The notion of excellence has multiple, diverse facets. What forms does it take in education? How do we attain it and what impact does it have on prospective and current EPFL students? A conversation with two EPFL Associate Vice Presidents, Kathryn Hess Bellwald, in charge of Student Affairs and Outreach, and Pierre Dillenbourg, in charge of Education, explores these intertwined questions.
What does excellence in education mean to you?
Kathryn Hess Bellwald: To me, excellence means going beyond the expected, attaining a level of exceptional quality. In terms of education outreach, excellence means understanding where a prospective student is starting from and identifying the populations that would benefit the most from studying at EPFL, including populations that one might not think of at first. We need to reach out to them where they are, providing them with the information they need and most importantly making it relevant to them. We can achieve this by listening to them and by working with the entire system that surrounds them, that includes schools, authorities, families, etc.
Pierre’s teams and my teams work hand in hand with many other units at EPFL to achieve excellence in education and to foster the skills and knowledge graduates will require in the working world. To accompany them, we strive to provide them with learning opportunities that go beyond the classroom, taking their aspirations and needs into account.
Clearly, a higher education institution such as EPFL is concerned by multiple aspects of excellence in education.
To achieve excellence in education, it is essential that we listen to students and not assume that we already know what is best for each of them.
Pierre Dillenbourg: For me, excellence in teaching can be measured by how much students have learned at the end of their curriculum and what they can do with this kind of knowledge and skill in life. It is about how they can exploit what they learned here, beyond an exam.
What do we need to do to ensure we provide a culture of excellence?
Kathryn : We need to be humble and listen to the needs and aspirations of the young people, and accompany them before and during their studies, as well as help them transition to the workplace. We should reach out to provide them with opportunities to discover and dive into science and technology, support them during their studies and in their extracurricular activities, to help them become well-rounded graduates, and smooth their transition into the work environment by offering them a mix of practical and theoretical learning experiences at EPFL.
Pierre : We have to ensure that we embody a culture of excellence throughout all of EPFL, from the administration through the teachers. All of us play a role in enabling students to come to their full potential and mature to excellence - and carry that excellence beyond the steps of our School.
What does this mean for our EPFL students, and for our prospective students?
Kathryn : Being part of an association or the coaching program, working on an interdisciplinary or MAKE project helps develop skills beyond what students learn in the classroom. Providing these opportunities to students means diversifying how we accompany them. With 10’000 students, we have an extremely diverse population with a wide range of interests and abilities. If we offer all of those students the possibility to further develop themselves, inside or outside the classroom, then we will have attained excellence, contributing to the development of high functioning members of society.
Pierre: Strengthening the diversity of excellence is key to achieving what Kathryn mentioned are well-rounded graduates. We work with the teachers to improve teaching methodologies, providing a combination of classroom and project-based learning opportunities or offer preparatory courses.
We are dealing with a diversity of excellence. When I think about the students in my lab, they can be excellent in many ways: some by their rigorous reasoning, others by their creativity; some by their ability to code, others by the data analyses skills, etc. A culture of excellence enables all students to attain their own potential beyond academic performance.
A smooth transition from high school to tertiary education as well as a good first year experience is important to ensure we provide sustainable academic excellence in the future. What are we doing for that?
Kathryn : Through the Interface Gymnases-EPFL we have the opportunity to be in direct contact with high school teachers, to discuss issues related to their students’ transition and address them on both sides, at the gymnase and at EPFL, which will allow us to improve the transition and the first year experience. This is an important exchange platform, which we should maintain and expand.
Another form of direct contact, which is more hands-on, is the "stage pour enseignant·es", where teachers are immersed in the EPFL environment, working and teaching side by side with a professor at EPFL. This experience allows both partners to learn from each other and integrate what they learn into their teaching activities.
Pierre : We have to continue considering the whole eco-system when we think of excellence. It needs to be part of every step in a student’s journey. That means working with the local authorities and high school teachers and, for instance, broadening our offer of extra training. For example, the LEARN Center at EPFL has trained nearly 1’000 elementary school teachers in Canton Vaud to bring computational thinking activities to their classrooms. This collaboration not only strengthened the dialogue among EPFL, the schools, and the authorities, it also allowed younger populations, who maybe otherwise would not have developed interest in science and technology, to discover a new universe.
Attainment of excellence does not begin at the doorstep of EPFL, however. Progress towards excellence should be initiated early on.
While there are many initiatives at EPFL that strengthen this culture of excellence among and for our students, attainment of excellence does not begin at the doorstep of EPFL. Progress towards excellence should be initiated early on, as we accompany our prospective students in their orientation and transition. EPFL offers a vast range of initiatives to support students’ discovery of science and technology, ranging from targeted summer schools to preparatory courses or the first year’s mentoring program. They have proven to facilitate considerably the transition from gymnase to EPFL and should absolutely continue to be developed.