EPFL moves into 21st-century academic teaching

Hubert Girault and Stephan Morgenthaler, new deans for the Bachelor and Master School and the International relations. © Alain Herzog.

Hubert Girault and Stephan Morgenthaler, new deans for the Bachelor and Master School and the International relations. © Alain Herzog.

“Young people and their world have changed, and we must adapt our methods of teaching accordingly.” This is the message from Philippe Gillet, Vice-President of EPFL for academic affairs, who has announced the nomination of two new Deans and several reorganizations.

The teaching reforms have already begun at EPFL. They include the nomination of two new Deans at the vice-president level for academic affairs: the professors Hubert Girault for the Bachelor and Master programs, and Stephan Morgenthaler for international relations. These appointments, which are the result of the end of Dominique Bonvin’s tenure and the nomination of Martin Vetterli as Dean of the School of Computer and Communication Sciences, replacing Willy Zwaenepoel, took effect on March 1.

Opening up to Asia

For Stephan Morgenthaler, it’s a return to international affairs. Before the year 2000, he was already academically responsible for this service. In the meantime, a reorganization of the management of the school had eliminated the position in its existing form, and it was Martin Vetterli, vice-president for institutional affairs, who had taken over responsibility.

“The school has strengthened its position on the international stage, and its reputation continues to grow, especially in Asia. We are obliged to foster our relations with other universities, attract the best students, but also to ensure that our own students can easily go there to study”, explains Stephan Morgenthaler. “Other projects, such as the idea of offshore campuses, will also need to be taken forward during the next few years.” This Professor of Statistics will be supported in his tasks by Antoine Fromentin, administrator responsible for international relations.

Courses and practical work integrated

Hubert Girault, Professeur in the Chemistry section, replaces Dominique Bonvin, at the end of an appointment lasting more than six years. During this period, the latter succeeded in aligning EPFL with the Bologna standards, in particular by establishing a strategy to enable access to Master programs. He was also behind the accreditation of related studies, and an evaluation system for the quality of the teaching. More recently, Dominique Bonvin sketched the initial outlines of a new method of teaching. “The students spend much too much time sitting and listening”, he states. “The old ex cathedra style, with lessons set apart from practical work, is no longer suited to our requirements.”

Among the new initiatives aimed at the EPFL students of tomorrow is also the idea of a “common thread” during the first year, with only a small part of the course devoted to a speciality. “It will be easier to change stream after the first year”, adds Dominique Bonvin. He has also initiated a discussion on the creation of new study programs – Bachelor and Master – of “generalist engineers”, having noticed that employers are often less interested in the specializations of graduates than the fact that they have acquired, during their studies, a valuable scientific approach to their work.

Contacts between the students and companies will moreover be reinforced: from the end of this year, a mandatory period of work experience – from two to six months – will be integrated into the program of future engineers. As well as helping the students to better apprehend the reality of the world of work, this will give owners of companies a glimpse of the skills taught at EPFL. “A lot of new things are going to happen in teaching, and this is both stimulating and gratifying”, sums up Hubert Girault, who accepted without hesitation the offer to take up the challenge of replacing Dominique Bonvin.

Author: Emmanuel Barraud
Source: EPFL