Fostering interdisciplinary studies

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Interview with Véronique Bellosta, Dean of Academic Programs.

In what way does an ESPCI education differ from that of other engineering schools?

For starters, ESPCI fosters a unique interdisciplinary approach. Our students acquire solid training in physics, chemistry and biology, which provides them the widest choice of careers possible, not only within these three fields, but also where they intersect. In learning reasoning methods used by physicists, biologists and chemists, which are each very different, they can tackle, for example, a physics problem from a chemist’s or a biologist’s perspective and in doing so, develop a strong capacity for innovation. Another particularity lies in the fact that the ESPCI curriculum takes four years to complete: three years to obtain an engineering diploma, followed by an additional year to obtain the ESPCI graduation certificate. A broad range of choices exists for the fourth year, which can be spent in France or abroad: students generally pursue a dual diploma or, in a majority of cases, a master in research, which makes sense, considering that 60 to 70% of our students continue their education with a PhD.

How does the school generate such interest in research?

A third particularity of ESPCI lies in a pedagogical approach based on learning through research and experience; during the first two years of an interdisciplinary core curriculum, 50% of teaching time is spent on practical work in the school’s laboratories.
The ratio increases in students’ third year, during which they complete a four- to six month industry internship in France or abroad, and an academic research project lasting at least eight weeks, which can be carried out in one of the ESPCI laboratories, a PSL member institution, or abroad. Every ESPCI teacher is a professor-researcher or researcher: practical work sessions and mentoring provide teachers opportunities to exchange with students about their research and pass on their enthusiasm.

What are the latest developments at the school in terms of teaching methods?

Introduced in 2013, the “team science projects” (projets scientifiques en équipe or PSE) have since taken off. Divided into groups of three, students choose a project on a topic ranging from physics to biology and carry it out from end to end, during the last semester of their first year and the first two semesters of their second year. Incredibly educational, this concept is popular with students: they find themselves confronted with real research problems and must find solutions themselves. Beginning this year, they will present the results of their PSE in the form of short videos that will enable them to communicate outside the school, to illustrate their resumes, and more.

We are very committed to a form of teaching which is rather specific to ESPCI called “preceptorship or mentorship,” introduced a number of years ago by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, and which enables students to actively participate in their education. In small groups of 5 or 6, students reflect on a subject taken from recent research and suggested ahead of time by a professor-researcher or a researcher. They submit a written paper before attending a correction- discussion session. We are currently testing a new teaching method that we call “super practical work” and which consists of supervised practical work carried out in smaller groups with the possibility to hand in work before the discussion-correction. We also have plans for “inverted classes” to replace some of our lecture classes. Similar to preceptorships, students arrive in class already having worked on the subject and the session becomes a sort of exchange with the teacher. These are interesting possibilities, but to develop them, we need to free up time for the students, whose schedules are already incredibly dense. We have to find a way to lighten them while maintaining our high standards, an interdisciplinary approach, and without modifying the portion of experiment work that constitutes our strength.

This education also teaches them teamwork.

Teamwork is a major goal of ESPCI’s educational approach. There is a considerable amount of information to absorb and skills to master. If students were to try to do it all alone, they would wear themselves out. They must work together, and everything is designed to help them do just that (practical work, preceptorships, PSE). The school is human-sized, everyone knows each other, there’s a positive energy and people help each other out. Last year, a new student arrived from the French university system and had a hard time the first semester, but really took off in the second, thanks to support and help from her peers. We do everything we can to identify students who are in difficulty as early as possible and provide them with support at every level, from the Dean’s office to teachers, almost all of whom are permanently present on campus. I’d like to emphasize that at ESPCI, mutual assistance between students is not an empty phrase. We have regular proof that the best really do help those experiencing the most difficulty.

Students are very involved in organizing their academic path.

The first two years of the program are the same for all students. We’re considering introducing a certain degree of personalization during these first two years, while maintaining a strong core curriculum with foundational classes in physics, chemistry and biology. In the third year, students are free to choose their academic pathway – Physics, Physical Chemistry, Chemistry or Biotechnology – and choose electives. The way third-year schedules were first designed meant that some electives were inaccessible to certain pathways: at the request and with the help of students, we’ve worked to adjust schedules in order to make a maximum of electives accessible to all. Students know that the school administration is here to help them. Our objective is for each student to find his or her own path and be happy in what they do, and for them to be prepared to attain their future goals, and they know that. They are therefore very motivated when it comes to giving feedback on this or that course, to suggest modifications or new partnerships. Even if the request comes from a single student, as long as it is reasonable and well presented, we will try to find a solution.

Are there examples of students moving between the different PSL schools?

There is much movement at the fourth-year master level and will increase with the new PSL masters. The dual diploma agreement established with École des Mines ParisTech generates a lot of interest from our students. For the engineering cycle, together with École des Mines ParisTech and Chimie ParisTech, we’ve put in place two “PSL weeks,” one in November and the other in March. These are reserved course weeks during which ESPCI students may attend classes at Mines or Chimie ParisTech, and visa versa. All second-year foreign language classes are shared by students of ESPCI and Chimie ParisTech. Starting this school year, Chimie ParisTech students have access to all classes in ESPCI’s third-year biotechnology option. We’re actively working to give our engineering students the possibility to attend other classes in PSL establishments. The goal is for each PSL student to acquire 15% of their ECTS in this manner. It’s one more reason for us to work on lightening schedules to allow for movement between establishments.

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