“The foundation has to be solid before building on it”

André Hodder uses an eclectic palette of analogies and examples to explain complicated concepts.© Alain Herzog 2020 EPFL

André Hodder uses an eclectic palette of analogies and examples to explain complicated concepts.© Alain Herzog 2020 EPFL

André Hodder has been named this year’s best teacher in the electrical and electronics engineering section.

When you speak with Hodder, you get the impression that you’re the most interesting person in the world. He looks at you, captivated, even if he doesn’t know anything about your field. “I like people,” he says, with disarming candor. “I try to eliminate the distance between students and teachers, who are often put on a pedestal due to EPFL’s reputation. I want my students to feel confident enough to ask me questions, even – and especially – if it’s about something ‘basic’ they haven’t understood. The foundation has to be solid before you can start building on it,” says Hodder. He also believes there are no bad students, provided they do their work, but bad teachers. If a student is having trouble with a particular concept, Hodder won’t give up. He’ll explain things in a different way, using examples from daily life or bringing in a colleague if necessary, until the student says those magic words: “Oh, I get it!”.

Hodder has always been someone who enjoys sharing what he knows. As a student his classmates often teased him for “playing the professor.” Hodder recalls: “I was obstinate when I first started teaching – convinced that my methods were unequivocally the best. Until I came across a student who took notes on her laptop during class; she spent the whole time typing and didn’t look at or talk to me. Then I realized I had to respect that different people learn in different ways.” Since then he views his role differently, but he’s still just as passionate about what he does.

His thirst for knowledge, for understanding the technical details of the world around him, hasn’t been quenched. On the contrary – his eyes still light up when he gets an opportunity to take things apart, cobble them together and generally figure out how they work. “You have to photograph all sides of a mountain to capture what it really looks like – not just the Swiss or Italian or French side.” An amateur musician who plays several instruments, Hodder draws a parallel with music. “I’m someone who needs to develop my technique, make sure my fingers move exactly the right way on the guitar, so that the notes come out the way I want, especially during a jam session with students and other teachers,” he says.

Logical analogies

What’s the secret to Hodder’s teaching success? An eclectic palette of analogies and examples taken from everyday devices – such as electric cars and bikes, smartphone batteries, elevators and electric toothbrushes – which he uses to explain complicated concepts. During his lectures he often goes off on a tangent, and admits, with a smile, that sometimes he never quite gets back to his initial line of thought. “Once students have grasped the tangible aspects of something, I can go on to the more abstract theory and mathematics behind it,” he says.

Hodder also pushes students to think things out for themselves. “How would you solve a differential equation out in the real world?” is one of the challenges he enjoys throwing at students. The answer is often a hesitant “Errr… I’d look it up online” – but that’s exactly what Hodder likes to hear. “I want students to take the initiative and do some research,” he says. “If they’re still confused, they can come see me, and I’ll water the seed that’s already been planted. I’m basically just their guide – I fill their backpacks with as many tools as possible when they’re Bachelor’s students, and then when they’re Master’s students, I make them use those tools.”

Much more than just a teacher

Hodder modestly sees himself as someone with just a little more experience than students. And he tries to be more than just their teacher – he’s available anytime if they want to talk, grab a cup of coffee, discuss problems, get career advice or get his take on life in general. The ties Hodder forms with students often turn into friendships after they graduate. These mentoring-style relationships are what drives him; another example of that is the role he played as an advisor for the EPFLoop team, which took part in the 2018 and 2019 Hyperloop Pod Competitions. “These cross-disciplinary projects are amazing. I spent hours and hours with students, supporting them through their doubts, fears and fatigue. They gave it their all, working nights and weekends to troubleshoot problems – and won third place worldwide. It’s great to see them fulfill their potential and help them forge their identity. I’m so happy when they succeed. To paraphrase Philippe Gay-Balmaz, we teachers are like the oil on students’ gears. The fact that Martin Vetterli came to the competition put a kind of ‘positive pressure’ on the students. It demonstrated the confidence he has in them. The entire EPFLoop experience – the highs and the lows – was priceless,” says Hodder, his voice filled with emotion as he remembers that extraordinary experience. Probably the biggest highlight of his career so far.

An award worth more than its weight in gold

How does he feel about winning his section’s best teacher award? “It’s fantastic to be recognized by the EPFL community – the professors I work with, the staff in my section and my colleagues; it’s a way of thanking me for my hard work and the quality of my teaching. I’ve had excellent bosses along the way, who knew how to point out my weaknesses gracefully, who had confidence in me, and who encouraged me – all so that our students can become engineers” he says. With Hodder, there is no alternating current, just an intense, direct current. 

Author: Laurianne Trimoulla