days.  After dinner we met in the garden for some more debriefing about our visits.  Visiting Supsi and USI were my favorite university visits because of what we saw and because we got to know the people we visited a little bit better.  It was a great day.

Day 18- June 2nd

It is Sunday and we have experienced more of a rest day today.  We have been experiencing and seeing amazing things and it was good to decompress today.  I went for a long run along the lake this morning and the weather has been beautiful the last couple of days.  At 11, we met together as a group and started debriefing the last week.  We then had some more free time in the afternoon to get started on our research projects and get ready for the students from University of Basel to arrive.  We met again at 4PM for more debriefing and a briefing on our dinner that night.

The Villa is owned by the Olivio Ferrari Foundation.  Olivio and Lucy Ferrari were faculty members in the school of Architecture, although originally from Switzerland.  They found value in sharing the Swiss culture with Americans and wanted to provide and opportunity for this.  Returning from a trip they drove through Riva San Vitale and saw the villa in much disrepair.  They went to the town records and found out it was for sale.  They founded the foundation and were able to purchase it and renovate it and it is the home of Virginia Tech’s CESA- Center for European Studies and Architecture.  Olivio passed away in the mid-1990s after the Villa opened in 1994.  Lucy however is thriving and we had the opportunity to have dinner with her.  A minibus drove us up the mountain and we picked Lucy up on the way.  When we got to the top you could see everything.  It was an incredible view.  The restaurant was Ristorante San Grato.  The staff was lovely and we had another three-course dinner with Limoncello to finish off the meal.  Lucy shared with us some of the things that she loves about Switzerland like on the money, there is a brail marking so that visually-impaired people can tell how much money the paper bill is.  She talked about the Villa and the history.  It was lovely to spend the evening with her.  Virginia Tech is in her debt for the wonderful Villa she established and provides for us to use.

Day 17- June 1st

It is Saturday, which means that there are no universities to visit.  It also presents us with the opportunity to see the area and immerse ourselves in the culture.  We took the train to Bellinzona, a bit north of Lugano.  They had an amazing market in the streets that we walked through and a couple people bought scarves and souvenirs.  After perusing the market, several of us hiked to a nearby castle for some amazing views.  It was wonderful to sit in the grass and take in the scenery, especially with the pace that we have been keeping.  David was the only one that ventured on to another castle and had to make it a very quick trip.  We then walked back down into the city center of Bellinzona and back up the other side to the third castle, Castelgrande.  There we had lunch at Grotto Castelgrande with the view of the other two castles as well as the entire valley and the Alps.  It was amazing.  We had a 4 course lunch that lasted 3 hours.  As Kelsey said, “this was a Top 10.”

We then took the train to Lugano and had some free time to shop and walk around.  A group of 5 rented a speedboat on the lake, and Cat and Kenneth rented paddle boats.  After a couple of hours we headed back to Riva for dinner at the Villa.  After dinner we had a wine tasting held by Daniela.  As I have mentioned earlier, Daniela has her own vineyard and is extremely knowledgeable.  The wines were all from this area including a white merlot.  We tasted 6 wines over two hours, which should indicate the care and knowledge that Daniela shared with us about each wine.  She even washed our glasses specially to remove any resin.  I learned more about wine that night than any other wine tasting I have ever been on.  It was quite an experience.

On Struggling Students

While I have been amazed with some of my students’ work, occasionally I have a student who is completely unmotivated or does not apply him/herself to learn or even pass. From my discussions with other educators in the US system, this experience seems to be shared by most, regardless of institution.

However, one of our first impressions with Swiss university students was that they demonstrated a business-like approach to their studies. Before integration of the Bologna Process objectives, many schools delivered lessons in the “sage on the stage” format where an expert simply lectured and students were expected to self-regulate their studies so they could pass a final exam. While this approach doesn’t benefit from the advantages of learner-centered design, it places a clear responsibility on students to take their studies seriously because there would be no “hand-holding” to help them pass their exams.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns about encouraging similar personal responsibility in a learn-centered design. I also recently finished reading Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment which challenges my perspective on instructors’ responses to students who are not meeting expectations. He discusses (and gives examples) of students who are often labelled as “at-risk,” “underachiever,” “dropout-prone,” “remedial,” or similarly described. However, Kohl advocates cases where an instructor can practice creative maladjustment by strategically breaking school rules and challenging status quo to enable these individuals to engage in something that really motivates them, even at the sake of neglecting standard curriculum.

With this in mind, I think a lot of discussion needs to take place in regard to the responsibility of both instructors and students with particular attention to struggling students. As instructors, should it be our responsibility to find a way to engage even students who would not even show effort or desire to pass our classes? What becomes of these students and what is the eventual impact on society? We got some notion that while these types of students are more rare in Swiss universities, they may be more common in the universities of applied sciences.

Where should the line be drawn where instructors’ duties to encourage and enable students end and students’ personal responsibility to fit within the guidelines and expectations of the instructors begin?

Day 16- May 31st

We got up really early today and were out the door by 7:15AM because we headed to Milan, Italy.  Believe it or not, it is only a little bit over an hour to Milan from Riva.  Many people slept on the train and it was a quiet ride into the city.  When we arrived we took the subway to Politecnico di Milano or also known as Poli Mi.  We were given a presentation about the University and then the floor was open to questions.  Poli Mi is the leading university in architecture, design and engineering.  It was established in 1863, so they are celebrating their 150th anniversary and it was denoted as 150 with a degrees symbol.  Although, PhD programs did not begin until 1985.  Unlike any other university we have visited, Poli Mi has a graduate school which oversees graduate studies and this was started in 2001.  To attend Poli Mi, students must pass an entrance exam.  If you don’t pass, you can still take classes, but you are not allowed to take exams and pass the classes until you pass then entrance exam.

Of course I asked about teaching and it was very similar to what I heard in Strasbourg.  There is no reward system for excellence in teaching, although there has been some talk about it.  They do have course evaluations by students and if the evals are poor the Dean will talk with the professor.  Because of Poli Mi’s relationships with industry, if a professor has poor evals, the University can block a collaboration that the professor is applying for.  So the professor would not be able to spend time doing certain activities that they might want to do.

After our question and answer session we took a tour of the campus and saw many of the buildings that were uniquely architecturally designed. There was a building that they called the submarine because it had a ship-like windows, one that they called the glove that was like a glove had wrapped around it, and one called the ship that was narrow in the front and the back.  Interestingly, they had some student housing which is pretty uncommon in European universities.

We headed back to where we started and had an Italian lunch of Focaccia bread and pizza-roll sandwiches.  It was very good.  I love the Swiss food, but a nice Italian lunch was wonderful.  We ate our lunch with some current graduate students at Poli Mi and were able to ask questions about what it was like to be a graduate student in Italy.  I found out at this time a little bit more about the Italian system.  All jobs at the University from full professor to administrative staff are all appointed federally.  The government decides how many full professors are needed at a specific university and then the amount of assistant professors and administrative staff are a percentage of that.  So you can compete for an assistant professor position, but there is no guarantee that you would make it to full professor at that university.  The government would have to post that position and then you would have to compete with other outside candidates.  So although full professors are “tenured,” this does not mean that an assistant professor is on a tenure-track to full professor at one university.  I also found out that they have had a hiring freeze for the last 5 years for all positions at all universities and that this is projected to remain until 2015, regardless of retirements.

We left Poli Mi and took the subway to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church that has the “Last Supper” painted by Leonardo DiVinci.  It was quite an honor to see since tickets are always sold out.  Our GPP warrior Justin ordered them 3 months in advance, the earliest you can order them.  You have a specific viewing time and enter and exit through airlocks.  When inside, you have a 15 minute viewing time.  The painting is painted on one end of a wall.  It was originally painted over a door and a very long time ago someone enlarged the door, thereby removing the painting of Jesus’ feet.  The church was used by Napoleon as a horse stable and it was bombed in WWII.  With that said, the painting is not in great shape, but it still the amazing painting that you see in pictures.  The intricate details that Leonardo was able to paint on plaster is remarkable.

After the Last Supper we headed to Duomo di Milano.  It was HUGE and quite impressive.  Two things stuck out to me.  One, it was very dark inside.  I think this had to do with its age and size.  The lights that had been installed are minimal and on rods- obviously there was no electricity when it was built.  Also, the stained glass windows were dark because of age.  The second thing that stuck out was in the main part of the church (not in a crypt) on a side wall were the bodies of two deceased Milano cardinals.  Their faces and bodies were covered except for their hands.  Not a usual sight for a church.

Eight of us stayed in Milano and had dinner there before heading back to Riva.  We found a restaurant near the Duomo di Mialno where they were serving happy hour.  If you purchased drinks, they had a spread of heavy hors d’ourves for free.  We shared two bottles of wine and made dinner out of the snacks.  We then piled in the full train back to Riva as people were commuting home.  Another packed full day.

Day 15- May 30th

We spent some time this morning briefing about our trip thus far over breakfast at the hotel in Basel.  It is always amazing to hear the different pieces that stick out to each of us.  We then packed up and took the bus back to the train station and took the train to Riva San Vitale, with only one train change.  The train ride was 4 hours and many of us slept and read.  Towards the end, a group of us entertained each other with trying to sing lyrics to songs listed on the Top 100 Requested Karaoke Songs.  We had a great time.

Daniela (the director of the CESA-Center for European Studies and Architecture- and the Villa Maderni, which used by Virginia Tech to house study abroad students year round) met us at the train station to get our bags and we made the 5-10 minute walk to the Villa.  We had a walking tour of Riva, where we stopped for gelato of course and then dinner at the Villa.  Before dinner we had some free time and it was enough time to go for a run.  Sheldon and I ran about 3 miles and enjoyed getting to know the area. For meals, they have a chef and sous chef that make wonderful spreads.  After dinner we met together outside in the garden and Daniela gave us a briefing on the history of the Villa.  But do to the dropping temperature, we moved into the fire place room for a briefing on Politecnico di Milano by Sheldon and Sreyoshi.  After dinner we sampled grappa that was made from the grapes grown at the villa.  By the way, Daniela also has a vineyard at her house that she tends to.  She is pretty impressive.

Day 14- May 29th

We went to France today.  We left in the morning by train to Strasbourg from Basel, Switzerland.  It took a little over an hour to get there.  We first visited the Universite de Strasbourg.  There was an opening presentation on the University.  It is by far the largest university we will visit with 42,000 students.  They have 10 PhD programs with  2,500 students.  They have 79 “research units” with three main areas: humanities; science and technology; and life and health studies.  Next we had a presentation by the Vice President of Sciences and Society.  His job is to promote scientific education and culture to the city of Strasbourg; bring science policy closer to citizens; and put responsible science at the heart of policy making.  He oversees two departments to promote this: 1. socio-cultural life on campus- where they run exhibits, concerts, and cultural workshops on the campus; and 2. garden of sciences- where they reach out to high schools, have exhibits for the community, and museums on campus.  They also hold a scientific conference once a week for the community during the academic school year.

Lastly we got to hear from the President.  What an honor at such a large university to hear from Alain Beretz.  Of course I was interested in teaching.  So what I learned was that they have a Center for Pedagogy to train and help faculty in their teaching skills, where they have invested 800,000 Euros/ year.  The faculty members have a 50% teaching and 50% research load.  I also learned that grad students have a set of courses that they must take and there are courses offered in teaching and pedagogy.  After his presentation, we had a lunch of wonderful sandwiches and finger foods.  The president stayed and had lunch with us and answered more questions.  I asked him if there was a reward system for excellence in teaching and there is nothing in place at this time.  I asked him if a professor received poor evaluations, if there would be a consequence and he said that the professor would be spoken to by the Dean and it could be suggested that they may need to consult with the Center for Pedagogy for additional training.  I ascertain that there is a certain expectation and that faculty are asked to rise to the occasion.  He did mention in his presentation that Universite de Strasbourg is part of a “Program of Excellence” that includes 8 universities in France making up a jury representing 80 universities.  Part of this program includes excellence in teaching, although it has not been implemented yet.

In the afternoon we visited a completely different type of school.  It is a Grand Ecole entitled “Ecole Nationale d’Adminstraion” or L’ENA.  It is a post-baccalaureate school to train students to work in the public service sector of France.  From what I could understand, it is very prestigious and the biggest benefit is that after you graduate you are basically guaranteed a job.  In fact if you finish first in your class, you basically have your pick of open jobs.  Two French Presidents have studied at this school, possibly leading to the prestige.  They take in 80 French students each year and 30 foreign students. You can enter the school in one of three ways.  The first is going to a prep-college that prepared you to take the entrance exam- this accounts for 40 students.  The second is by working 8 years in the private sector and then taking and passing the entrance exam- this accounts for 8 students.  The third is for 4 years in the public sector and pass the exam- this accounts for 32 students.  If you did not go to the prep school, you will have to study for a whole year full-time to pass the exam, which consists of topics such as law, economics and general knowledge.  There is a written and oral portion.  If you are a foreign student you must be a civil servant.  This program would be ideal for those you are working in their embassy in France, because you learn all about the French system.

From there, we had dinner at Restaurant Gurtlerhoft.  It was pouring rain and we had walked from L’ENA and briefly toured the beautiful cathedral in Strasbourg.  The restaurant was open just for us in a building where parts dated back to medieval times.  We had flat bread pizzas of all different types and an ice cream cake for dessert.  The food was amazing as it has been each night.  We then took the train back to Basel and crashed for the night.

To Lucy and Olivio Ferrari

It’s not every day you get to meet an individual whose tireless efforts have an indirect impact on your life. I am fortunate enough to have met and shared a meal with such a person, Lucy Ferrari. Without her and her husband’s efforts, the GPP experience would not be comprehensive. Through the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Ferrari, I am able to experience the Swiss atmosphere with true historical preservation and ‘style‘ at the Villa Maderni. It is obvious that they have dedicated their lives to the development of students above and beyond what is traditionally expected of educators. With the limited time we shared with Mrs. Ferrari this evening, it was truly evident that she had a passion for architecture and historical preservation, but this truly was incomparable to the desire to produce great architects and students for society in general. So as I sit in the home dedicated to learning (of all disciplines), founded in the Ferraris‘ dream of learning and student development I say “Mille Grazie” and may your legacy remain forever.