A day spent discussing teaching practices

La remise du LEARN Award. ©DR/EPFL 2019

La remise du LEARN Award. ©DR/EPFL 2019

EPFL held a special Education Day last Friday, 17 May, as part of events commemorating its 50 th anniversary. The day included a ceremony to announce the winners of the LEARN Awards - prizes given out by EPFL to recognize innovative high-school teaching initiatives.

"Dare to know." Kant’s words were the inspiration behind the keynote address given by Pierre Vandergheynst, EPFL’s Vice President for Education, at Education Day on Friday, 17 May. The event was held at the Swiss Tech Convention Center, where over 300 people - mostly education professionals - took a close look at the discipline and, more specifically, at how to teach science more effectively and how to help students manage the transition from high school to college. "We were delighted to see so many high-school teachers from across Switzerland attending our event," says Sabrina Rami Shojaei, head of EPFL’s Education Outreach Department (SPE), which organized the conference.

The first speaker - Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University - addressed the important challenge of capturing students’ attention and, above all, making sure they learn the material. As an expert in the topic, Mazur gave the audience a demonstration of his peer instruction method by turning a metal plate with a hole in it into a subject of debate for the entire room. The trick is to ask a lot of questions and get people involved in the learning process. "You don’t learn by watching. You learn by doing," says Mazur - whom EPFL President Martin Vetterli called "the rock star of education."

Putting students in researchers’ shoes

Education Day also marked the first year of the LEARN Awards, handed out by SPE in association with EPFL’s new LEARN Center. The goal is to recognize initiatives at the high-school level that take a new approach to education. This year’s first-place winner was Sébastien Morard, a teacher at St. Michel high school in Fribourg. His idea was to put seven students in his elective geography class into the shoes of geography researchers. How? By asking them to analyze green transportation methods at all Fribourg high schools. "They managed the entire project, from collecting data to making suggestions for improvements," says Morard, who had spent ten years working as a geographer. And his effort paid off, as reflected in the students’ enthusiastic feedback. "Teaching through the use of student projects requires ten times more preparation time. And you have to be ready to take risks, because things don’t always go the way you plan," he says. Morard will receive CHF 20,000 with his LEARN Award, which he will use to expand his approach to larger groups of second-year students and to purchase scientific instruments that students can use to measure environmental impacts. "For instance, sensors to measure CO2 concentrations or water purity," he says.

Third place went to Thibault Rossel, a chemistry teacher at the French high school in Biel/Bienne, who also challenges students to think like researchers in order to stimulate their curiosity. "My students are tasked with creating colorimetric biosensors for detecting potentially hazardous substances. This year we worked on sensors for detecting glyphosate, since there aren’t many already out there. It’s a genuine research project; I work side by side with my students and I don’t know ahead of time what we will discover," says Rossel, who holds a PhD in bioorganic chemistry. With the CHF 10,000 he received, Rossel plans to purchase an automatic pipetting station so that students can practice using the latest technology and develop their computational thinking skills. He also plans to distribute the research kit he created so other teachers can follow his approach.

A scientific escape game

Second place went to Solothurn cantonal high school, where the administrators decided to rethink the school’s teaching methods after observing that many of its graduates struggled upon entering university. The school therefore undertook a large-scale change program designed to give students more autonomy in the learning process. "We wanted to lighten the course load so that students can better concentrate on the core subjects, and to give students more freedom and encourage them to be more independent. We also changed our evaluation process, introduced more regular exams and adopted new skills assessment methods," says Stefan Zumbrunn, the school’s principal. The biggest challenge in the program was getting all the school’s 200 teachers and 1,800 students on board. "We want our school to be up to date with the latest teaching practices. Fortunately we have a dynamic culture, and we got a lot of positive feedback on our initiative," says Dieter Müller, the school’s co-rector. The CHF 15,000 prize money will go towards further expanding the program.

The public award (with a CHF 5,000 prize) went to Gabriel Palacios, a physics teacher at Hofwil high school in Bern. In 2013 he and his colleagues built a scientific escape game by reconverting an old cellar in Bern. The game - which took eight months to construct - walks students through several different scientific phenomena, piquing their curiosity and enticing them to learn more. Palacios found that after playing the game, students inundated him with questions about the different things they experienced in the cellar, giving him the perfect opportunity to explain physics-related concepts. He still employs the game today and his idea is now used in over 180 escape games worldwide, including 38 in Switzerland. Over a hundred of his former students have helped develop the games - further illustrating the power of getting students involved in the learning process. After all, as Mazur noted, "we are all born as scientists." Who dare to know.