Prize in the Physics section
The 2016 teaching prize in the physics section was awarded to Paolo Ricci. The professor, who has been with the Faculty of Basic Sciences since 2011, immediately responded: “I must say that teaching is the best part of my job.”
The Italian physicist tends to use more unconventional teaching methods in his Bachelor’s level General Physics II and Master’s level Plasma Physics II courses. “I like surprising my students,” he said. “For example, I’ll spend an entire hour solving an equation on the chalkboard and then tell them the whole thing is wrong because the initial assumption was erroneous.” His approach was inspired by his experience as a researcher. “It teaches them to critique their results and that, in life, sometimes you have to take detours; things don’t always line up nicely.”
In an auditorium full of students – up to 280 in his Bachelor’s course – Professor Ricci pulls out all the stops to hold everyone’s attention. “I take my colleagues’ methods, especially the ones used by Professor Ambrogio Fasoli, and push them to the extreme,” he explained. “I try to continually change my material and teaching methods to keep things spontaneous and prevent them from becoming monotonous.” His classes are a study in mosaic: a blackboard in the middle, surrounded by videos on one side and a projector on the other. He rounds this out with a few in-class experiments, some humor and exchanges with students.
Professor Ricci goes out of his way to visit each of his classes in their labs to see how his students are doing. “By fielding their questions, I can see for myself which topics are posing problems and have to be developed more in class.” Based on his excellent course evaluations, it’s safe to say his students greatly appreciate his investment. “Just recently I was surprised to receive a thank-you postcard from an anonymous student. That initiative motivated me even more to invest myself in teaching,” he said.
Professor Ricci helped develop the first MOOC in the world on plasma physics, which was created in 2015 by the Swiss Plasma Center (SPC). He also co-teaches the PhD course Magnetic Confinement. Alongside his teaching, he serves as head of the SPC theory group.