Euler Course celebrates ten years of coaching gifted math students
EPFL’s Euler Course – the only one of its kind in Switzerland – is designed to help junior-high and high-school students with a high aptitude in mathematics fulfill their potential. 110 students are currently enrolled in the course, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary on 21 November.
Every Wednesday, a group of students aged 10 to 18 from across French-speaking Switzerland meet on the EPFL campus for an intensive afternoon of mathematical problem solving. They are enrolled in the Euler Course – an advanced program for junior-high and high-school students whose avid interest in mathematics means they don’t mind sacrificing their otherwise free Wednesday afternoons. And on Wednesday of this week, the course will celebrate its tenth anniversary.
“Every math teacher dreams of giving a class like this, where students enroll voluntarily because they want to learn more and are happy to be there,” says Jérôme Scherer, a senior scientist at EPFL and the Euler Course coordinator. Scherer manages the course alongside Kathryn Hess Bellwald, the EPFL professor who started the program – and whose office features a bust of Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler.
“Patrick Aebischer talked to me about setting up the program because I participated in a similar program that my parents created in the US. It was a lot of work, but in the first year we already had 180 students sign up for the entrance exam. We didn’t expect it to be so popular!” says Hess Bellwald, who obtained a PhD from MIT when she was just 21. Getting into the Euler Course isn’t easy: the entrance exam – a grueling multiple-choice test – is open to any child between the ages of 10 and 13, but only around 30 are selected to enroll each year. “The exam is designed to evaluate how intuitively students grasp mathematical concepts,” says Hess Bellwald. Around 350 signed up for this year’s entrance exam.
Developing analytical thinking skills and self-confidence
Renaud Rivier, currently a PhD student in mathematics at the University of Geneva, is one of the 20-odd members of the program’s first class, which started in the fall of 2008. He was just 10 years old at the time, got good grades and “didn’t see any downside” to trying his luck. He completed all six years of the program; the first three were focused on high-school-level mathematics and the last three on university-level topics. “It’s nice to be able to master a subject so thoroughly when you’re so young. That helped me in my science classes, and doing well in such a difficult subject really boosted by self-esteem.” The program moves fast – twice as fast as regular classes – and requires a major commitment from the students. “But they all enjoy being here and want to put in the effort,” says Michèle Honsberger, an educational consultant who works with the program organizers to make sure the students aren’t feeling too much pressure. Honsberger meets with each student individually every year.
Today a total of 110 students are enrolled in the six levels of the program, and they span the social spectrum. “I really wanted the program to be open to everyone. That’s why tuition is just 100 francs per year,” says Hess Bellwald. EPFL and private-sector organizations provide the rest of the funding. Students who take part in the program are exempted from math classes at their regular school. “I liked math in junior high but the classes bored me, so I didn’t make much of an effort,” says Cassandre Renaud, who is now 16 and in the fourth year of the program. “The Euler Course taught me how to work methodically and introduced me to people who understand me – in junior high I was a nerd, but here I’m just like everyone else.”
Yannis Ulrich, a 17-year-old in the sixth year of the program, also enjoys the course’s ambiance and the opportunity to talk with like-minded students. But what he really appreciates is being able to “dig into topics deeply” – which helps quench his thirst for knowledge. He used that knowledge to develop a robot for his high-school project and plans to study physics at EPFL. “Half the students who complete the program go on to pursue a degree in math, and the other half a degree in a scientific field. But even if they switch majors or decide not to continue their studies, it’s still a useful experience,” says Scherer. Shirley Ye, a fifth-year medical student at the University of Lausanne, changed her career goals after completing the program. But she still draws on the skills she learned. “The program changed the way I think. In school I was bored, but the Euler Course gave us stimulating exercises that challenged us. It taught me to look hard for an answer myself before asking for help. And you remember a solution to a problem better if you have to find it on your own,” she says.