“What happens before and after class matters just as much”

Selman Sakar, best teacher in the mechanical engineering section at EPFL for 2023 - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Selman Sakar, best teacher in the mechanical engineering section at EPFL for 2023 - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

With his upbringing, Selman Sakar was destined for a career in medicine, research or teaching. In the end, he combined all three. For the associate professor, who was named best teacher in the mechanical engineering section at EPFL for 2023, science is first and foremost about helping build a better world. And he expects nothing less of his students.

Ask most people to describe a researcher, and they’ll probably wheel out the trope of someone devoted to their experiments, their eye trained on a microscope or a computer screen. There are few people who defy this stereotype better than Selman Sakar, the head of EPFL’s MicroBioRobotic Systems Laboratory (MICROBS). According to Sakar, science should first and foremost be “a space for thought and discussion.” He cautions that researchers “should never lose sight of the big picture – of how they can help build a better world.”

Sakar is endowed with a strong sense of right and wrong and an ability to see beyond the tiny robots that populate his laboratory – qualities he attributes in part to his upbringing: “I grew up in Turkey, in a devout Muslim household.” Two topics came up time and again in conversation at home: “meaning and interpretation.” His family’s values meant a career as a businessman was out of the question. “My options were to become a teacher, a researcher or a doctor,” he says. “My current role lets me combine all three.”

Sakar pauses for a moment to reflect. “Perhaps my future was mapped out from a very young age,” he continues. “Maybe my purpose in life was to go abroad for my PhD [obtained at the University of Pennsylvania] and serve as a role model for people with similar backgrounds – in short, to inspire them.” And, in doing so, to help make academia more inclusive. “Once you push past the mental barriers that keep you from following through on your plans, you create the space for other, more important and more existential questions,” he says. “For instance, you can start thinking about what will make you fulfilled in life.”

Accommodating different learning styles

It was also in childhood that Sakar discovered his passion for teaching. “Back in primary and secondary school, our classrooms were quite crowded and there were three pupils to a desk,” he recalls. “I’d always try to help out my classmates if I could see they were struggling.” He soon realized that some of his fellow pupils were finding classes hard because the teacher’s method was at odds with their learning style. “I’d try to explain the material to them in a completely different way,” he says.

Now, more than three decades on, Sakar applies the same philosophy to his role at EPFL. “Whenever I prepare for a class, I try to consider the many different ways of explaining the material – and since I teach hundreds of students every semester, the possibilities are endless!” he adds with a smile. Sakar clearly isn’t the kind of educator who repeats the same lectures year after year, as if on autopilot. Quite the opposite, in fact: he takes great pleasure in reviewing and updating his teaching notes. It’s a process that takes time and mental energy, but he’s convinced the effort is worth it. “It forces me to keep abreast of the latest developments in my field,” he explains. “And, ultimately, that spills over into my research.”

For Sakar, an international expert in micro- and nanorobotics, preparing for classes is only part of the job. Based on a firm belief that “what happens before and after matters just as much as the class itself,” he’s adopted a bottom-up approach where he spends as much time as he can with his students to get a good grasp of their needs. His end goal is to “help them understand how to put what they learn at EPFL to good use for society.” On a similar note, Sakar makes a point of talking to students about the meaning and purpose behind their studies, so they can “see the big picture.” As a result, they tend to be more open to the drier, more complex and more technical aspects of his classes.

Developing critical-thinking skills

Sakar also goes the extra mile to make sure no students get left behind, especially in his Bachelor’s classes. “I start every class by recapping what we’ve covered so far and introducing the next topic,” he explains. “I regularly tell students where they should be in learning the material. And I encourage them to come speak to me if they feel they’re falling behind. It’s often the case that the diagnosis – identifying where they’ve gotten lost – is more important than the cure.” According to Sakar, one of the best ways to help struggling class members is to encourage them to interact with his teaching assistants, “who understand students’ needs and reality better than I do.”

For his Master’s classes, Sakar has adopted a novel teaching approach. Given that micro- and nanorobotics is a relatively new field, “there aren’t textbooks for me to draw on.” However, as he explains, “new papers on promising research are published almost weekly.” With this in mind, Sakar focuses on developing his students’ analytical thinking skills. “I divide them into small groups at the start of the class,” he explains. “I assign each group a paper on something we’ve studied together and ask them to put together a presentation.” The other students are tasked with asking probing, thought-provoking questions, which the speakers have to answer during their presentation. According to Sakar, this approach “familiarizes students with the scientific method, teamwork and deductive reasoning.”

Booming student numbers

Sakar, who was promoted to associate professor in the summer of 2023, says he’s delighted to have “more time to spend honing my classes.” This promotion also frees him up to tackle one of the biggest challenges he’s faced as a teacher: dealing with booming student numbers. In 2016, he started out with a cohort of around 175 students. Now, he has almost 300 in his Bachelor’s course on Dynamical Systems. “Keeping my teaching as effective and personalized as it’s always been is becoming a real challenge,” he concludes.

Author: Patricia Michaud

Source: People

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