Project Articles

Nordplus Higher Education

Nordplus Network Has Developed a Joint Nordic Master’s Degree

01 December 2017
AUTHOR: Joan Rask
collaborating countries: Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Greenland

Modern problems, for example global climate change, requires a multidisciplinary scientific approach, and that is why it is important to work together across borders and subjects. The key is the kind of interdisciplinary discussion and dialogue between students and researchers from different fields. So says Antti Lauri, PhD, research director, and atmospheric scientist, Department of Physics atUniversity of Helsinki.

Antti Lauri is coordinator and co-initiator of the network Atmosphere-Biosphere Studies (ABS), which has existed since 2006. Today, the network has partners in both the Baltic and Nordic countries including Greenland.

“This is not about money – it is about the collaboration, the dissemination of the best practices, doing education collaboration and for the sake of the students,” says Antti Lauri.

He is sure that a big factor in the success has been that the partners have always been focused on engaging students in their research activities and get them used to the research environment already during their master’s degree.

The concrete joint activities namely provide personal and academic contact with highly ranked researchers and reduce the barriers for when the graduates explore their opportunities regarding research projects. One of the smaller universities in the network is Estonian University of Life Sciences. Here, senior researcher Steffen Noe, Department of Plant Physiology, has great experience with the network. Actually, both as a student and now as a lecturer and researcher.

“Very early on, I knew I wanted to stay on board of this network, and it has been very beneficial. We are very few people in Estonia, the country is small and, even though the group here at the university is outstanding in the fields of Volatile Organic Compounds and Plant Physiology, the international cooperation and exchange activities are extremely important,” says Steffen Noe.

Exchange students in Estonia

The ABS Network has developed a joint master’s programme, which today is offered at many of the partner universities. In Finland, it has primarily been a supplement to the existing master’s degrees, and relatively few Finns have participated in the joint Nordic/Baltic programme. Foremost because the academic content was available to the common Finnish master’s degrees. It is not that way in Estonia.

“The joint degree was also a chance to hold a course here and have local students plan this with international students coming from everywhere. Now, both groups see that you can do high level education and research activities in a country which they have never heard of before – and yet accomplish something,” says Steffen Noe.

A very specific challenge for Steffen Noe and colleagues is that the number of postgraduate students varies a lot. Some years there are only two to three students.

“We ourselves could not yet achieve this. Only last year I started lectures which are permanent now. This hasn’t been that way before,” he explains.

Steffen Noe dreams about being able to offer an entire course with enough ECTS points so international students can spend an entire semester at the university in Tartu, which is in the second largest city in Estonia. The first step in that direction is hosting the intensive courses of two to four weeks, which has been done a couple of times.

“These intensive courses are much easier than setting up a full curriculum, and you get the contact to the students as well and you’re are able to do this – blending disciplines and knowledges,” Steffen Noe says.

Blending of knowledges

Actually, it is the input from Finland which has opened Steffen Noe’s eyes to the value of blending subjects and knowledges. He is delighted with how it moves the focus to horizontal degrees from top-down solutions. One of the originators of this thought is Antti Lauri. He sees the same value for the Finnish participants.

“Working on real scientific questions on short intensive courses provided for the students are key components of what we are still doing,” Antti Lauri says.

He explains that the students are very enthusiastic when they get to work with something “real”.

“When we start the course no one really knows what will be the result. This challenges the teachers, but it also keeps up the motivation of the teachers and the scientists, because all know that there’s at least a chance that something new happens which will lead to something greater,” he says.

There is normally held five to ten intensive courses in different countries every year. Sometimes very interdisciplinary processes are established. That is what happened in 2016. Lectures and supervisors from nine different universities and institutions across the Nordic and Baltic countries met with students from five to six countries. It was the effect of climate change on arctic ecosystems and societies that they met to discuss and investigate.

“It was a more interdisciplinary course than any of the courses we delivered before, and we also had some social scientists on board the course,” says Antti Lauri.

The network is namely also about enriching and educating lecturers and researchers so that they improve academically and personally. It can be difficult to do within your own institution, especially when the departments are so small.

“Climate change is the focus of the global climate, and it is the focus area of our whole network. It was so obvious to connect all the fields of science – and it was a big success.”

The most interdisciplinary course ever

Specifically, the network visited the capital Nuuk in Greenland for a week and the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. The focus was partly on the social sciences, partly ecosystem data. The students were split into six groups, and the Finnish professor was satisfied with how both the specific academic yield and the learning environment that materialized for both lecturers, researchers, and the 26 students.

“One group came up with a pretty nice idea about a game combining information about climate change as a tool to disseminate information about climate change and what it has brought in the past and what it might bring in the future,” Antti Lauri says.

Antti Lauri and Steffen Noe both fondly welcome the intellectual aspect. They both explain how it adds knowledge, energy, and new ways of seeing the world – both in Estonia and Finland – and that they hear similar things from other partner institutions.

“Before, we had just a few doctoral students from abroad in most of our partner universities, but suddenly there was a boom of students from other countries and other continents,” says Antti Lauri.

Specifically, he often experiences that international researchers and students stay and continue the joint development project on atmosphere and biosphere. Steffen Noe is himself one of those who stuck around. He is German, but came to Estonia rather randomly in connection with his own studies.

“I was like glued to here, I don’t know why it happened, but it is like that. There are quite a bit of foreign trainees or scientists who become stuck here. I myself, for instance… In Germany I wouldn’t have had the chance to make what I did here, building a measurement station from scratch – this is really something special,” says Steffen Noe.