“The trick is to go at the right pace”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Katerina Argyraki, a tenure-track assistant professor who has been teaching at EPFL for six years, has been named best teacher in the Computing and Communication Systems section.

Last year, Katerina Argyraki taught a class on computer networks to 200 second-year students on Friday afternoons at 3pm. The students were exhausted at the end of a stressful week – and quite possibly feeling the effects of a Thursday night out – and eager for the weekend to start. “Some students would doze off, while others played video games. I’d count them up and was happy when that number went down each week,” says Argyraki, a tenure-track assistant professor, with a smile.

Professor Argyraki, who has been teaching at EPFL for six years, is keenly attuned to what her students think of her course. “It’s hard to be everything for everyone. That said, when I get negative feedback from a student, that really bothers me.” Fortunately for this perfectionist, such cases are rare. Her ability to spark her students’ interest in the ins and outs of the internet has earned her the best teacher award for the Computing and Communication Systems section. “There are lots of network protocols, and the theory can get boring pretty quickly. So instead of trying to teach all the protocols, I focus on a few of them and encourage the students to figure out how they work, through discussions and open-ended problems. It's a challenge for them because they have to think outside the box, like engineers.”

Instant gratification

When it comes to teaching, Professor Argyraki looks to her lifelong role model, her mother, who’s a philologist and high-school teacher. “She’s very charismatic, she never sits down and she always maintains visual contact with her students. She wants them to enjoy being there.” Following her mother’s lead, the computer network specialist always goes that extra mile to ensure her students feel their time is well spent. “The trick is to go at the right pace. EPFL is a competitive school and the students are highly stressed – and sometimes even overwhelmed. If I want them to learn the material, I can’t overload them.” To help ensure her students retain what she teaches, she quizzes them on the previous week’s material at the start of each class.

“When I’m doing research, I ask myself a lot of questions, especially about why I’m doing what I’m doing. Teaching is more concrete – it provides instant gratification. It’s important for me to have both of these things.” Professor Argyraki talks about her work a lot with her husband, George Candea, who also teaches in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences. “We start off discussing our research, but we always end up talking about teaching.” Argyraki’s research focus is the neutrality and transparency of computer networks, and with her husband she co-teaches a Master’s class – also attended by PhD students – on the principles of computer systems. “It’s a challenging cross-disciplinary course that requires solid background knowledge. Every week we look at a different principle, and the students have to think up ways they could apply it – or challenge how it is used.” For someone who loves to explore the internal workings of the internet, encouraging her students to be creative and learn on their own is fundamental.