“Teaching is what makes me happy”
Civil engineering professor Jean-François Molinari has been named best teacher for his section.
Enthusiastic would be an understatement. Molinari is highly expressive with his words and gestures – not surprising considering he did some acting when he was young. “I don’t mind being on stage, or even making a fool out of myself,” he says. That’s clearly not a risk in the classroom, since he’s just won the best teacher award. “Public speaking and putting my energy into things come naturally to me. Teaching is the art of transmitting your passion and it’s what makes me happy. I think my students pick up on that – which is why they like coming to my classes.”
His students also like the way he teaches. “I do it the old-fashioned way, on a chalkboard.” Really? With all the modern technology now available? “Yes. I take the time to write things out, explain them – which slows the class down just enough for students to follow it and ask questions. I want to keep up that level of interaction. I spend most of the class walking back and forth in front of the chalkboard, and when I’m done my hands are full of chalk. It’s a much more active way of teaching than clicking on a button to show the next PowerPoint slide,” says Molinari. The lockdown was therefore hard for him since he had to teach remotely. “I taught my classes live and a lot of students participated, which was good. But Zoom soon got tiring. I hope that after the pandemic people will still appreciate how important human contact is, which has been the cornerstone of teaching for thousands of years,” he says. However, online teaching did break down one barrier: students who didn’t feel comfortable asking a question in class emailed him more readily, including over the weekend.
Impossible is not part of the vocabulary
Continuum mechanics may have a reputation for being tough, but Molinari firmly believes that anyone can learn anything. “I invest the time needed to unpack the details, going step by step through the most challenging concepts. It’s important to maintain a bond with students and get them interested in classes that – sometimes unfairly – are known for being difficult,” he says.
I like helping young engineers develop their skills and build up their confidence. It’s essential for them to grow into their fields.
Molinari enjoys the wide variety of things he gets to do in his job, including mentoring researchers and PhD students so that they can put some order into their thoughts. “I like helping young engineers develop their skills and build up their confidence. It’s essential for them to grow into their fields. I saw that positive spirit a lot in the US, it’s part of American culture. Less so in Switzerland, however, because people here are still a little afraid of failure. That said, EPFL provides a fantastic working environment. My colleagues and students are great, and the services provided by EPFL staff are excellent. I’m proud to work here,” he says.
Molinari is highly active outside the classroom too. “I previously headed EPFL’s Civil Engineering Institute and am currently a member of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s National Research Council. I also play a role in structuring and promoting research in my field,” he says. But that’s not all, because he also conducts fundamental research. “I’m studying material and structural mechanics, which has broad applications in preventing ruptures – understanding how materials become damaged, for example. I also conduct research in tribology, which relates to how materials rub against each other and wear out. We’ve made major advancements in this field thanks to computer simulation and computational thinking, and we’re working towards new inventions and patents,” says Molinari. He and his research team are also developing open-source software. “We share all our findings with the scientific community, contributing to a hub where people can discuss new methods and ideas. It’s kind of a natural extension of teaching.”
Where does his boundless energy come from? “I live a balanced life. I play an active role in my community, spend time with my family and get lots of exercise. I need all of that.” His penchant for exercise even extends into the office. “I encourage my researchers to be active – I even bought EPFL’s first treadmill desk!” he says.
A priceless award
“I’m proud and excited about winning my section’s best teacher award” says Molinari. “It’s important to get feedback on your work, especially since there are few teaching awards in Switzerland. Introducing the section and PhD thesis awards was a good initiative by EPFL – it doesn’t cost much to reward people who invest a lot of their time and energy, and it makes a huge difference to them.”
This is the third time Molinari has won the best teacher award in the past 13 years, but he hasn’t (yet) taken home the Credit Suisse Award. Fourth time’s a charm? Will he wear down the jury? “That’d be great,” he says. “Wearing things down is all in a day’s work for me.”