Pierre Rossi wins the 2019 ENAC Polysphère award

Pierre Rossi at the 2019 Polysphère awards ceremony. © Alain Herzog, EPFL

Pierre Rossi at the 2019 Polysphère awards ceremony. © Alain Herzog, EPFL

ENAC students have awarded this year’s Polysphère to Pierre Rossi for his excellence in teaching. Rossi gives a biology class for preparatory-year students in environmental sciences and engineering.

How did you feel when you found out you won the ENAC Polysphère award?

I was totally surprised! I’d even deleted the emails announcing the winners, because I never thought I’d be on the list. It wasn’t until I got an urgent message from the vice president of AGEPoly a week later that I realized I’d won. I always thought it was highly unlikely that a teacher of a preparatory-year class like mine would receive this kind of recognition. But once I got past the surprise, I felt that it was a wonderful gift after my 15 years of teaching at EPFL. I’m especially honored because the award comes from the students, the very ones who take my class.

What topics do you teach in your class?

My class covers the standard concepts of biology. We basically go over each of the main categories of living organisms on the planet – not just animals, but all types of living beings, with a particular focus on the role of bacteria in the environment, which is my particular field of study. Of course, we can’t cover every single living organism in just a few hours of class time. So I’ve structured my class to teach the core principles that will be useful to my students as environmental engineers. I also have them look at concrete case studies and perform specific exercises.

Can you tell us about your teaching approach?

I mainly try to give my students analytical thinking skills and the confidence to form their own opinions, taking them up progressively through the higher teaching models of Bloom’s Taxonomy. That entails encouraging them to come up with creative, big-picture solutions to complicated problems – something that isn’t easy for everyone, especially in their preparatory year. And then there’s the actual process of teaching the class, which is something else entirely. I’m lucky to have many years of experience teaching students at all levels, so I know some of the tricks for keeping their attention and getting them to concentrate. Those are things you learn on the job, sometimes by making mistakes! But the one thing we as teachers should always remember is that we are “storytellers” passing along a story that started long before us – when our ancestors were still hunting mammoth – and that will continue long after we’re gone. We are just guardians of knowledge, and this keeps us rooted. I would also like to mention that last year my class was linked with Julien Maillard’s biochemistry class. I’m fortunate to be able to work with Julien, who’s an excellent teacher.

You are also a senior scientist at EPFL’s Central Environmental Laboratory (GR-CEL) – how does this work tie in with your teaching?

I’d say that’s my primary role, and it involves helping scientists conduct their research on a daily basis. That’s obviously very different from teaching a class. But there are some similarities, such as being attuned to the different ways people learn, especially when it comes to giving them the skills to do things on their own. The more time I spend with students, the better I can spot their needs and strengths but also their weaknesses. By drawing on my experience and, in some cases, taking into account their personal circumstances, I can help them develop their full potential. We sometimes forget that students and scientists are also human beings who can’t apply the knowledge they’ve learned unless they feel comfortable and confident in their capabilities. The best gift we as teachers can receive – even better than a Polysphère – is seeing our students surpass us.


1986–1996: Master’s, PhD and post-doc in biology, University of Neuchâtel

1996–1997: Post-doc, University of Southern California (USC)

1997–2002: Teaching assistant, Microbiology Laboratory, University of Neuchâtel

2002–2003: Scientist, Hydrogeology Center, University of Neuchâtel, and teacher at Jean-Piaget high school, Neuchâtel

2004–2008: Scientist and lecturer, Laboratory for Environmental Biology (LBE), EPFL

2009–present: Senior scientist, Central Environmental Laboratory (GR-CEL), EPFL, and lecturer in biology and environmental microbiology, EPFL

Author: ENAC Communication