“I update my lessons every year, otherwise I get bored”
Rizlan Bernier-Latmani, who heads EPFL’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, has been named the best teacher in the environmental sciences and engineering section for 2019.
Step into Bernier-Latmani’s office and you’ll see a series of drawings by her two children, aged eight and eleven. Some of the drawings depict how they view her job. “They don’t really understand what I do but they’re already interested in science. Especially when it comes to performing experiments,” she says. They inherited this from their mother, who loves to learn new things – from both a scientific and cultural perspective – and to teach others. Indeed, it was Bernier-Latmani’s approach to teaching that earned her the distinction of best teacher in the environmental sciences and engineering section for 2019, a reflection of the positive feedback from her students.
Making concepts easy to understand
“I believe that teaching means breaking down complicated subjects in a way that’s easy for students to understand. The most important thing for me is that they remember something from my class. That requires not just a lot of preparation, but also a healthy dose of flexibility,” says Bernier-Latmani. A challenge the professor enjoys, since it keeps her on her toes. “I continually try to improve my classes and I update my lessons every year, otherwise I get bored,” she says.
Bernier-Latmani, born in Morocco, holds a PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford University. She subsequently decided to specialize in geomicrobiology and has conducted extensive field work in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and Serbia; she also spent four months teaching in Peru. “I saw that few people in these countries had heard about my area of research,” she says. She joined EPFL in 2005. Today her research looks specifically at the metabolic activity of microorganisms, in particular how they transform metals.
In order to share her findings with people all over the word, especially with the students in developing countries, she created a MOOC, in association with University of Grenoble professor Laurent Charlet, on water quality and biogeochemical processes. This is a topic she also discusses in the Microbiology for Engineers class she gives to second-year Bachelor’s students. What’s more, she used the videos created for the MOOC when she experimented with a flipped classroom – albeit without much success. “My students asked me to return to the conventional way of teaching, but they use the videos, which are posted on Moodle.” To help pique her students’ interest in microorganisms, Bernier-Latmani demonstrates the tangible impact they have on our environment. “I try to use local examples, like what happened in the canton of Fribourg when drinking water became contaminated by nitrate from chemical fertilizers,” she says.
The same tangible approach holds true for the lab sessions she teaches, where students study mechanisms with practical applications, like the reduction of iron oxides. “They investigate the bacteria that metabolize iron oxide – taking measurements and examining the different steps in the process. Being able to see the direct applications of what they learn really helps them grasp the material.”
In the optional Groundwater and Soil Remediation class that Bernier-Latmani gives for Master’s students, she has the students work in pairs to develop a remediation plan for a contaminated site, using real-world data. The students have to outline a strategy for the site, write up a report and explain their choices during an oral exam. Every year Bernier-Latmani gets data from a new site. “This exercise exposes students to the constraints that arise in the real world and helps them develop project management skills. They have to come up with different hypotheses and use their best judgment. It’s similar to what consultants do,” she says.
Small changes that make a big difference
Spring 2019, Bernier-Latmani switched from using a chalkboard in the Master’s class to using a tablet computer. “I didn’t like having to turn my back to students while I was explaining things. With the tablet, I can keep facing them while I’m talking to them. And I found this makes a huge difference in terms of retaining their attention. Now I plan to use this method in all my classes,” she says. The switch will probably also make a big difference in the Introduction to Environmental Engineering class she co-teaches, since it comprises around 150 students. “It’s really hard to get students to speak up in that class, even though I try by frequently asking them questions.”
Given all the focus recently on climate change and environmental protection, has Bernier-Latmani seen an increase in the number of students who sign up for her classes? “Not really,” she replies. “I don’t think students make the link between microorganisms and the environmental issues.” But she is happy to see that people are becoming more environmentally aware. “Now policymakers need to step up to the plate,” she says. Personally, Bernier-Latmani – who enjoys reading geopolitical as well as historical nonfiction – tries to limit her carbon footprint as much as possible. “But there’s always room for improvement.” A humble attitude that is also the hallmark of an excellent teacher.