Best Teaching Award caps a career educating tomorrow's physicists
EPFL physics professor Jean-Philippe Ansermet has won the 2022 Credit Suisse Award for Best Teaching – a crowning achievement that comes just before he retires. For thirty years he taught with passion and an unshakeable enthusiasm.
At 9:15am on 3 June 2022, Jean-Philippe Ansermet started teaching his final thermodynamics class at EPFL. That class included thermodynamics experiments (along with a reminder of why they’re so useful for learning) as well as applause, speeches, tribute photos and emotional good-byes. The physics professor left the CE4 lecture hall like a rock star. “I didn’t expect to see so many people,” he says. “Even some of my former students made the trip. It was a touching, heartfelt send-off.”
Ansermet had become a well-known figure at the School – in part because of his opening line in the MOOC on mechanics that he recorded in 2013: “Hello and welcome to Physics 1.0 at EPFL.” This line, which he ends up saying around sixty times across the course’s modules, has become a catchphrase among students. “All I have to do is say it and the students break out laughing,” he notes with a smile. “The MOOC has become really popular on YouTube. I often bump into people on campus who recognize me even though they’ve never sat in my classroom.”
But Ansermet is known mostly for the pivotal role he played in EPFL’s physics department. He taught there for 30 years and led it for 12. And he never lost his insatiable curiosity for all things related to physics. This is reflected in the way he describes a recent trip to visit his son in California, also a physics teacher, and the hours he spent designing mechanics experiments in his living room.
Doing something with your own two hands helps you better grasp the underlying concept.
Ansermet nurtured his passion for teaching throughout his career. He updated his lessons regularly based on student feedback, tried out new approaches and drove home the importance of what he called “traumatic experiments” – memorable physics experiments that cement the students’ understanding of a given topic. “Doing something with your own two hands helps you better grasp the underlying concept." He practiced that credo both at home – he would take electric motors and a soldering iron with him on vacation to play with his kids – and at EPFL, where he was key in building up the School’s collection of 800 physics experiments. One of those experiments, which featured a rotating pendulum, came to be known among students as the Ansermet Pendulum.
“My research informed my teaching and vice versa,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed introducing people to topics I find fascinating.” The professor wrote his dissertation on nuclear magnetic resonance – an experience that influenced the topics he covered in the mechanics class he took over from one of his former teachers at EPFL. And for the thermodynamics class he began teaching in 2001, Ansermet used his research on the thermodynamic modeling of spintronics to revamp the curriculum.
It's this career devoted to imparting knowledge that led him to win the 2022 Credit Suisse Award. “When I teach, I feel this inner vibration,” he says. “But what really makes the learning process happen is my students, through their courage, dedication and determination.”
Breaking down complicated subjects
Ansermet hasn’t forgotten what it’s like being a student with an interest in science. He was constantly tinkering with things in high school and hoped one day to attend EPFL. When he enrolled a few years later, he wasn’t sure whether to major in math, chemistry or physics. It was the atmosphere in the physics department that cinched his decision. However, he never really abandoned the other two disciplines – his research incorporates some aspects of chemistry, and he would tell his mechanics students: “You have to be fluent in mathematics if you want to describe physical phenomena.”
My research informed my teaching and vice versa. I’ve always enjoyed introducing people to topics I find fascinating.
Mechanics and thermodynamics can be grueling subjects for university students. That’s why Ansermet uses hands-on experiments whenever possible and likes to explore new teaching methods. Unsurprisingly, he was one of the first teachers at EPFL to put together a MOOC, nine years ago. “We were encouraged by Patrick Aebischer” – the EPFL president at the time – “to try out this new course format,” he says. “So I got 15 of my colleagues together and explained why it’d be good to team up to create a MOOC. Two of them initially said they were interested, but later told me that after thinking about it, they’d rather let me do it on my own. At the time we were venturing into unknown territory – nobody knew if the MOOC would even be watched.” But in the end, the MOOC proved to be highly popular. Ansermet created a jointly taught one a few years later on thermodynamics.
Ansermet also found time to write two books – one on mechanics and the other on thermodynamics – with EPFL colleague Sylvain Bréchet. For the one on thermodynamics, Ansermet developed a new way of teaching the subject based on his years of interacting with his students. He presented thermodynamics as if it were basically axiomatic, and made sure to describe the many real-world applications.
Looking to the future, not the past
Given how strongly Ansermet feels about hands-on experiments, it’s no surprise that he was involved in the International Physicists’ Tournament for the past nine years. The tournament pits student teams against each other to solve a series of physics problems, new each year, by thinking outside the box. “It’s a brilliant opportunity for them,” says Ansermet. “And it’s great to watch the students develop their reasoning skills.” The professor applied some elements of the tournament to his own class. “I have student pairs work on a problem and present their solution to another student pair, who challenge the logic and ask questions.”
Ansermet plans to keep coaching the EPFL student team after he retires, as part of his commitment to supporting young researchers. He’ll also continue to give his PhD class on spin dynamics, and he has a third book in the works. What he doesn’t intend to do is spend his retirement days feeling bored or reminiscing about the past.