“We need to build on the past in order to move forward”
Jürg Schiffmann, a tenure track assistant professor and head of EPFL’s Laboratory for Applied Mechanical Design, has been named best teacher in the Mechanical Engineering section.
In the Microcity building in Neuchatel, an old helicopter engine sits on a shelf in Jürg Schiffmann’s office, forming a stark contrast with the pristine white surroundings – and betraying his childlike fascination for all things mechanical. The tenure track assistant professor and head of EPFL’s Laboratory for Applied Mechanical Design, inherited this love of mechanics from his father, an engineer eager to figure out how things work and fix his own cars. “I always tell my students to go dig up old machines and take them apart. We need to build on the past in order to move forward.” After training as a mechanical engineer and working in industry for several years, Schiffmann started teaching at EPFL five years ago. This year he has been named best teacher in the Mechanical Engineering Section thanks to his effective courses and excellent student evaluations.
Professor Schiffmann, whose research focuses on small turbomachines, teaches two required mechanical systems courses for second- and third-year Bachelor’s students and an applied mechanical design course for Master’s students. “I hope to transmit my passion to students – the chills you get when you finally make a machine work,” he says. And to help students grasp complicated subjects the first time around, he draws on his creativity to come up with concrete examples and a project-oriented approach. That helps prevent the boredom that often occurs in classes where teachers simply list a machine’s components.
Continuously seeking to improve
“I like exposing students early on to situations they’ll encounter in the real world.” Professor Schiffmann prefers giving students open-ended problems and often asks his assistants to take part in role-playing games where they act as customers, consultants or even project managers. He assigns his Master’s students projects typical of what they’ll be faced with in industry – challenges he maps out ahead of time with his whole team. For example, two years ago his Master’s students had to design an integrated system for a Nespresso machine that would separate coffee grounds from aluminum in used capsules. The students were so enthusiastic about the project that a group even decided to patent their design and create a startup.
That was highly satisfying for Professor Schiffmann, who strives to continuously improve his teaching. “The first class of EPFL students I taught completely shot down my course. That was tough, but I took their comments on board and started over from scratch. Today I get positive feedback and I even supervise two students from that first class who are now doing their PhD. I don’t need to have thick skin anymore.” He pays particular attention to how his courses are structured, taking inspiration from his own teachers when he was a student. For instance, at the start of each class he summarizes the material from the previous class, and beginning this fall he plans to give students an anonymous quiz at the end of each subject to better pinpoint what they had trouble with. “I’d also like to incorporate more examples and demos, and perhaps even try out an inverted classroom one day.”