With explorers’ eyes
One winner is Armin Barth, who has taught mathematics at secondary school level for 30 years and lectures on the didactics of mathematics at ETH Zurich. He also develops teaching materials for the MINT Learning Centre at ETH Zurich (MINT is the German acronym for STEM). “Armin Barth sees the world through the eyes of an explorer and uses mathematics to understand it,” Hromkovic said in his laudatory speech. He described how Barth truly inspires his students with his lively understanding of mathematics and computer science.
Barth, who is currently writing a new textbook, believes it is essential for people to understand concepts. Someone who really understands a concept can go on to solve new tasks more creatively than someone who is merely familiar with the language used to describe the concept or has reviewed a relevant case study. “Once students understand the concept, their arithmetic improves,” he says, adding that it is important for teachers to build on
pupils’ previous knowledge and encourage them to actively engage with new educational content.
“Whereas in the past, a new topic was often first conveyed through instruction and then practised through exercises,” Barth says, “but today we strongly advocate for instruction to be preceded by an exploratory phase of cognitive activation in which the students gain motivation, experience the limits of their knowledge and, in the best case, can construct new knowledge themselves.” Or as Hromkovic puts it: they should go on a journey of exploration. This gets them to talk competently about mathematics, explain the concepts and apply the technical terms correctly, Barth says, “and it makes mathematics and computer science more fun.”
One language to solve tasks
“There’s no denying that our understanding of how to teach computer science has changed a lot in recent years,” says Gian-Paolo Curcio, Rector of the Grisons University of Teacher Education (PHGR) in Chur, which also received a STEM prize this year. “Thirty years ago, computer science lessons were still held in a dedicated computer room, similar to the language laboratory,” he recalls. Classes were given in lecture format and focused on things like having everyone create Excel tables together. “In contrast, the modern approach to teaching computer science focuses on encouraging algorithmic thinking,” Curcio continues, “and in line with this, computer science is understood as a language that students learn in order to solve problems or tasks.”
PHGR trains computer science teachers and has concluded a contract with the ETH Rector to train around 3,000 teachers of compulsory education. In addition, it works together with ETH Zurich and the municipality of Flims to organise i-CAMPS, an extracurricular project week that is held with primary school pupils, the findings from which are incorporated into teaching at elementary schools and into teacher training at PHGR.
ETH’s STEM prize also goes to seven schools in Kreuzlingen that have been part of the Swiss MINT study (a long-term study into the teaching of STEM subjects being conducted by ETH Zurich together with the MINT Learning Centre) since 2011. These schools are committed to promoting the early understanding of mathematical and scientific content through cognitive activation – in other words, particularly stimulating forms of learning. What makes their contribution special is that all levels of schooling in Kreuzlingen, from kindergarten through to the end of secondary education, are participating in the project. This makes it possible to investigate the long-term effects on students’ learning of receiving early instruction in kindergarten and primary school on topics related to information technology and physics, and to determine how this better prepares them for new challenges.