“You learn things better when you work out the answer for yourself”
Frédéric Blanc, an EPFL senior scientist specialized in particle physics, has been named best teacher in the physics section. In the general physics class he gives to first-year students, the focus is on interactive lectures and hands-on demos.
Back in the day, Blanc was one of those students who would sit quietly in the back of the classroom. But now he takes center stage and has a lot to say. Everything changes and nothing remains still. This is something Blanc is acutely aware of, as he’s currently studying B-meson decay as part of the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) experiment. This experiment aims to examine beauty quarks in order to better characterize the differences between matter and antimatter.
Blanc, who conducts research at EPFL’s High Energy Physics Laboratory, teaches a general physics class for first-year mathematics students as well as a nuclear and particle physics class for Master’s students. While the teaching is not as difficult as decrypting the Universe, it can still be quite a task. For his first-year class in particular, he has to tailor his lectures to participants from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t always used to working independently. “I want them to learn the concepts intuitively, where they reason things out on their own until the light bulb goes on,” says Blanc. “My role is just to identify the piece of the puzzle they may be missing. I think you learn things better when you work out the answer for yourself. I model my approach after the one used by my thesis supervisor, who always answered my questions with another question.”
Show and teach
Blanc therefore asks a lot of questions during his classes and gives demonstrations to bring theoretical concepts to life. “We’re lucky at EPFL to have a lot of equipment available for in-class demonstrations. I even designed some demos myself, to explain the more abstract subjects,” says Blanc. For instance, he attached a handle to a bicycle wheel in such a way that the handle’s axis determines the system’s rotation. The device – built at EPFL’s BSP/Cubotron mechanical workshop – illustrates the basic ideas behind static and dynamic equilibria. Designing these devices is part of what Blanc likes about his job. This may be something he inherited from his civil engineering father or his DIY-loving grandparents.
Exercises are another element of his strategy to help students grasp the sometimes obscure intricacies of physics. He devotes an hour of his lectures each week to reviewing exercises. “By interacting directly with students, I can show them how to approach and solve mechanics problems,” says Blanc. He also attends all the regular weekly exercise sessions for his class. “I think students really appreciate that and find it useful. I generally try to be available for my students, to listen to them and to understand where each person is struggling. I’m really careful not to talk down to anyone, and I try to establish a climate of trust.”
Blanc came to EPFL a little over ten years ago, after completing postdoc research at Cornell and the University of Colorado. “I’ve learned a lot from working with my colleagues here,” he says. For instance, he borrowed his predecessor’s idea of giving 45-minute “mini tests” for students to complete at home under examination conditions. “I have no way of knowing if they actually follow that rule, but the idea is to give them responsibility for their own learning. I give four or five mini tests a year. It also helps them prepare for the final exam.” The idea is that by putting students in charge of their learning, they’ll be better equipped for Master’s programs where they’ll have to study independently and think critically about the conclusions of research findings.
The topics covered in his Master’s class include neutrinos, dark matter and plasmas of quarks and gluons. Here he makes an effort to “explain the implications of these elements on cosmology and the evolution of the Universe.” Cosmology – and astrophysics in general – has always fascinated Blanc. He often observes the sky through his telescope, sometimes accompanied by his daughter, whose interest he’s trying to pique in the composition of the Universe and our place within it – somewhere between charm, beauty and strange quarks.