“If you don't pay attention to your students, you'll lose them”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Professor Kuhn, holder of the Chair in Risk Analytics and Optimization, has been named best teacher in the Management of technology section.

Like a chess player, Daniel Kuhn thinks carefully before making decisions, mapping out all possible scenarios. This methodical approach has led this son of a lawyer to become an expert in optimization. “My research involves modelling the unknowns in a problem and developing an algorithm that can quickly come up with the optimal solution. What I like about optimization is that the methods can be applied to a wide array of fields,” says Kuhn, a professor at EPFL’s College of Management of Technology and holder of the Chair in Risk Analytics and Optimization. He puts his analytical thinking skills to use most notably in the fields of energy systems, engineering and management.

Professor Kuhn gives two Master’s classes and one PhD class. He teaches students the theory of optimization and shows how it can used in engineering as well as decision making. While this requires an advanced level of mathematics and makes his classes particularly challenging for students, they enjoy learning from the professor just the same. And thanks to the excellent course evaluations he receives from students, Professor Kuhn has been named best teacher in the Management of technology section this year. He’s proud of this achievement, but it also puts him ill at ease because he has since been made head of the section. “I don’t want people to think I awarded myself,” he says.

Magic tricks

Professor Kuhn holds a PhD in Economics from the University of St. Gallen and performed post-doc research at the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He joined EPFL in 2013 after having taught for six years at Imperial College London. Upon returning to Switzerland, he had to acclimate himself to the reserved nature of Swiss students. “In England students would line up after class to ask me questions. Here nobody does that, the students are much more hesitant to speak up.” To encourage them to participate in class and to pique their curiosity, Kuhn employs magic tricks. He beguiles them with card tricks and shows them how at casinos, the house always wins. “My post-doc research supervisor was always kidding around, and I try to borrow some of his ideas.” Kuhn makes his lessons fun and ties them into concrete examples, with a focus on conceptualization and problem solving. “I never liked classes based on rote memorization.” Optimization requires a firm grasp of computational thinking.

To help make sure his students properly learn the material, Professor Kuhn explains concepts in a variety of ways. He uses only a chalkboard, on which he sketches out his line of thinking. “I regularly take the class’s pulse and adjust my lessons accordingly. It’s important to understand what students are having trouble with. If you don’t pay attention to them, you’ll lose them. And there’s no point spending a lot of time preparing a lesson if the message doesn’t get across.” Sounds like another form of optimization.