“I enjoy getting my hands dirty”
Adil Koukab spends most of his time with the hundreds of students who attend his classes and lab sessions each semester. His aim? To help prepare them for a “dazzling career.” His efforts are appreciated, as he has been named the best teacher in the electrical engineering section for 2023.
Imagine you were the head of marketing for a company that was developing a product aimed at engineering students and you wanted to learn more about your target audience. You could do a lot worse than turn to Adil Koukab, a scientist at EPFL’s Institute of Electrical and Micro Engineering (IEM), for inspiration. In his role, which role spans four sections, he delivers classes and lab sessions at all levels, from first-year Bachelor’s students to final-year Master’s students. That means each semester, Koukab – who was named best teacher in the electrical engineering section for 2023 – interacts with hundreds of EPFL students. “I love seeing the students progress as they move through the School,” he says. He’s ably assisted by around 30 assistants, each of whom has passed through his capable hands at some point.
Koukab, who joined EPFL in 2000, is a graduate of the Université de Lorraine and CentraleSupélec (Metz campus) and holds a PhD in electronics. He demonstrated a natural flair for teaching early on in his career. “My PhD supervisor must have seen that I was capable at imparting knowledge, and that I enjoyed it, because he immediately asked me to deliver some tutorial sessions,” he explains. “As the years went by, I took on more and more classes at EPFL. In the end, I came to realize that I enjoy teaching more than research.” When asked whether he finds that difficult to admit, Koukab is unequivocal: “Absolutely not. My passion lies in pushing the boundaries of technological progress. It doesn’t matter whether I do that through my research or my teaching.”
Rising above the competition
Koukab’s gift for teaching became apparent at an early age, when he was still living at home with his parents and siblings. “I’m the eldest of six children,” he says. “I started helping my brothers and sisters with their school work when I was just 13 or 14 years old.” He recalls that sometimes, when he walked into the house, he’d hear his mother telling his younger siblings to switch off the TV and go do their homework. “That’s often the way things work in Moroccan families,” he adds with a smile.
“But I don’t want to give the impression that I was a child prodigy,” he stresses. “I didn’t find school easy. I had to work extremely hard.” Koukab attributes his academic success to the high standards to which he holds himself – an ethos he also brings to the classroom: “I feel I owe it to myself to do my job well. And, out of respect, I also owe it to my students. After all, they do me the honor of attending my classes.” He admits that he’s hard on his students, “perhaps even more so than I was on myself at their age.” But there’s a reason why he’s so demanding: “I want my students to have a dazzling career! Not just for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of Switzerland and Europe. Keeping pace with Europe’s global rivals takes a great deal of hard work. Today’s world is a fiercely competitive place. Technology is progressing by leaps and bounds and top schools like MIT and Peking University are jostling for supremacy. EPFL students can’t simply rest on their laurels after graduating.”
Koukab goes the extra mile to help his students achieve their full potential: “I thoroughly enjoy working with the students and getting my hands dirty.” He feels lucky that, unlike other academic staff, whose heavy research workload leaves them little time for teaching, his role enables him to “spend hours on end in direct contact with students.” Koukab’s successful approach in the classroom relies on three key ingredients: stepping out of the ivory tower, remembering his own struggles as a student and constantly reworking his classes for each new academic year.
Bridging the attainment gap
Koukab likes to switch up his teaching style, using different resources to maintain a fast pace of instruction, keep his students interested, and make sure they’ve grasped the material. “I’m a big fan of the old-school chalk-and-blackboard method,” he says. “Sometimes, I have to wash my T-shirt after class because it’s covered in chalk.” But he’s equally happy to embrace more modern resources such as tablets and online learning platforms like Moodle, SWITCHtube and Zoom. He’s also adept at switching seamlessly between theory and practice: “The lab sessions really help the students apply and consolidate the theory they’ve covered in the classroom,” leaving them reinvigorated and eager to “come back for more.”
For Koukab, this iterative approach is his way of dealing with the attainment gap – a challenge that every EPFL teacher faces. “Of course, all EPFL Master’s students are good,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re all at the same level.” Some are merely “good,” while others are high flyers. “Our task is to keep the best students engaged while helping the rest get up to speed” – without compromising on the high standards in the classroom.