Nicolas Grandjean

Prize in the Physics section

Professor Nicolas Grandjean found balance at EPFL: the ability to reconcile scientific research and knowledge transfer. He was always interested in teaching yet started out pursuing his passion for research by spending 10 years as a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. “But I always wanted to share this passion with others,” he said. In 2004 he joined EPFL, where he can do both – laboratory work and teaching.

In his general physics course, Grandjean strives to drum up enthusiasm among students who may be discouraged by the subject matter. “They tell me they came to EPFL to make robots but that already in the first few weeks they’re up to their eyeballs in equations.” And although math is vital, it does not always hold the key to understanding physics. In his course, Grandjean stresses the need to understand phenomena before attempting to translate them into mathematical form. The students respond to this approach, especially since it is backed by experiments run in the classroom. “My students love it: how’s it going to turn out? What can we learn from this? It provides suspense and keeps things moving.” Observing the laws of physics in action can really inject life into the most theoretical concepts.

Over the years, Grandjean has also learned to incorporate different levels of understanding in his teaching – a little like a cartoon that both children and their parents can enjoy. “I try to offer two scenarios in my course: hands-on explanations alongside a more challenging version with equations.” He doesn’t want to lose those students who might be totally turned off by the challenging part. This doesn’t mean he spoon-feeds his students, quite the opposite: “A very good course improves students’ understanding but does not necessarily show them how to solve a problem. The trick is putting the understanding into practice. This means learning to be independent and spending long hours working on their own.”

Work is necessary, but imagination is too. Grandjean encourages creativity, which he considers essential for innovation. Creativity is difficult to assess in first-year students, however. “Our educational model cannot afford to select students solely on the basis of their technical abilities,” he said. That’s why, in his course, he lauds the efforts of students who come up with an original approach. And he further encourages originality through digressions that touch on fields that interest the class, like microengineering. The success of his approach is evident in the students’ outstanding evaluations.

Grandjean’s dream is to get students more involved in research, which he seeks to do by offering greater access to labs designed specifically for them. And when it comes to putting together a physics MOOC, he would only consider it if it does not replace his teaching duties. “Video didn’t kill the theater! Teaching is similar: my role is to fill the space, to tell stories, and ultimately to transfer knowledge and maybe lead some students into a career in research.” It all starts with creating a relationship with his students. “The most important thing is sharing.”