Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Educational Breadth

Posted by Athene Donald on November 14, 2010

I am now off to Paris for a 2 day meeting of the ESPCI International Advisory Committee. ESPCI Paris Tech (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, one of a group of institutions which comprise an overarching but recently constructed entity known as Paris Tech) is one of the so-called Grandes Écoles in Paris, and as such is one of the elite and provides for the ‘elite’ student. The Parisian universities have very complex inter-relationships and funding mechanisms – which involve some direct oversight by the Mayor, though for ESPCI less so than in the past – which, even after 4 years on this committee, remain a mystery to me. I won’t be talking about that aspect here, but I do want to raise the issue of how broad the education is within ESPCI, and how it compares with many courses here.

The first thing to note is that students enter the Grandes Écoles after 2 years of intensive ‘cramming’ post Baccalaureate, courses which particularly cover rigorous mathematical training. They are a highly competitive bunch of students who attend, who see education at one of the Grandes Écoles, probably correctly, as a passport to a future high level job amongst the great and good. Their professional aspirations would include politics and the upper rungs of the civil service but, for ESPCI in particular, also a future in industrial management and research.  The link to industry is highly valued by both the students and the academic staff, and all students will do a substantial placement in some external laboratory, possibly abroad.

That the students can readily do such an international assignment reflects the first aspect of the ESPCI education that I want to stress. The students do a huge amount of mandatory language learning.  They are expected to become fluent in English, with 170 hours of classes during each of the first 3 years (of the 4 year course). For instance, in their second year much of the emphasis is on American movies and media, presumably because all the students are bombarded with these. Doing a third language is no longer mandatory, as I believe it used to be, but is clearly encouraged.  So these science and engineering students have already a significant additional teaching load beyond anything a UK university might expect.

During the first two years the main emphasis is on giving all students a strong base across the sciences, so that they all do the trio of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with specialization only later. This is seen as the necessary groundwork although many of the students would see themselves as future engineers; there is also a strong emphasis on experimental work including workshop design and practice. It is hard to think of comparable courses within the UK.  I think the closest would be the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, where 1st year students choose 3 out of 8 experimental subjects plus maths.

Looking at what is expected of the students at ESPCI, I do wonder if we aim high enough here. Firstly, we assume that it is not necessary for UK students to speak any language other than English. The numbers of UK students doing Erasmus years abroad from any discipline is small (in comparison with the numbers coming here from Europe), the number of scientists in particular is tiny.  Even if we assume that English  – well, OK, American – is the international language of science, there is more to life than the day job.

(As an aside, I have previously pointed out how my own linguistic shortcomings have caught up with me recently , my German O Level being inadequate to enable me to follow talks in German at a recent meeting. My French – despite the attempts of my French teacher and also stopping at O Level – is slightly better, to the extent that when I was involved with the appointment interviews for the ESPCI Director a few years back I could cope. Although I was ‘allowed’ to ask my questions of the candidates in English, I could follow the presentations and submitted material well enough.  This I should stress was all inadvertent: I had only agreed to be involved when invited by the then Director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes because he assured me the whole process would be in English – ‘d’accord’ as he said.)

In the UK, the early specialization at school is reinforced by most degrees.  That is why I find the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge so attractive; I believe Nottingham University has recently created something somewhat similar, also called Natural Sciences. It means that just because you thought Physics, for instance, was what you wanted to do at school you are not stuck if you find University Physics not to your taste or what you expected.  It means that students who had never heard of Materials Science or Earth Sciences before, have the opportunity to sample them in the first year, and thereafter move completely into these fields if it takes their fancy. For students who want to be more broadly interdisciplinary that option is also there. And for those who come up uncertain whether to do physical or biological sciences, there are a wide range of possible combinations during the first year to help them make up their mind while keeping their options pretty open.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate biology when I did the course, as I’ve said before, and didn’t avail myself of the opportunities to study any of the biological options, including the very popular Biology of Cells course. This course would have been ideal for my current interests but held no attractions for my 18 year old self.  ESPCI only introduced biology into their compulsory first year course relatively recently (it is an institution, after all, designed to specialize in Physics and Chemistry, as the English translation of its name – Industrial Physics and Chemistry  Higher Educational Institution – makes clear), and is definitely a minor component, but there is a strong push to give breadth in their education, and recently research in biology has started to be built up at ESPCI too.  Breadth is also demonstrated by the introduction of  some elements of law and management into the curriculum, again as part of the compulsory elements.  There is a very clear ethos that this training is to enable the student to have a well-rounded professional attitude to their anticipated future life in an industrial setting.

There is, I fear, too little of this breadth and well-roundedness in many British science degrees. From what I can judge, engineering degrees – because of the need for professional accreditation – in the UK are more likely to contain some of the more managerial and legal aspects than pure science degrees. It is of course possible that a knock-on effect of the Browne review will be to encourage departments to introduce more of this. For instance, as David Docherty of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CHIE) has written,  after Browne the question is

“How do businesses and universities partner more inventively in the interests of the country and develop high-quality graduates who have learned how to innovate?”

This statement resonates with the impact agenda, which is finding currency at all political levels with regard to the research portfolio. So such a changing climate post-Browne may in itself drive some changes in the content of many courses, and it could be argued that the structure of the course at ESPCI would be a good model which can be seen to work. It doesn’t compromise the quality of the education for their exceptional students and the principles could be extended to a much broader range of courses for students of varying academic abilities. But leaving that factor aside, simply in terms of breadth for educating those with either an indecisive mind, or an early identified penchant to work at the boundaries between disciplines, ESPCI also offers very attractive opportunities.


3 Responses to “Educational Breadth”

  1. Having had the opportunity to talk to some of the students at ESPCI, my views about the value of the breadth of their curriculum is only reinforced. The students are extremely positive about the value of being exposed to a little of all the sciences, and appear actually to want more language training. Can you imagine students in the UK (or indeed the US) expressing such a view? Those who come to the university with high level English already under their belt, want to be given more opportunities to improve their fluency further, and they believe this can be best done by some sort of streaming to separate out students with different proficiencies. They were even suggesting some of their teaching, notably the transferable skills elements, should be given in English, and most certainly they wanted the opportunity to make their research presentations in English. Their enthusiasm was manifest; and probably very different from previous generations who have always appeared very protective of the French language, understandably, even for scientific presentations. On the issue of learning a third language, the student who had carried out an internship in Japan had had the opportunity (in advance of her trip) to study Japanese. Although she made no claim to being able to write in Japanese, she said at least it meant she could go into a restaurant and feel comfortable ordering a meal. In other words, the sort of level of competence in Britain we would expect at GCSE for a single language (and even that isn’t compulsory any more).

    Their motivation to study a broad curriculum was also very obvious. These are, as I said previously, the top rank of students. This can be quantified: after the 2 years of preparatory classes, which approximately 5300 students take each year in Physics/Chemistry, a common exam is sat by all and then the students are numerically ranked. ESPCI admits 80 students each year, almost all of whom enter via this route, and the lowest ranked student would sit at around 400 in this list. They are students not only rigorously trained already, but with a strong appetite for science, and applicable science at that, because they value the industrial placements so highly. That is why they specifically apply to ESPCI rather than ENS or EP. They want to get exposed to a wide range of topics, and they want to get their hands dirty with many hours in the laboratory which is the tradition of EPSCI: many of the courses have at least as many hours of lab work as lectures – again something the UK system does not in general offer, at least in pure sciences. It is easier, of course, because the student numbers are relatively small and the staffing structure offers many individuals who can oversee the classes, so in effect the staff-student ratio is large. This means their model of heavy emphasis on teaching hands-on skills would certainly not readily translate into the teaching-cash-starved universities of the UK system (particularly looking forward).

    I would not like it thought that the students were uncritically supportive of their courses, they were actually very articulate and precise in where there were perceived drawbacks, but these did not relate to fundamental concerns, or any of the points underpinning my original post. It seems to me the breadth and nature of the curriculum is attractive to future employers and students alike – these two aspects are of course not unconnected. The one issue that remains unclear to me, but which must be a concern, is that of access. These students must, I suspect, come from families which not only value education, but also ones for whom the 2 additional years between the Baccalaureate and university are not an impossible financial burden. Although the preparatory classes themselves may not attract tuition fees, most students must leave home to find a school which offers the preparatory classes – and they frequently move to that lovely but expensive city of Paris. This is a hurdle that must be likely to deter many students from the lower socio-economic classes. Access was not a word I heard mentioned, but it must be a factor in admissions, even if not ever discussed explicitly.

  2. Kenneth Evans said

    I would not want to comment on your main argument concerning the breadth the curriculum: but I think you are wrong about foreign languages. English really is the international language, and over the last ten years I shared an open plan office (in a science department) with native speakers of Albanian, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Italian, French, German, and Spanish — there may be one or two that I have forgotten. The only practical course is for everyone to speak English: of course their English has been better than my Hebrew, Russian etc. However, it has been noticeable that for a number of people their lack of fluency or strong accent has lead to a barrier in communication with consequent difficulties in socialising and discussing ideas. My own suggestion is that resources should be spent in helping non-native speakers of English to speak good English, rather than using resources to help native English speakers to speak good Hebrew, Russian etc, unless of course they are really keen or they need to be a diplomat or a salesman, or fulfill some other role with an obvious need for the language.

    • I wasn’t suggesting English shouldn’t be the common language of science. But it seems to me people do travel and take jobs in other countries, and providing them with the ability to communicate when they do so should not be neglected. And more than communication, they will find a much greater acceptance if they show some willingness to speak the local language. The ESPCI education specifically takes this into account, the UK system, broadly speaking, does not. It may be that we should all be learning some version of Chinese, since that is going to be increasingly important, although I wasn’t going as far as that (yet). I do think there is a certain arrogance in assuming everyone else will fit in with English-speakers.

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