Four years after giving his first-ever class, Prof. Bruno Correia, NCCR member and head of the EPFL’s Laboratory of Protein Design and Immunoengineering, has been named the 2019 best teacher in the life sciences and technology school. In this interview, we try to understand what motivates him as a teacher and how teaching is presently evolving.
From the student’s point of view, there are courses that motivate more than others. Sometimes it’s related to the professor‘s ability to make the class more interesting. How do you make your course interesting?
As a teacher, we need to clearly understand what the students know and what they don’t. At the EPFL, we have a very interesting profile of students trained in engineering. Students in their second year do a switch in their curriculum towards courses more related to life sciences and biochemistry. I meet them at a time of their lives where they have already received all the quantitative aspects of the basic sciences – math, physics, statistics, etc. – and when their minds are very open and keen to learn something else.
This situation represents a real opportunity for a teacher, and I try to take advantage of it. My class is about molecules and how they work. I tell my students that in order to understand some of the phenomenon that we see in biology, they have to be quantitative and understand certain properties of the system such as thermodynamic and kinetics, and they have to get the big picture. My motivational speech goes something like this: “let’s look into these things and let me tell you a little bit about what techniques that you can use to measure things related to biology and biochemistry. Then let’s try to integrate this in the bigger picture!”
What is your main motivation to teach?
It’s a pleasure to talk and teach the students about what I like. It’s not just about teaching, it’s about going there and tell them stories about subjects that I find really interesting. Of course, I try to teach the students concepts that are useful for their future. Not all of us are going to become biochemists or work in structural biology or even in science-related jobs, but developing critical and logic thinking can potentially be very useful to help you solve other problems in the future. That’s basically my motivation in teaching.
On a more personal level, I really try to make the students feel comfortable. The idea is not to create an environment where people cannot ask questions or where they are judged if they do so. I want to establish an inclusive environment where students feel comfortable enough to interrupt me and tell me that what I am saying doesn’t make any sense to them.
The tools for teaching are continuously evolving. As a professor, do you receive support from your institution to share your knowledge and the strategies to use for teaching?
There is a sort of sub community, not just stemming from the EPFL, which gets together about every month to discuss about new teaching methods. At the EPFL, we also have the teaching section, which informs us about our evaluations, what we could improve, etc.
But it’s true that things are changing a lot. Today, consulting a book is almost something from the past century. Knowledge is no longer a limitation: in 10 seconds, I can get access to anything just by typing something in the computer. The limitation is how one can integrate this knowledge and what conclusions one can extract from it. When I was a student (it wasn’t that long ago!) there were not even papers on Internet. We used to go and search for papers in the library. This is no longer the case.
Teaching students has to be thought of within that frame. Not necessarily the perspective that they need to memorize everything that is in a book… who cares about that! Books are tools to help you through a sea of information. Take for example my course: I teach for 28 hours and I am supposed to tell you everything about molecules involved in biology. Obviously, I won’t be able to do that. However, I will try my best to help you navigate through this ocean of information.
Don’t get me wrong. A good book is written in a way which builds up knowledge. Good books give what I don’t have the time to do in the lecture and what you also will not do by web-searches on a computer. Things are structured and built upon, so you can understand where you stopped understanding. That’s why I still feel like the traditional aspect of teaching is interesting. Whenever we do exams in this course, it’s always open book exams. It would be much easier for me to make closed book exams. Some students like it this way, others don’t. But so often in life, stuff we don’t like may still be good for us.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of teaching has been done online. It has been hard for teachers and students. Have you seen something positive out of this?
I was impressed with the generosity of both the students and professors in trying to make it work. The students seem to like the possibility to go back in the recorded material and look at it again. Language is still an issue when you are as young as our students and when you’re not used to listen to people speaking in English very fast.
However, with the materials recorded, personal interaction is a failure. I did the recordings out of necessity and I’ll do it again as many times as necessary, but it’s not my favorite approach. Being two hours talking in front of a computer without seeing the students’ faces, guess if they’re excited or not, see if things are coming through or students are stuck, is honestly a bit of a nightmare. It takes all the fun out of teaching! But unique problems need unique solutions !