Prof. Martin describes his teaching method as connecting the chalkboard with the lab bench. Flattered to have won this year’s best teacher award for the microengineering section, he nevertheless insists that “I feel rewarded every day I teach at EPFL.”
And he’s been reaping those rewards for 17 years now. However, he admits it hasn’t always been easy. “I lacked experience at first,” he says. “And since I tend to be shy, people said I spoke too softly.” But today – thanks to the help of a voice coach, encouraging feedback from students, and a few semesters of experience – Prof. Martin is delighted to get back in front of the classroom each fall. “Every new school year feels like the first time, since each class is so different,” he says.
Capturing students’ attention
He adapts to that difference by tailoring his lectures to the class’s level of knowledge every year. Prof. Martin has come a long way from his days as a child, when he stuck his finger in an electrical socket to see how it worked; today he teaches electricity to first-year Bachelor’s students. “I give my theory class entirely on a chalkboard. It’s a good way to capture students’ attention,” he says. He also passes out thick stacks of handouts, printed on a single side to encourage students to take notes and write out their solutions to problems. “That helps them put in the effort needed to understand the material,” he explains. As a further incentive for students to take notes, they can bring their handouts with them to exams.
Hands-on experiments are another method Prof. Martin uses to teach his first-year students. The experiments are designed to closely parallel the theory studied in class and to introduce or illustrate specific concepts. “By bringing a practical dimension to arduous subjects like physics and mathematics, I want the students to experience lightbulb moments,” he says. The combination of theory and first-hand experience gives students a better – and longer-lasting – grasp of concepts.
“The first year of a Bachelor’s program can be difficult and highly abstract,” says Prof. Martin. “But it’s important for students to understand that the fundamental topics they’re studying now are necessary to make robots fly.” To help students make that connection, he has them run experiments in EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs (DLLs) – or as he likes to call them, “showcase labs.” His electrical engineering students can work with Prof. Martin as well as other teachers to explore the wide range of concrete applications for things like signal processing, embedded systems, photonics, acoustics and power.
Prof. Martin also teaches an optical engineering class for third-year Bachelor’s students along with one Master’s-level class. Here too, he wants students to get as much hands-on experience as possible, either by conducting experiments in DLLs or by running computer simulations on MatLab in order to model different types of optical systems. The student evaluations he receives are generally excellent, with 97–100% of them containing positive feedback along with praising remarks.
Prof. Martin led the microengineering section from 2016 to 2020. His is a relatively young field born from the merger of electrical and mechanical engineering around 20 years ago. “The study plan tends to change chaotically based on the opportunities at hand,” he says. He took advantage of his leadership role to revamp the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs – in close cooperation with fellow professors – by scaling back the number of first-year classes and introducing a common thread in subsequent semesters.
A MOOC in the works
Did the pandemic change Prof. Martin’s approach? It threw up several challenges, of course, which he navigated by recording some 180 videos – including of chalkboard lessons – which have been viewed on Switchtube over 18,500 times. The pandemic also made one thing clear. “I’m fully convinced that teaching in person is the best way to go,” he says. “Although I must admit that there were some benefits to structuring the content of a class to make it better suited for online lessons. I now plan to develop a MOOC version of my optical engineering class.”