A PolySphère Award for the best adapted course during lockdown
This year, EPFL students gave out a new PolySphère Award for the best adaptation of a course to online format. The winner, Sylvain Roy, a bioengineer and physician, was also the recipient of a PolySphère Award from the School of Life Sciences.
Sylvain Roy, a lecturer at the School of Life Sciences, teaches system-based physiology to third-year Bachelor’s students. Roy is also a practicing ophthalmologist and a former professional pilot. At the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation, he is a senior expert in ophthalmology. There, Roy is responsible for evaluating whether prospective pilots have the necessary visual acuity to fly. On a personal level, this can sometimes be difficult. “My decisions can affect people’s dreams, so I need to be tactful – yet also decisive, so that I don't encourage any false hopes.” Roy favors dialogue and listening, a trait that is also reflected in his teaching. We spoke with this generous, multi-talented instructor.
What was your reaction upon receiving these PolySphère Awards?
It brought me to tears. This recognition from my students was very moving and means a great deal to me. When I began teaching at EPFL in 2014, I fulfilled one of my lifelong goals, and I try to be worthy of this honor. I have always enjoyed sharing knowledge – it's in my DNA. I have received a great deal in life; I’ve been very fortunate. Now I can give something back. I enjoy finding ways to make knowledge accessible and listening to my students. I respect and admire them. I've had to prove myself in life; to struggle to get where I am today. In turn, I invest in my students so they too can get ahead, and I think that they sense this.
How would you characterize your teaching?
I want my students to learn how to think critically about what comes next. Beyond mere knowledge, I want to impart know-how and life skills. I encourage interaction, I try to arouse their curiosity, to stimulate their thinking with questions. Sometimes, I draw on real-world examples from one of my GP colleagues.
I also place special emphasis on writing, as I have noticed that many students have difficulty articulating their ideas and getting them down on paper. It’s important for their careers that they know how to write and can express their points of view.
Do you recall your first lecture at EPFL?
It was in a very large auditorium and I was quite anxious. That first year, the students’ feedback wasn't particularly great, because I focused too much on medicine and not enough on engineering. I duly noted their remarks and adjusted my teaching accordingly so that it was situated at the intersection of these two disciplines. This balance is now the cornerstone of my course.
Doctors diagnose problems and use existing methods to treat them. Engineers have to design new methods and find solutions to problems. Bio-engineers need to learn medical nomenclature and understand how doctors reason, and what the practical limitations are. In an operating room, for example, time is measured differently – every second counts and delays are to be avoided at all costs. Surgeons are under pressure and their tolerance levels are low. Sometimes solutions may seem promising, but they are unworkable in practice.
You are well aware of the interconnection between these disciplines as you are both an ophthalmologist and a researcher in biomedical engineering.
Admittedly, my career path has been rather unusual. When I finished high school, I hesitated between EPFL and medical studies, and I chose the latter. When I was about thirty years old, I set up an ophthalmology practice with a partner, but I felt something was missing. I discovered that I was not well-suited to a daily routine; I needed new intellectual challenges. I also very much wanted to pursue research. So, after getting a doctorate in medicine, I completed a biomedical engineering degree at EPFL. I then carried out post-doctoral work at EPFL’s Laboratory of Hemodynamics and Cardiovascular Technology; it was there that I helped develop the eyeWatch implant for treating glaucoma.
How did you react to the announcement in March that the EPFL campus would close?
As a doctor, for several weeks I had already seen that the situation was getting worse. On Thursday, March 12, when I gave my lecture – which was on the respiratory system – I had a feeling that I might not see the students again in person. On Friday, March 13, the Swiss Federal Council imposed a partial lockdown and we had 48 hours to set up remote learning. I asked several students their opinions on what adjustments might need to be made. They told me to keep on doing what I normally do and to continue dialoging with them.
Did the shift to online teaching go smoothly?
I gave my class at the usual time because I know how important structure is, especially at a time like that. There were 100 students registered for my class, and I wondered whether the Internet connection would work well enough and how to best teach the material. It's awkward to teach without being able to see students' faces.
I checked in with them on a regular basis to see how things were going and what difficulties they were facing. I also set up Zoom sessions to exchange with them. I noticed through these that some students just needed to talk, to be reassured. Not all students are housed in the same place and some of them found themselves isolated with no one to talk to. Through these talks, I tried to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to study.
What were the biggest difficulties that your students shared with you?
Above all, the fatigue of being in front of a screen for hours on end. Later, there was concern that the exam would be held in August although the course had ended in late May. I promised to help them, and throughout the entire month of July I held weekly exam preparation sessions. During the summer, I also videotaped the classes I had taught prior to lockdown. The students had asked me to do this so that they could have all the class lectures online. In the end, I gave a standard exam; I didn't make it any easier than usual, but it also wasn't any harder. There was a good pass rate, and overall they were well prepared.
What was your personal experience of the lockdown?
I think this has been a critical period for us as a society. Personally, it was something out of the ordinary, unnatural. During difficult moments, people tend to come together and join forces. But for the first time, we had to keep our distance from other human beings. This is very hard on the human psyche. Also, as an independent physician, there was a financial aspect since my surgeries were cancelled and I had very few patients.