A novel approach among engineering schools


Find out the joint interview between Marie-Christine Lemardeley, president of ESPCI Paris, and Jean-François Joanny, director of ESPCI.

ESPCI is an unusual example among french engineering schools.

JFJ: Indeed it is, and for several reasons. Our approach is novel in the world of engineering schools: teaching is done through research, and the school’s curriculum and approach to research are based on interdisciplinary studies and innovation. Our teachers are all working researchers. Seventy percent of our students continue on to a PhD after their fourth year. Many of the researchers working in our laboratories no longer question whether they’re physicists, chemists or biologists.

MCL: ESPCI also has deep roots in the heart of Paris. Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, located in the capital’s very core, has historical ties to French research through institutions like the École Normale Supérieure and Institut Curie.

JFJ: The school plays a large role in that history, boasting six Nobel Prize winners, including Pierre and Marie Curie, and more recently Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak. Our priority is to attract the best students and train engineers with a unique set of skills. We are constantly improving our pedagogical methods to support creativity and a culture of innovation. We also want to strengthen the school’s position as a world-class research center in physics, chemistry and biology, by attracting the best French and international researchers, and by developing new fields of research. Naturally, we continue to innovate in promising research fields like microfluidics, wave physics for medical applications, biomedical engineering, materials studies, and more.

MCL: The school’s international renown and visibility also fall within our priorities: we will continue to support research by and excellence within the teaching staff, notably within the framework of PSL Research University, the community of universities (ComUE) to which we belong. We will continue deploying our strategy of partnerships, dual diplomas and alliances with major universities in Brazil, China, North America, Israel and beyond.

The school defends a unique approach to teaching and scientific research. what is it?

JFJ: Our goal is to train engineers capable of responding to the needs of a constantly changing society, and who will adapt to that society’s evolution. The phrase “breaking down barriers” sums up the school’s vision well: barriers between the scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, which continually influence one another; between teaching and research, which are closely connected; between the scientific and economic worlds (laboratories, start-ups and industry rub shoulders within our walls); and finally, between basic and applied research, which interact with and enrich one another.

MCL: The school has the advantage of being human- scale, and not only in terms of space. Student, doctoral candidates, professor-researchers, researchers and entrepreneurs constantly interact, engage in discussion, share their problems and seek solutions together. This positioning enables a singular approach to problems and rapid engagement with new fields of innovation.

What is different about the “ESPCI method”?

JFJ: We recruit motivated students at the highest level. Our unique pedagogical method relies on research-based learning, scientific excellence and prioritizing the experimental method. Our students spend more than half their time on practical work. This approach enables us to train professionals with a unique set of skills: engineers and researchers
who are passionate, creative, capable of tackling problems in new ways, with a solid theoretical background and an equally firm grasp on society’s challenges.

MCL: The school also imparts a strong culture of innovation, and its incubator hosts fourteen start-ups with roots in the school’s laboratories or founded by ESPCI students.

What values does the school defend?

JFJ: I’d like to emphasize four: scientific excellence, an openness to the economic and academic spheres, the freedom to be inventive, and creativity. Our researchers are free to choose their own research topics. The school supports them and provides them with the means to see their projects through to completion.

how does the city of paris support ESPCI?

JFJ: The City of Paris is a very important support, and we work in close collaboration. This relationship contributes greatly to the flexibility and the reactivity of our education and research.

MCL: ESPCI Paris enjoys a freedom owed in part to its municipal support, the City of Paris, which provides the means necessary to maintaining excellence in teaching and research. We also position ourselves within the PSL Research University dynamic, its objective being to ensure the influence of Paris and its universities. This freedom, coupled with a flexible model, enables ESPCI Paris to remain firmly oriented towards research and start-up creation. ESPCI intends to be the spearhead of the City of Paris’ attractiveness.

Is campus modernization part of this strategy?

JFJ: Indeed. Modernization begins late 2017 and should wrap up in 2022. This project is more than a “simple” modernization. Our support has made an unprecedented investment of 176 million euros for teaching and research facilities worthy of the school’s ambitions, which will provide the school with fresh momentum.