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 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.