International collaboration in teaching topological data analysis

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In a globalized world, more and more jobs include collaborations at an international level. During the pandemic, many tools for online collaboration have emerged, and it is to be expected that their use will be continued, making the ability to constructively collaborate with international partners an even more important skill. We built up a course in which students get to work on projects in an international group with students from other universities. Thematically, the projects were in the area of topological data analysis, a relatively new subfield of data science which uses methods from algebraic topology to study the shape of data.

We built up a project based course where students from 4 universities (ETH, TU Eindhoven, St. Louis University, De Paul University Chicago) collaborated for one semester on open problems in the area of topological data analysis and its applications. In this first iteration we had three groups of 3 students each, and each group was advised by 2 mentors. The underlying idea is that the course trains the students through project-based learning that allows them to apply their newly acquired theoretical skill to a concrete problem, as well as through strengthening the transferable skill of group work in an international online setting.

Effect on Students

The students have gained experience in applying topological data analysis and have expanded their international network. One of the groups is planning to publish their findings of the project.

Another student from ETH plans to continue her work as a thesis, which will be co-supervised by the mentors from Eindhoven and St. Louis.

Why did you decide to take the course?
Michael: „I really liked the course intro to TDA and was fascinated in the field. Moreover the possibility to work on an international project with other universities seemed a very nice opportunity!“
Ana: „After I passed Algebraic Topology I and II, which I really enjoyed it, I was sad, that it was over so soon. I felt as there would be more to it. And yes indeed, a semester ago I could not imagine the for me still undiscovered giant world hiding behind TDA. I was very curious to learn more and luckily Patrick was offering this very promising seminar, so I enrolled in.“
How was the collaboration with your mentors?
Ana: „It was great to have weekly meetings with people that are experts on this area. However, I never felt overwhelmed by it, as they gave us a lot of time and space to develop our own ideas. They never stole us the joy of discovering things by ourselves, which was great. It was a really nice alternative to normal lecturing, since most of the time we were doing self-studying, accompanied by the mentors during our own baby steps into research.“
Michael: „I felt that for the topic we choose (Cosmic web) the mentors were not sufficiently expert in the field of Cosmology to be able to hint us nice research path to take or answer relevant research questions.“
Apart from TDA, what did you learn during the course?
Michael: „I learned a lot in the field of Cosmology since I had to do a lot of theory background to be able to understand the theory of the experimental analysis was based on.“
Ana: It was a new great experience for me to do TDA with a group of people, writing down at the end our own ideas in a common document in such a short period of time. It was also interesting to see how other students work (there were 3 of us) and maybe adopt something from them. And also interest is contagious, so we were motivating each other along the way.
Are you still doing TDA?
Michael: „Yes, I am currently writing my Master thesis at Imperial College, working on both persistence homology approximation for large datasets as well as graph harmonics for heart shape modeling (two different projects, the second one has to do with algebraic topology but not strictly with TDA).“
Ana: „Yes, I am studying currently Reeb Graphs and Category Theory for my Master Thesis.“
If a similar course was offered for a different topic, would you take it?
Ana: „The downside of a very interesting seminar is that one invests a lot of time, even compromising other very important priorities. Nevertheless, this seminar was a big win for me. I gained a lot of insights in a very short period of time. It was mostly self-study, which I personally enjoy a lot. With the weekly meetings we had a relatively high, but not overwhelming pace. Next time, I would consider carefully, if I have enough capacity. But, yes, I really liked the concept and would recommend it.“
Do you have any anecdote you'd like to share?
Ana: „Not really funny, but I wanted to take the seminar so badly, that I invested a substantial amount of my summer break (which is already short) reading the lecture notes of the previous course, which was required to get a place. Was it worth it? 100%“

Course Description

Projects in Topological Data Analysis
This seminar complements the course „Introduction to Topological Data Analysis“. Students of the seminar will collaborate with students from international universities on concrete projects in topological data analysis, both theoretical and applied.
Each student is expected to collaborate in an international working group with students from the partner universities. Each group works on one of the projects suggested by the lecturers, and is assigned a mentor. At the end of the semester, each working group presents their findings in a written report and an oral presentation.
max. 10 students
benotete Semesterleistung

ETH Competence Framework