2023 traditionally began with three weeks of the Independent Studies Period, when Skoltech students pick and choose new hobbies, take enrichment seminars and courses for personal development. In 2023, ISP offered over 30 classes to master the essentials for a successful scientific career: from hardcore subjects such as machine learning techniques or CAD modeling to soft skill training in storytelling or leadership. The only requirement was a minimum of 90 hours of studies during ISP. Most students, however, took 120 hours of classes, reported the Education Department.
“My focus is on soft skills, as I believe in their importance for science projects and a happy professional life,” said Alisa Kokorina, a PhD student at Skoltech Neuro, who took Alexandre Havard’s class on leadership.
“I learned more about my personality as the instructor provided support and told us how we should actually take personality tests,” she added. “And I was also deeply impressed by Havard’s presentation skills and asked him about additional resources on public speaking.”
“Inspired,” “motivated” is common feedback on ISP courses. That’s exactly what instructors are aiming for in addition to providing theory and hands-on skills.
“Education is about bringing out the best in people,” said Alexandre Havard, who teaches a virtuous leadership class.
In his class students were going through a series of psychological tests to find out more about their personalities, as well as studying cases and having profound philosophical discussions.
“Leadership is transformational science, and my goal is to help students understand who they are, find their virtues, and develop their character,” so Havard. He differentiates between manipulation (“making people do things they otherwise don’t want”) and leadership, “Everyone can become a great leader if they are willing to develop their virtues over time.”
Only first-year master’s students are required to take classes during ISP. But many graduate students and even employees don’t miss the opportunity and reach great results.
“Before coming to Skoltech, I was presenting like a robot who spoke loud. I took different storytelling classes, and over the years I’ve gotten better,” said Javier Peñuela, a second-year PhD student in engineering systems. “Any work is useless if you can’t present it,” he explained his motivation to learn public speaking.
In a four-minute presentation during Ziad Barouni’s storytelling class Peñuela managed to charm the audience with a personal story and earn their laughs and applause. The instructor drew attention to the openness and vulnerability of the storyteller.
“The main goal of the course is to empower students to open up and be able to share their personal stories,” said Barouni, who is against using ready-made formulas for storytelling. “Instead of sharing technicalities, the course is built on constant practice of storytelling. I invite students to tell their stories, then we discuss them, and step by step, they get better and gain confidence.”
ISP gives unique perspectives for instructors, too. “Student discussions reveal new facets of the problem otherwise missed at the expert level,” said Irina Gayda, the “Sustainability and Resilience of the Energy System” workshop leader.
In that workshop students learned about ESG strategies and had extended debates over energy policies. They also met with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleg Anisimov, a professor of physical geography at the State Hydrological Institute, who gave them a unique insider’s perspective on how to separate climatology science from politics.
“Every year we try to bring the top experts on campus to teach ISP courses and reach out to Skoltech community to encourage researchers and employees to share their expertise,” said Adeliia Idiiatullina from the Education Department, who was responsible for ISP courses. “We also try to support our students and give them an opportunity to share their expertise and become instructors.”
“Students need to go through a selection process. We ask prospective student-instructors to record a short video presentation of the course, and students choose the courses they are interested in,” she added. Student instructors receive additional support and sources to learn about educational design and classroom delivery.
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