Olivier Lévêque and André Schiper

Prize in the Communication Systems section

EPFL is one of the only Swiss universities that require its engineering students to take a background course on computer science. The course, called “Information, computation and communication”, was created in 2013 and provides students with a grounding that will serve them well in their future career. “We want to give them a less simplistic understanding of computer science and prepare them for algorithmic thinking. By the end of the course they should be comfortable with this approach: they should know what sort of problem can be solved in two minutes by a computer, but they should also understand the current limits of the science,” says Olivier Lévêque, who coordinates the course and ensures it keeps pace with the field. Lévêque, together with André Schiper, who created the course, have been awarded their section’s teaching prize in recognition of their novel approach and excellent results.

Currently being taught for the fifth time, the course looks at digital culture in general, machine and network architecture, and the basics of IT security. “We separated the course into three modules: computation, data and IT systems. A given module fills three or four lessons, and we have ten people who teach the course. So it’s really a team effort, involving a handful of dedicated colleagues,” says Schiper. The teachers bring in their respective teaching methods – in a class of more than 200 students, this variety ensures the lessons are as interactive as possible. A reference book called “Découvrir le numérique” has also been published by Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes (PPUR).

From the outset, the course has been very positively evaluated by the students. “We teach them about things like information theory and entropy, and we link these topics to real-world examples, such as smartphones,” says Schiper. “Many of them discover a universe they had no idea existed.” Both professors agree that, for future engineers, being at home in today’s digital world is more important than ever. “A civil engineer with an aptitude for digital modeling has a clear advantage over peers.”