In François’ approach to education, learning begins by questioning what we know and consists of progressively pushing the boundaries of our individual and collective knowledge. All through university, students of François’ Interdisciplinary Research Center (CRI) successively look at questions from both narrow and distant perspectives, from angles of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, and economics. They are led through a process of defining their own questions, collaborating, and looking for existing knowledge to build upon. Teaching is restricted to general frameworks and basic content that the students enrich and expand on through experiences and research.
This type of learning approach is radically new in the French system. Starting with his own experience as a researcher in biology and university professor, seeing the impact of his own interdisciplinary model on students’ motivation and research outcomes, François combined some of the best practices he has seen abroad (particularly in the U.S.) and invented new ones to create the first Interdisciplinary Master’s degree in 2005 around the Frontiers of Life, attracting some of the most brilliant students from France and abroad. These master’s students grew to become so creative and cultivated with such radical ideas that François rapidly saw that they would not be able to find a graduate program to pursue their research. Therefore, he created his own version of a Ph.D. program, convincing 80 research laboratories throughout the region to host the students for their doctorate, while CRI became a platform for exchanges and collaboration between the students. François also realized that his student’s creative ability and motivation was dramatically reduced during their undergraduate studies, as they were forced to focus on specific disciplines and fit into a mold. He hence decided to create the first interdisciplinary, research-based undergraduate program, which will inaugurate in September 2011.
François’ revolutionary approach is shaking the entire French higher education system by creating a track for public universities to compete with elite colleges. In the context of national reform, François has been able to convince the Minister of Research to allow for interdisciplinary, inter-laboratory research in the 2007 Law on Higher Education. Since then, and thanks to the precedent set by CRI, no less than a dozen interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs have been created in France, as well as a few master’s programs.
François’ approach is indeed overturning the resistance of universities thanks to its economic model: It is particularly compelling to private investors, whom universities desperately need. Supported by the largest foundation in France (Foundation Bettencourt), which is interested in investing in the future of French education, François has also convinced private businesses that his approach to research will bring about groundbreaking innovations that they will benefit from. He has managed to attract sizable investments from companies like AXA and Orange. This is unheard of, as private companies tend to give to elite colleges and very rarely to public universities.
But François does not only want universities to be innovative, he also wants them to be truly accessible to all, especially to talented, motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Targeting motivated high school students who would never have given themselves permission to pursue scientific studies, François launched the Science Academy in 2006 with his master’s students. This unique program offers participation in research projects in some of the top labs in France, under the mentorship of researchers and students. The program also offers year-long mentoring and internship opportunities, as well as summer events, where participants present the results of their research to other high school students, who are then inspired to join. Every year, over 200 students participate, many whom go on to create science clubs in their high schools and pursue successful higher studies.
Convinced that opportunities and creativity depend on experiences in the earliest years, François is now exploring the idea of experimenting with a complete educational model, starting in kindergarten all the way through high school, to be coupled with an interdisciplinary research lab on education and childhood development. He is also working with the largest science museum in France, which welcomes 700,000 children every year, to develop an experiential, hands-on program-based on the same principles.
François sees the opportunity for his model to have a global impact. To host all the students of the twenty-first century, governments around the world would need to build one university per day and train professors every minute. Instead, François is creating an online platform for learners to collaborate, share, and experiment with his interdisciplinary model, with the potential to create the largest hub for research and innovation. He has convinced a leading Chinese University of the unique opportunity to provide its students with cutting edge knowledge and the highest innovation ability: Hundreds of Chinese students are currently engaged in developing the platform. François is also developing partnerships with the Colombian Ministry of Education, and the Grameen University.