“I teach students how to work in teams”
Yves Bellouard, an associate professor in the Galatea Laboratory from the School of Engineering, has been named best teacher in the microengineering section.
Bellouard could easily have been an archeologist, volcanologist, computer scientist or even anthropologist. He’s fascinated by all these fields: “Throughout humanity, there’s always been a link between science, history and society. Even some of today’s high-tech devices have their origins back in ancient times,” he says. For instance, the final exam for his Physics of Manufacturing class, held this August, contained problems related to Cardan joints – the mechanisms that make gyroscopes work – using examples from Ancient Greece right up to modern day.
When it came time to choose a career, Bellouard opted for applied physics. And although he describes his field as “generic and universal,” he also believes that “there are no generic teaching methods. This best teacher award is encouraging because it removes some of the uncertainty I had about how people view our work. It really means a lot to me.”
A flower pot or a toaster, but not a fire extinguisher
His other class is Product Design and System Engineering, which he now team teaches with Prof. Edoardo Charbon. For this class – highly popular among Master’s students – Bellouard uses an approach he first developed with colleagues in the Netherlands when he taught there for ten years. “I came to EPFL in 2015 to fill a vacancy left by two retiring professors. But I had no experience in their subjects,” he recalls. “One thing I appreciated about working in the Netherlands is the emphasis on teamwork. That dates back to when the Dutch had to drain swampland and build villages on polders, and generally learn to survive in an inhospitable environment. You can’t do that on your own.”
I see a big difference between students in the US and the Netherlands versus students in Switzerland. Here they take a very academic approach; we have to encourage them to take the initiative and work independently.
His approach involves dividing students into groups of six and having them design a product from A to Z. “The groups are just big enough so that the students have to get along for things to work,” says Bellouard. The groups are chosen at random, so students can’t simply team up with their friends. “In the working world, you don’t get to pick your colleagues,” he explains. The students are reticent at first but they quickly get on board. And the prototypes they present at the end of the year are often exceptional. One group developed a smart flower pot that users control with their smartphones – a telecom operator has already shown interest in their invention. Another group came up with a machine that can help the blind learn to read, something that meets a real need. “The prototype presentations are the best part of the year,” Bellouard says proudly.
The professor is also a fan of reverse engineering. Another of his exercises involves asking student groups to select an everyday object and take it apart to figure out how it works. Then, a little like police investigators at the scene of a crime, they have to reconstruct the object’s original design brief. The objects chosen must meet both educational and safety requirements – toasters are in but fire extinguishers are out. It’s an exercise Bellouard’s practical-minded students are particularly fond of.
Indeed, Bellouard would like to go even further in bringing out students’ inventive nature. “I see a big difference between students in the US and the Netherlands versus students in Switzerland. Here they take a very academic approach; we have to encourage them to take the initiative and work independently. Maybe that’s our fault as teachers, perhaps we give them too much instruction. Finding the right balance is one of the main challenges of our profession,” says Bellouard.
Not just an absent-minded professor
The anthropologist within him likes to punctate his lectures with cultural references. This includes explaining why he chose to become a teacher rather than go into the private sector. “I like being able to change research topics often and share my findings, which I can do in my current role. Who wants to spend years and years of their life studying the same thing? It’s important to be passionate about your field, but without falling into the trap of the absent-minded professor” – he says, referring to the French film Same Old Song with a character who fits that description – “that is, without becoming so immersed in one particular topic that you think no one from the outside could understand. You’d really come across as a social misfit! That’s one reason why we bring in guest lecturers from industry who are working on completely different things. It shows students that are other perspectives out there.”
Bellouard’s various research interests include LéXPLORE, a floating platform in Lake Geneva, off the shores of Pully, where he is using glass sensors to study algae. The professor would like to incorporate more environmental- and societal-related topics into his classes, in part because they help unite students around a common goal. “I’ll take any opportunity to link engineering with the environment. Students are enthusiastic about such topics – which often involve several disciplines and neatly encapsulate the challenges and opportunities we’ll face in the future. I think there are good reasons to be optimistic,” says Bellouard.