“Students give me feedback every week”

Francesco Mondada, popular with students, was awarded a 2012 Polysphère, which awards the best professor from the School of Engineering. The prize complements the one that the university administration bestowed on him in 2011, equally celebrating his qualities as a teacher. So what is the secret of this scientist who hales from Ticino? He shares his secret formula in an interview.

"Competent and very funny," "impeccable course materials," "genuine pedagogic concern," "passionate about what he does." This is how students portray Francesco Mandada, master of teaching and research at EPFL and founder of the very popular annual Festival of Robotics. He has earned his reputation from his constantly adaptating courses and his closeness with students. During his teaching career in robotics, he has already won two Polysphères (2006-golden polysphère- and 2012) and a Crédit Suisse Award for Best Teaching (2011).

In your opinion, what is important for making a course interesting?

It seems essential to establish links between different courses given at EPFL. To address this over the past several years, I have coordinated between different professors so that we work together and use the same media. In my current work, for example, each student receives a robot named, "e-puck" (see opposite). Students can take home this learning tool, and they must perform different operations on it. No fewer than five professors also used this robot in their lessons.

It is equally important to get students out of the theory in which they’re grounded to bring them into concrete reality and inspire them to get involved. After each class, they must complete a quiz using the Internet tool, "moodle," that allows them to check if they have understood what we discussed. I use this web tool a lot, either to distribute course copies, to disseminate data and software related to the exercises, or to administer tests and distribute grades.

Is there a magic formula to apply at all times?
It seems important to put myself in the students’ skin, and to listen to their demands, even if I don’t always bend to them. As for me, I give them the opportunity to give me feedback every week. They can fill out an online form anonymously to give their opinion on my teaching. I also take the time to explain all of my steps and the value of certain processes. That helps.


What the students about him:
– Invested in extracurricular activities, loves what he does, knows how to communicate his knowledge.
– The course in microcomputing, which includes the programming of the e-puck robot, is really good. The course is assessed through two quizzes.
– Close to his students
– Very good teacher. The course is very well structured, and the tools available are exemplary.
– I appreciated his active promotion of science and STI with youth and the public.
– His course is fascinating
– Very friendly and well organized
– Excellent working method

What do you think about the online courses that are increasingly being developed?
In my opinion, there are good and bad sides to this method. Being able to reach as many people as possible is very positive. On the other side, I don’t know if it is possible to transmit enthusiasm and passion as effectively as you can when you have a class in front of you. After a traditional course, any student can come ask a question, and that creates a contact, and sometimes even a joke about something or another. With the system of online courses, many questions are sent by email. The exchange is not the same. It’s a bit like moving from handcrafted objects to industrial production.


Generally, you are extremely invested in training: you created the educational robot Thymio II, launched at the Robotics Festival… where do you get this passion?
I myself studied Microengineering at EPFL. I’m very attached to this field, as well as to the school, and I love sharing my passion. I also think it’s very important to educate people about technology from an early age. Robotics is not is not always seen in a good light by the general population: some think that robots have no place in society, because they take on some human tasks. This creates a debate, and it is important to be well informed to lead it.

As for my activities related to the Robotics Festival (see below), Thymio, etc., I am fortunate to be linked to the Hannes Bleuler Laboratory, which shares values with me regarding education, and which gives me the necessary framework to carry out these projects.

Short Bio
Dr. Mondada received his Master’s degree in Microengineering in 1991 and completed his PhD in 1997 at EPFL. During his thesis, he co-founded the company K-team, for which he served five years as director and president. He is one of the three designers of Khepera, considered a benchmark in bio-inspired robotics, and used by more than 1000 universities and research centers across the globe. In 2000, after a short time at CALTECH, he participated in the project, SWARM-BOTS, developing the s-bot platform. In 2006 this platform earned 39th place in the ranking of the "The 50 Best Robots Ever," published by Wired. Not only is Francesco Mondada the author of more than 100 publications in the fields of bio-inspired robotics and the design of mobile robots, but he is also the co-editor of several collections of international conference papers. In 2005 he received the EPFL Latsis University prize for his contributions to Biorobotics. He is particularly interested in the development of innovative mechatronic solutions for mobile and modular robots. He is the father of the Robotics Festival at EPFL, launched in 2008, and recently created the educational and programmable robot, Thymio II, that is beginning to be used in classrooms to introduce younger people to programming.


The Polysphère

Each year, the students have the opportunity to designate the teacher who they believe is the best at EPFL. The professor holding the most votes receives the "Polysphère d’Or" (aka Polysphère), the students’ prize, supported by the Education Department at EPFL. The amount of this award (10,000 Swiss francs) must go to the laboratory of the prize winner. The prize is awarded annually at the Magistrale (graduation and awards ceremony) each fall.

Crédit Suisse Award for Best Teaching
This prize is give by the Credit Suisse Foundation. Carrying a sum of 10,000 Swiss francs, it is awarded annually to an individual or a pedagogic team for substantial contributions to EPFL in the field of teaching.