“I feel like an actor when I'm giving a class”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Professor Eugen Brühwiler, who heads EPFL’s Structural Maintenance and Safety Laboratory, has been selected as this year’s best teacher in the Civil Engineering section.

Eugen Brühwiler loves bridges – cracks and all. His face lights up just talking about them: their history, beauty and even their technical specifications. What’s more, his enthusiasm is contagious: even after 20 years of teaching at EPFL, he can still capture his students’ interest. It helps that he updates his unique line-up of classes every year. “You could say I have an energetic teaching style – I feel like an actor when I’m giving a class.” So it’s no surprise that he has been selected as this year’s best teacher in the Civil Engineering section. Although Brühwiler is practiced at giving talks that captivate his audience, he is also highly attuned to how they are received. “You have to take your students seriously and explain things again if needed. There are no stupid students,” he says.

Professor Brühwiler, who also heads EPFL’s Structural Maintenance and Safety Laboratory, gave four classes last year – three Master’s and one Bachelor’s. After teaching students the theory of structure safety and reliability, he asks them to examine existing works, looking at not just their features but also their history and design. “Most engineering schools don’t cover these softer aspects of civil engineering, but they’re essential. I’d like to introduce them even earlier in the degree program.” With his love for art, he can’t help but photograph unusual bridges and buildings he comes across – especially when he’s on vacation. “My family teases me about that all the time,” he says. But those pictures contribute to his rich library of teaching materials.

Content at the cutting edge

Professor Brühwiler, from the Canton of Thurgau, is gifted in both languages and mathematics. In high school he already knew he wanted to be an engineer. But he wasn’t sure what kind. Civil engineering appealed to him because it combines technical skills with concerns about the environment, history and society. Before teaching at EPFL he worked as a project manager for the Swiss Federal Railways’ bridges and structures division, and he is still called upon as a consultant – industry experience that enhances his lessons. “A good professor should be authentic. His students should sense that he is fully committed to his field.”

For Professor Brühwiler, civil engineering works are not just objects made of steel and concrete – they have a soul. That’s why he specializes in bridges with a cultural heritage. He believes that structures should be monitored, looked after and restored with care. For instance, his lab has developed a high-performance cementitious composite to protect the Chillon viaduct against “concrete cancer.” He believes that doing his job right means “applying the most recent technology to our historical monuments.” However, as an advocate of sustainable development, he feels that restoration work on existing structures should be kept to a minimum. When existing structures are restored, however, he feels they should not just be repaired but also improved and given added value. That’s what prompted him to take part in efforts to reinforce the Payerne Abbey and to monitor several bridges. “By installing sensors we can now take a bridge’s pulse and directly diagnose its condition.” All this research and project experience are recycled directly into his lessons, giving students content at the cutting edge of their field.