Dominique Pioletti, an associate professor at EPFL’s School of Engineering, has won the Credit Suisse Award for Best Teaching 2019. Students enrolled in his Master’s-level biomechanics class get to work directly on problems encountered by doctors.
Dominique Pioletti’s first visit to EPFL came at the age of three when he accompanied his father, an Italian immigrant truck driver. At the time, the campus was still a building site. Fast forward to today and Pioletti, whose mother is Swiss, goes to the School every day in his role as an associate professor. On sunny days, he likes to make the journey in his red 1960s Fiat 500 - a car he’d long dreamed of owning before he finally got his hands on one. "Every time I get behind the wheel, it’s like a new adventure," he says. "I can never be sure it’s going to start."
Pioletti, whose background is in physics, enrolled as a student at EPFL in 1987. A self-confessed risk-taker, he enjoys the thrill of teaching. "I thrive on pressure," he explains. "The students are demanding and you get instant feedback. As a researcher, it’s important to remain grounded." Pioletti spends a lot of his time teaching. Last year, he introduced an innovative new practical element to his Master’s class on the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system , giving students a chance to work directly on clinical problems encountered by doctors. Pioletti has received the Credit Suisse Award for Best Teaching 2019 in recognition of his project-based model, the implementation of new lab sessions, and of the overall standard of his teaching.
Putting knowledge into practice
Convincing busy surgeons in Lausanne, Geneva, Bern and Zurich to give some of their time to students was no easy task. But as luck would have it, Pioletti has built up an extensive network of contacts over the years. He even considered a career in medicine at one stage, but decided to opt for engineering after realizing that dealing with patients wasn’t his thing. Despite his change of heart, he’s never lost his interest in devising new ways to "take better care of people." In his own words, Pioletti has long been "immersed in the world of medicine" - ever since he wrote his thesis on the mechanical behavior of cruciate knee ligament tissue. He’d even torn his own cruciate ligaments twice before completing his PhD: once playing soccer and a second time while skiing.
The students enrolled in his Master’s class last year enjoyed the full benefits of Pioletti’s interdisciplinary expertise. They spent 14 weeks, in groups of four or five, dealing firsthand with real-life problems encountered by the doctors who agreed to take part. "The students were much more motivated than I could have hoped for," says Pioletti. "The projects force them to apply their knowledge while taking into account real-world constraints, and to interact with people from different disciplines. It helps get them ready for working life."
For Pioletti, who heads up EPFL’s Laboratory of Biomechanical Orthopedics (LBO), there’s no substitute for the hands-on application of classroom learning. That is why he reworked his experimental methods in biomechanics course, a Bachelor’s-level mechanical engineering class, along these lines. Pioletti gives the students six open-ended questions inspired by research at LBO. For instance, he recently asked students what biomechanical tests they would recommend to a surgeon working with an artificial tendon. After a brief introduction to the theory behind each question, the students are divided into pairs and have six hours to design a protocol and draw conclusions from their experiments. "The exercise teaches students how to conduct scientific experiments and how to keep a laboratory notebook," explains Pioletti. "Ultimately, the process matters more than the end result."
Pioletti says that he’s "rediscovered the joy of teaching" since introducing these new approaches, and that he "no longer gets frustrated by seeing students listen passively without applying what they’ve learned." He also admits that the new class formats have forced him to "step outside his comfort zone". For the proud owner of a 1960s Fiat 500, uncertainty comes with the territory.