“I want my students to feel comfortable speaking up in class”

“As you get more experience teaching, I think you focus less on yourself and more on your students.” © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

“As you get more experience teaching, I think you focus less on yourself and more on your students.” © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

Roland Logé, the head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Thermomechanical Metallurgy, has won the 2019 best teacher award for the materials science and engineering section. His approach encourages students to take an active role, speaking up and asking questions.

Dialogue. A process that Professor Logé values just as much as he hates being too strict with people who make mistakes. This dialogue could be between students and teachers, among students, among teachers or among departments – or even the dialogue in our heads as we attempt to solve a problem. This penchant for open communication, in both research and teaching, comes in part from his father, who was a lawyer. But it is also a result of his student’s experience, with one professor in particular who inspired him. “Thanks to him I was admitted to a Master’s program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This professor had a strong personality but his door was always open – we could ask questions whenever we wanted. I believe you can measure a teacher’s success by how extensively his students interact with him. I try to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable speaking out, without worrying about being judged or criticized,” says Logé.

It’s all about teamwork

This approach won Prof. Logé the 2019 best teacher award for the materials science and engineering section. He now heads that section, but he notes with a smile that he didn’t nominate himself for the award. Logé prefers a flat – rather than hierarchical – organizational structure where everyone is free to take the initiative. The last thing he wants is to monopolize the spotlight. “Teaching is all about teamwork. It’s only fun if you can establish a connection with your students, like an artist with his public. And if you’re not on top of your game, you can lose that connection,” he says.

Originally from Belgium, Prof. Logé performed post-doc research at Cornell University – that’s also where he gets married, his wife was a French teacher at the time. He then spent over ten years working at CNRS in France before deciding to make a career change. He joined EPFL’s Neuchâtel campus five years ago. Initially interested in physics, Logé was gradually drawn to mechanical engineering and materials science and today specializes in metallic microstructures. “Materials science is a unique field because intuition plays a large role. You have to continually switch between listening to your intuition and following the established theories,” he says. For someone who “always had fun in math and science,” this mental exercise is a stimulating experience – as is seeing his research used in real-world applications.

The focus of his research, funded in part by PX-Group, is on developing new methods for optimizing metallic microstructures. The goal is to combine mechanical and thermal treatment processes to develop materials with superior properties. “By working directly with businesses, you can see the specific challenges they face. The components we design have to be extremely reliable and deliver high added value in a variety of applications, ranging from biomedical devices and watchmaking to aerospace systems,” says Logé

Considering questions from the students’ perspective

Prof. Logé, whose 10-year-old daughter is already showing an interest in science, loves his work and makes an effort to share his discoveries. While teaching, he tries to put himself in his students’ shoes and pays close attention to their comments. This helps him improve his classes year after year and make it easier for students to grasp the subject matter. “When I first started teaching, I was worried about knowing the concepts well enough to be able to answer any question my students might ask. And I would talk too much. Now, my main concern is explaining the concepts the right way, and I actually hope they will ask me questions I hadn’t thought of. As you get more experience teaching, I think you focus less on yourself and more on your students,” says Logé.

To encourage his students to speak up in class, Prof. Logé draws on the peer-instruction approach developed by Eric Mazur. It involves clickers, multiple-choice questions – where the students attempt to hash out the answer among themselves – and open-ended questions where the students are asked to share their opinions. “I use the same questions I asked myself when I was first learning the subject. If we stop asking the whats and whys we lose our edge, it helps keep things fresh,” he says.

Prof. Logé’s method works particularly well in the materials deformation class he gives to third-year materials science and engineering students. A class also attended by mechanical engineering students. There are around 30 of these students in his class, as well as a handful of mechanical engineering students. But his method is harder to implement in the applied materials science class he teaches jointly to microengineering students. “It’s a different dynamic because there are over 100 students in that class, most of whom are only moderately interested in the subject. So I try to find concrete applications from their fields and show how materials science plays a role. The students don’t really speak much at first, but they tend to get more involved as we go along. And I thank every student who makes a contribution,” says Logé.

The key, in other words, is to encourage students’ contributions without judgment. Prof. Logé also uses this approach in his weekly review sessions for the materials deformation course, where he asks students to volunteer to give summaries of what they discussed the previous week. “That helps students learn to consolidate information and get accustomed to speaking in public,” says Logé. “It also gives them a chance to practice for their oral exams and get feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. And at the end, everyone applauds.” Which brings us back to the benefits of dialogue.