Michel Rappaz

Prize in the Materials Science and Engineering section

People at EPFL are still talking about the time he broke dishes in class. Between his personal charisma and his unorthodox methods, Michel Rappaz has no trouble engaging and motivating a class full of students. Passionate about his work and in touch with his students, Professor Rappaz taught an introductory materials course for first-year students and a MOOC, until September 2015. “My students were not expecting someone close to retirement to be so enthusiastic about his work,” he said smiling.

When he was starting out, Rappaz almost went into theater studies before deciding to teach the magic of materials. “I taught 3,500 Bachelor’s and Master’s students and 35 PhD students, and in a way they’re my spiritual children.” He is fond of modern technologies but believes that face-to-face teaching will always have its place. “Students thrive on direct contact, having someone who gets them thinking and yells at them when they talk in class. An online course can never replace a person.”

When teaching complicated theoretical concepts, Rappaz starts with simple – but intriguing – questions. “Why can’t a dish bend while a knife can? How do hand warmers work?” This approach gets the wheels turning. With massive amounts of information available on the internet, a course needs to provide “an incentive to learn,” said Rappaz. To get his point across, Rappaz would arrive in class wheeling a cart with a camera and a USB microscope. “The students liked to see that, although over 60 years old, I was up on all the technology! And what was really gratifying was when the class would get excited about an experiment and want to get involved.”

Most of all, Rappaz is proud to have had an impact on so many students, which wasn’t always easy in the large lecture halls. “I get a kick out of meeting parents of my students years later and hearing them say: we’ve heard a lot about you!” Rappaz retired in September 2015. He won the teaching prize in the Materials Science and Engineering section for his teaching prowess and his career-long commitment to EPFL.