“I'm exhausted after a class, but it's the best part of my day”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

The Electrical and Electronic Engineering section chose Mario Paolone as the best teacher for 2018. The engineer specialized in power grids joined EPFL in 2011 after teaching at the University of Bologna.

Mario Paolone worked like crazy this summer. He sometimes stayed at EPFL until 5 in the morning, got very little sleep and lived on adrenaline – yet had “one of the best experiences of my teaching career.” This EPFL professor of electrical engineering is the man behind EPFLoop – the student project that won third place in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Pod Competition in July. “This experience will stay with the students well beyond their time at EPFL,” he says. Professor Paolone may be exhausted, but he’s happy. The Italian-born engineer used to work as a consultant for Ferrari Formula 1 and loves the thrill of competition – and of teaching. “I believe teaching is the most important role of a professor.”

In addition to teaching four classes – three Bachelor’s and one Master’s – Prof. Paolone is also head of EPFL’s doctoral program in energy and has been tasked with developing a new Master’s in energy program. That means he has to work just as fast as the racecars he used to help design. What keeps him going? “The opportunity to prime my students with curiosity and knowledge and then watch them take off.” In return for going the extra mile, the Electrical and Electronic Engineering section chose Paolone as the best teacher for 2018.

Gearing up students for future challenges

Professor Paolone is from a literary family, and today, as an engineer specialized in power grids, jokingly dubs himself the black sheep of the family. “What attracted me to this field was the ability to transform different kinds of energy, which is the very foundation of human evolution.” He joined EPFL in 2011 after teaching at the University of Bologna. In just two years, he developed six new courses intended to equip students for the challenges of tomorrow. “The hardest part is knowing what theoretical fundamentals will be important for the next couple of decades.” Five years ago, Paolone introduced a Master’s program in smart-grid science and technology in response to the growing need for sophisticated power grids that can accommodate renewable energy efficiently.

The professor likes to animate his lectures with questions. “I enjoy discussing with students, and that’s in part why I try to remember all their names. I’m exhausted after a two- or three-hour class, but it’s the best part of my day.” His courses consist of 60% theory and 40% practical exercises. He places so much emphasis on practical exercises because he wants to “give students the tools to solve any kind of problem.” So it’s not surprising that he decided to create the EPFLoop team. “This kind of project requires applied precision engineering. It pushes students up against the limits of technology as well as their own limits, while teaching them how to think and work as a team.” The project also involved a race to innovate – something perfectly suited to this fan of Formula 1.