# “Teaching made me discover a whole new aspect of my personality”

José Luis Zuleta, a mathematics lecturer at EPFL, uses cooking examples to whet his students’ appetite for learning – and corny jokes to keep their attention. His strategy seems to be working, as he was named the best teacher in the mathematics section for 2023.

Zuleta’s sweet tooth is what led him to math. “My elementary school teacher used chocolate bars and cake slices to explain fractions,” he says. “I loved math!” Unfortunately, his math classes became more serious “and less focused on sweets” as the years went on. But he never lost his enthusiasm for numbers and equations.

When it came time to choose a major, Zuleta opted for physics “because I thought it would open more doors,” he explains. And since he didn’t want to stray too far from his beloved mathematics, he specialized in theoretical physics, which “sits halfway between the two fields.” He began teaching at EPFL in 2002, where he now gives classes in analysis, linear algebra and geometry to first-year students from a variety of majors including chemistry, civil engineering and mechanical engineering. He also teaches math to forensic-science students at the University of Lausanne.

**Debunking the myth of a natural gift**

While many teachers would be put off by the prospect of teaching math to “non-mathies,” Zuleta finds it inspiring. “It forces me to get out of my comfort zone and look for creative ways to teach the material,” he says. The first thing he does is “explain to students that they shouldn’t just see math as a required course, as it gives them valuable tools they’ll use throughout their career – much like a Swiss army knife.”

This argument usually resonates with his students, enabling Zuleta to raise the bar and “show them that learning math can actually be fun.” Here, Zuleta starts by debunking the myth that you need to be naturally good at math. He explains: “Unlike soccer, for example, where you have to be physically fit to do well, mathematics is within everyone’s reach. And I’d point out that math is both beautiful and simple.”

**A light-hearted approach to a heavy subject**

That said, every year Zuleta must convince his students to embrace mathematics. It’s a classic Sisyphean task for him, yet little wins along the way show him that he’s on the right path. “Some of my students have even decided to switch their major to math!”

Part of his strategy for winning students over involves drawing on an unfailing ally: humor. “I see myself as someone who’s very serious, but if I think back to my time at university – especially now that I’m a teacher myself – I realize my professors used humor quite a bit to get their messages across.” That’s why Zuleta doesn’t hesitate to crack a joke now and then during his lectures. “Teaching made me discover a whole new facet of my personality – I can actually be a pretty funny guy! Or at least, my students are polite enough to laugh at my corny jokes,” he says. But he’s quick to add that “not taking yourself too seriously doesn’t mean not taking your work seriously. It’s possible to be very thorough in your work while also having fun with it.”

And if he senses that students are struggling to grasp the material, he tries even harder to create an easy-going atmosphere. “I think that helps them relax and ask questions, especially in big classes.” He believes that, if his students are to make progress, it’s essential for them to speak up and participate actively in class. “Also, the students’ input gives me a feel for where they are and whether I need to adjust my lectures.”

**Textbooks and cookbooks**

Taking a cue from his elementary school teacher, Zuleta frequently uses cooking examples to give his students a taste for mathematics. “I learned how to cook when I was a university student, thanks to the Betty Bossi cookbooks for beginners. Today, I often refer to those recipes in class.” (In his next breath, he clarifies that he has since “moved on to more sophisticated recipes than Betty Bossi.”) As far as his students are concerned, “some of them have complained to me that attending my classes makes them hungry!”