“I knew I'd become a teacher even before I knew what I'd teach”
Flavio Noca, the winner of this year’s best teacher award in the mechanical engineering section, has been drawing airplanes since he was a child. Even today, aircraft still feature prominently in the examples he uses in class – to the delight of his students.
The volume is set so high that the floor shakes. All eyes are riveted on the screen, where a brightly lit rocket is poised for launch. The viewers hold their breath and unconsciously draw closer in excitement. Then the rocket finally takes off, giving rise to cheers around the room. While this may sound like a scene from a family night at the movies, it’s actually what takes place regularly in classes taught by Flavio Noca, an EPFL lecturer in compressible fluid dynamics. “I like getting my students’ adrenaline going, tapping into their emotions and eliciting a response,” he says.
Given his keen interest in aerospace, it’s only natural that Noca – who won this year’s best teacher award in the mechanical engineering section – uses aircraft examples to capture his students’ attention. “I’ve been drawing airplanes ever since I was little,” he says. “I was four years old when the Boeing 747 came out in 1969, and one of my favorite things to do was sit on the airport terrace with my parents and watch the planes take off and land.”
Full, but not stuffed
Noca’s family is originally from Italy, but he was born in South Africa and spent much of his childhood in central Africa. “Since we didn’t have much to keep busy with while we were in Africa, personal contact was really important,” he explains. “That’s where I developed my appreciation for social interaction and communication.” When Noca was 18, he graduated with a French high-school diploma and enrolled in the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) – a leading scientific and technical university – to study physics and engineering. “There too, I was spoiled when it came to social interaction. The university had around 1,000 students and 300 professors, including many Nobel prize winners. We got to know our professors really well.”
One of those professors was Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist who played a decisive role in shaping Noca’s career. “It seemed like my heart was racing in Prof. Feynman’s classes,” says Noca. “The interaction was so intense.” After sitting in his classroom for an hour, “you had the same feeling as after a meal at a Chinese restaurant: full, but not stuffed.” In fact, Noca came to envy Feynman “more for his teaching style than for his Nobel prize.” And he wasn’t the only student enchanted by the physicist’s charismatic lectures – today they’re available in a collection titled The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which has become a key reference work for students around the world.
“Thanks to Prof. Feynman, I knew I’d become a teacher even before I knew what I’d teach,” Noca says. Another thing he picked up from his professor was to spend time carefully preparing his lectures. “I’m really shy and get nervous before standing up in front of the classroom, kind of like an actor,” he says. But after about 15 seconds “I get into the flow.” From then on, “I enjoy it incredibly, especially since I know exactly where I’m headed and what I want the main takeaway to be.”
Making exams enjoyable, too
Noca’s early vocation for teaching didn’t prevent him from continuing to nurture his childhood interest in just about anything that moves around in the sky. “After I got my Master’s degree, a position opened up in Caltech’s aerospace department,” he explains. “That’s where I completed my PhD on time-dependent fluid-dynamic forces.” Noca was then offered a job at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory – an R&D center managed by Caltech. “For me it was the perfect combination of engineering, R&D and aerospace,” he says. He stayed there for around ten years before joining EPFL in 2006 and then taking on an additional teaching role at HES-SO in 2008. Despite this move into teaching, he still maintained close bonds with the aerospace industry. In 2015 he saw that even though drones were rapidly becoming popular, there were few highly effective methods for testing them. He therefore developed a revolutionary type of wind-generating equipment and, in association with students, founded a company called WindShape in Geneva.
“Yeah, I’m really into what I do,” Noca admits. But that’s probably what makes his classes so interesting. “People listen to you if they sense you’re excited about the subject matter.” And he never fails to add his own special ingredient: “I’ve seen over the years that students pay more attention if you bring in current, real-life examples,” he says. “I use the same approach in my exams – I give them concrete problems to work on.” This strategy seems to be working, since when they hand in their exam, “some even say they had fun taking it!” So when will we get to read TheNocaLectures on Mechanical Engineering?