“The more you put into teaching, the more you get out”

Paolo Ricci received his Polysphère d’Or award at this year’s graduation ceremony. © Christian Brun 2021 EPFL

Paolo Ricci received his Polysphère d’Or award at this year’s graduation ceremony. © Christian Brun 2021 EPFL

Paolo Ricci, a physics professor at EPFL for over ten years, is the winner of this year’s "Polysphère d’Or" – an award given by students to honor teaching excellence.

Ricci received his "Polysphère d’Or" award at this year’s graduation ceremony, and even just a few minutes on stage were enough to demonstrate his remarkable teaching capability. Using some simple demonstrations, he showed how “surprising” physics is, as he put it, and how captivating it can be. Ricci’s love for physics began in high school when he learned about nuclear fusion and the potential for creating a star on Earth to generate energy. “I found that fascinating,” he says. “At the time I thought I’d delve into it just a little further, but ended up dedicating my life to it.” Ricci, who also conducts research at EPFL’s Swiss Plasma Center, runs simulations on some of the world’s most powerful computers. That’s in addition to the time he spends teaching physics to first-year Bachelor’s students. We spoke with Ricci about the "Polysphère d’Or" award and what teaching means to him.

What does winning this award represent for you?

It’s wonderful. I teach over 250 students, so it’s great to get this sort of recognition. But the "Polypshère d'Or" also belongs to my army of assistants and to everyone who helps set up the physics experiments we do during class.

How has teaching been during the pandemic?

Last year was very unusual. All the professors here made a huge effort to adapt their teaching methods to the new circumstances. Our team at the Swiss Plasma Center put a lot of effort into giving high-quality classes remotely and keeping things interactive. Strangely, I actually felt closer to the students, even though I couldn’t see them. We used the chat box a lot to communicate with one another. I was really impressed with the students – they kept showing up and demonstrated such resilience.

(Watch at 1:45 Paolo Ricci receiving his "Polysphère d’Or")

How would you characterize your teaching?

I teach a core class, so I have a big responsibility because I help lay the foundation. I want to teach students how to approach problems and think critically. My goal is to instill a way of discerning information that will help them throughout their lives. I think the more you put into teaching, the more you get out. It’s important to invest time into it.

I use many different kinds of teaching materials, including PowerPoint presentations, chalkboard exercises, videos, experiments and discussions. As good as today’s new teaching methods are, I believe there’s still a lot of value in traditional ones. I’m a big fan of writing things out on the chalkboard – it gives students time to digest the information.

Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?

Yes, Prof. Ambrogio Fasoli, who currently heads the Swiss Plasma Center and is EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Research. He taught me the most about teaching. He emphasized how important it is to use a variety of materials and to encourage students to interact and get involved. When I worked as a postdoc at Dartmouth College in the US, I also picked up on the American way of teaching. There, teachers’ intelligence is judged on their ability to make students understand a concept.

Do you have any particular memories from your time as a student?

I have so many fond memories of being with my friends. In terms of my studies, I really enjoyed my Master’s program in Turin. Even though that university didn’t have all the resources we have here, the quality of teaching was exceptional.

Is there a particular teacher who you try not to emulate?

My Latin teacher from high school. It just didn’t work. I think she took a bit of a disliking to me, and so in the end, I didn't continue to study Latin...

And you have had an impressive career. Is there a moment that stands out for you?

Yes, when my plasma physics professor in Turin asked me to join his research group. It was thanks to him that I got hired by Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US to do my PhD.

What drew you to nuclear fusion?

I’m fascinated by how complex it is. I love the process of isolating elements in order to better understand them, and then putting them back together. And the fact that we can create clean energy – without greenhouse gas emissions – is so exciting. It's a long-term endeavor, but we’re making small strides and progress is be made, with some promising discoveries along the way.