Digital stimulates the renewal of education

Date 28.06.2022
Text L. Duvillard, A-M. Brouet, E. Barraud, L. Uberschlag, & N. Jollien
Source EPFL
Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Think back to your school days — high school, college or maybe a further education class you took. There’s surely a teacher who stands out, for better or worse. And your memories of that teacher are probably mixed with reminiscences about your friends, your classmates, the general atmosphere and that strange feeling of being both curious to learn more and impatient to get it all behind you. Many factors influence us during the various learning phases in our lives: the immediate environment, the methods used by our teachers, the classroom ambience, our personal experience and our emotional state, for example. Given all these factors, what’s the best way for teachers to teach and for students to learn? How can EPFL in particular equip the next generation of scientists and engineers to be responsible citizens? These are the issues we’ll explore in this special feature on education.

Adapting to change

“The ways in which we teach and learn are the topics covered in what’s known as the education sciences,” says Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education and one of the founders of EPFL’s Center for Learning sciences (LEARN). “And we refer to ‘education sciences’ in the plural because the field spans an array of disciplines including education sociology, economics, history and philosophy.” 

The EPFL’s LEARN Center was created to concentrate the School’s research in the education sciences, bringing together everyone involved in developing teaching methods and new technology, systems and approaches for learning. 

Members of the Center work with teachers and other education professionals to test innovative ideas on the ground, at all levels of Switzerland’s school system. The goal is to conduct translational research and assess the impacts, in order to improve and adapt existing teaching methods in response to scientific advances and society’s changing needs. 

At the primary- and lower-secondary level, the Center’s experts train Vaud teachers how to teach computer science and digital citizenship and how to implement new technology in the classroom. “This is an important initiative, due to both the way it’s set up and its objectives,” says Jessica Dehler Zufferey, the executive director of the LEARN Center. “It lets us perform translational research and we believe that’s essential to helping students across the Caton of Vaud to better understand — so they can later shape — the digital world around them.”

In this longread
  • I learned how to build a racecar from A to Z. Yes, it is possible.
  • EPFL opens new center for transferable skills
  • Technology has only a potential impact. It’s what we do with it that counts.
  • Solo lessons, in-class exercises: a winning combination
  • EPFL supports robotics and digital education in schools
  • We should normalize that learning is part of any job

Adopting a more inclusive approach 

At university level, the LEARN Center’s experts — who also involve those from the Teaching Support Centre — investigate novel approaches such as the flipped classroom — a format where students study theory at home and use class time to ask questions, do exercises and discuss concepts. EPFL researchers ran a pilot test of this format on first-year Bachelor’s students taking Prof. Simone Deparis’ linear algebra class. The study found that flipped classrooms tend to be more inclusive because they reduce disparities and help students with weaker math backgrounds do better. This is especially encouraging today, given that the pandemic and the shift to online classes have already led many professors to try out the flipped classroom. 

Should this format be the only one used for university teaching? “In reality, there’s no one single format that works well under all circumstances,” says Roland Tormey, a senior scientist and the head of EPFL’s Teaching Support Center. “A good professor needs to know how to adapt, be flexible and pick the right teaching methods and materials for the subject being taught. It’s also important for professors to take on board the feedback they receive, and to give constructive feedback in return. People learn much better when they get feedback explaining specifically what they should do, what they did well, what they did less well and how they can improve.” 

A good professor needs to know how to adapt, be flexible and pick the right teaching methods”

Applying the theory

Constructive feedback is crucial at all stages of the educational process, as are interactive discussion and learning through trial and error. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in how classes are taught over the past few years,” says Tormey. “More  emphasis is placed on discussion, exercises and new tools have been developed, like the chat application SpeakUp that encourages interaction.” The pandemic highlighted how important communication is, but also how effective teaching can be when students are given a chance to apply the theory they learn in class. “Work still needs to be done in our educational system — from primary school to university — on teaching students how to transfer skills from one field to another,” says Dillenbourg. “Human beings are not naturally capable of taking something they learned in one context and applying it in another.”

One way to develop this capability is to have students work on group projects and on activities geared towards problem solving. EPFL has specific facilities dedicated to this kind of learning, such as the Student Kreativity and Innovation Laboratory (SKIL) and the Discovery Learning Labs, the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank (SPOT) — a new makerspace that opened in March. SPOT contains a variety of equipment for building elaborate mechanical and electrical prototypes, such as an electric Formula 1 racecar and a space rocket. 

The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab – known as the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank, or “SPOT” for short – opened its doors. Evening with the Students. (Discovery Learning Lab) © EPFL / Alain Herzog

Equipping students for the real world

Engineering and architecture students are especially eager to get their hands dirty on real-world projects. A 2020 survey of EPFL Master’s students at the end of their degree programs found that many believed there were too few opportunities to apply what they learned and to acquire the transversal skills that will be useful in their future work. “Engineers and architects take on a variety of roles during their careers — they often have to work in groups with people from other fields, for example, and communicate their ideas to colleagues with different backgrounds,” says Helena Kovacs, a LEARN Center scientist and the lead author of a study on transversal skills mapping at EPFL. “They also need to be familiar with the underpinnings of sustainability and ethics. But what we see is that these transversal skills aren’t sufficiently covered in our degree programs.” 

To fill this gap, especially for Bachelor’s students, EPFL plans to open a center devoted specifically to transversal skills. “20 years ago, the focus was on knowledge acquisition, and therefore on what content should be taught to students,” says Dehler Zufferey. “Today, we’re taking a more holistic approach and incorporating transversal skills, which have become essential. Our society is changing and we need to adapt the way we teach accordingly. It is not an easy process, but the research that’s being done in the education sciences certainly helps a lot.” The stakes are high, since learning is a lifelong process.

The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab – known as the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank, or “SPOT” for short – opened its doors. Evening with the Students. (Discovery Learning Lab) © EPFL / Alain Herzog

Today, we’re taking a more holistic approach and incorporating transversal skills, which have become essential.”

How to compete with robots ?

Swiss roboticists and economists from EPFL and UNIL have developed a method for estimating the probability of currently existing jobs being more at risk of being performed by machines in the near future. Additionally, they have devised a method for suggesting career transitions to jobs that are less at risk and require minimum retraining efforts.

The key innovation of the study is a new mapping of robot capabilities onto job requirements. 

The result is a ranking of 1,000 jobs, with physicists being the ones with the lowest risk of being replaced by a machine, and slaughterers and meat packers, who face the highest risk. In general, jobs in food processing, building and maintenance, construction and extraction appear to have the highest risk.

I learned how to build a racecar from A to Z. Yes, it is possible.

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Anne-Muriel Brouet
Theory and practice are the yin and yang of engineering. Through project-based learning, students can combine the theory they learn in class with the hands-on skills needed to succeed in their careers. This approach is central to makerspaces, and we visited EPFL’s newest one — decked out with milling machines, 3D printers and sewing machines.

The large, open makerspace was bustling with activity. EPFL Racing Team had just three weeks to go before unveiling their latest gem: an electric Formula 1 racecar, designed and built entirely by students at EPFL. The team was putting the final touches on their racecar at the mechanics workshop in EPFL’s Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank (SPOT). Two students — Laura and Jawad — used a professional lathe to fabricate a part for the racecar. Laura operated the machine as it drilled a hole through a 22-mm aluminum bar with millimeter precision; she then rotated the bar to engrave notches on the ends. Silver spirals of metal fell to the bench as the lathe worked its magic.

SPOT, whose name was chosen by the EPFL community, opened in late March and houses EPFL’s prototyping workshops for mechanics and electronics. Students have already taken to this vast, light-filled space containing all the modern machines and tools they need to bring their ambitious ideas to life. A similar makerspace — the Student Kreativity and Innovation Lab (SKIL) — was opened in 2018 for students of EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC). SKIL consists of 15 containers stacked on three levels and includes a drill press, a laser cutting machine and a bandsaw. With SPOT, students now have even more opportunities for project-based learning in an area that’s bigger, more flexible and more modular. The makerspace is a safe environment that’s designed to stimulate students’ creativity and encourage them to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Baptisé «the SPOT» (Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank), le nouveau bâtiment dédié au prototypage mécanique et électronique a ouvert ses portes. Soirée avec les étudiants. (Discovery Learning Lab) © EPFL / Alain Herzog

Pac-Man or Space Invaders?

All the tools are shared — in the spirit of hot desking — and each one has its place, like in an operating room. In SPOT’s 400 m2 open space, rolling workbenches can be arranged as needed by students or project groups. For example, one group coupled together two workbenches, each topped with a thick wooden plank, mounted a vice on them, and then placed them in front of a large, moveable flat screen. This group of five second-year Bachelor’s students in computer engineering is working on a project for Prof. Christoph Koch’s Making Intelligent Things class. They decided to reconstruct an arcade game like those found in video arcades in the 1970s and 1980s. Next to the workbenches, they set up a system of computers, electrical circuits and other electronics, a 3D-printed joystick, a 3D-printed gamepad, and various other tools. As they work on their project, the students wheel around the workbench on stools, hooking up the computer to a control box they developed themselves.

“Our goal isn’t to build the full-size structure or to create a new video game — we’re focused specifically on the control system that’s linked to the screen,” says Clément, one of the students in the group. They have just 14 weeks to complete their prototype, yet they had to start from scratch with very little knowledge of mechanical and especially electrical engineering. “I never thought it’d be so complicated!” says Clément. At the end of the semester, the group will present a set of two modular consoles — so users can play in pairs — complete with buttons, a joystick, a gamepad and a glove fitted out with a gyroscope and accelerometers. The system will be made available in open access along with a user guide, website and explanatory video. But the group still needs to decide which video game they’ll opt for: it could be Pac-Man or Space Invaders.

Our goal isn’t to build the full-size structure or to create a new video game — we’re focused specifically on the control system that’s linked to the screen”

To combine an object with software

“In the end, information and communication systems are all about software,” says Koch, who used the possibilities offered by SPOT to launch his class. “And software is being increasingly integrated into all kinds of things, turning them into ‘smart’ and connected objects. Makerspaces provide an ideal opportunity to teach students how to design and prototype these kinds of smart objects.”

The 46 students in Koch’s class are working in groups of five or six on projects they selected themselves based on their interests as well as practical considerations. “I gave them an idea of what would be feasible in terms of scope, time and cost,” says Koch. “Then each group went through an iterative process to come up with a plan for their project, a list of tasks to complete and a shopping list for the materials they’ll need.” The array of projects selected by the students include a smart chess board that lets users play physically against a computer, a set of connected eyeglasses, a headset enabling users to control a robotic vehicle with their thoughts, a robotic shopping assistant, a swarm of connected vehicles to optimize traffic flows, an autonomous sailboat, a magnetic board for drawing with a ball in the sand, and a virtual-reality glove. “Some projects contain very little electronics, while others contain very little mechanics. But in all cases, the goal is to combine an object with software,” says Koch.

The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab – known as the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank, or “SPOT” for short – opened its doors (Discovery Learning Lab). © EPFL / Alain Herzog
The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab – known as the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank, or “SPOT” for short – opened its doors (Discovery Learning Lab). © EPFL / Alain Herzog

Complex issues, varied skills

Antoine, a student working on the robotic shopping assistant, explains: “Before, we had to spend two hours at the computer trying to debug a piece of code. But here, if something doesn’t work the first time, we can re-print the part.” In addition to two 3D-printers in SPOT’s open space, there are around 15 more in a special room in the basement. The room is open 24/7 — but students can’t just go in whenever they want and whip up a Pokémon keychain. A log is posted in front of the printer where they have to jot down their name, the project they’re working on and how long they’ll be using the printer. If a filament gets jammed or a special kind of tool is needed, students can contact the student assistants (unmistakable in their yellow vests) located at the front desk, who are happy to help.

By applying engineering theory in real-world situations, the students learn much more than how to weld, mill, machine or 3D-print a part. “The challenges engineers face today are extremely complex and require drawing on a broad skillset,” says Pascal Vuilliomenet, a project manager at EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs. “Without this kind of project-based learning, it’s hard for students to acquire the soft skills that will be essential in their careers but that can’t really be taught.” These skills include listening, diplomacy, leadership and teamwork, for example.

Fast forward to 9 May. EPFL Racing Team now has just 16 days to finish their electric racecar. Chiara — a second-year microengineering student working in the mechanics workshop — has just finished machining the inserts that will be used to fasten screws into the carbon-fiber one-seater chassis. The designs that Laura and Jawad sketched out for the inserts have proven to work. “I made 37 inserts!” says Chiara. “Everything has to be ready by the end of the day, since the chassis will be delivered tomorrow morning and we’ll need to drill the holes for the inserts.” Chiara brims with enthusiasm as she handles the lathe — a masterwork of Swiss manufacturing — and shaves off a few tenths of a millimeter from each insert. “I went to EPFL’s open house in 2019 and saw the very first car made by EPFL Racing Team,” she says. “I told my father that if I go to EPFL, I want to be on the team. And today, here I am! It’s fantastic.”

The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab – known as the Student Prototyping and Outreach Tank, or “SPOT” for short – opened its doors (Discovery Learning Lab). © EPFL / Alain Herzog

Promoting interdisciplinarity

Julien Delisle, who oversees MAKE projects at EPFL, says: “Project-based learning doesn’t only improve students’ understanding of the theory; it also shows them the benefits of cross-disciplinary teamwork.” That’s why EPFL decided to create and sponsor these projects, around 20 of which have been set up so far — including EPFL Racing Team. “We’re here not because we love Formula 1, but because we want to build something ourselves, in a group, as if it was our job,” says Jawad, a third-year mechanical engineering student. “To design an electric car, you have to apply methods from more than just mechanics and electronics. You also need to know about architecture, microengineering, communications networks and project management, for example. There are over 70 people on our team and they cover all these fields.” Gauthier, the team’s chief technical officer, agrees. “A car is more than the sum of the tasks completed by the separate groups. You have to bring those groups together in the design phase and pool their efforts, so that everything functions properly from the outset. Take the chassis, for example — its design depends on the suspension, the engine and a host of other components.”

“EPFL labs have changed over the years,” says Vuilliomenet. “Today they’re smaller and have fewer technicians.” SPOT aims to replicate the environment in these labs, so that engineers and technicians can learn how to prototype. Students are free to use the smaller, less-dangerous pieces of equipment — such as the soldering irons, oscilloscope and electron microscope — on their own. But access to the mechanics and electronics workshops, with their large machinery, is strictly controlled; these workshops can only be used in the presence of a professional, and students have to be trained on the machines. However, the idea behind SPOT isn’t to turn students into mechanics, machine operators or electricians. Rather, those are the roles held by four coaches at the mechanics workshop — Norbert Crot, Pascal Morel, Sylvain Hauser and Sébastien Martinerie — who help students work out the nuts and bolts of the machinery.

To design an electric car, you have to apply methods from more than just mechanics and electronics. There are over 70 people on our team and they cover all these fields.

Illustration © Corridor Cosmique

Optimizing a paper helicopter

“Makerspaces like SKIL and SPOT save us time and money, since we can do some of the work ourselves,” says Jawad. Although, as Norbert Crot points out, “you don’t realize how long it takes to make a part until you try it yourself. When we work with students, we have them first perform the calculations themselves, then we help them find the best way to apply them.” For instance, Florian, a second-year Master’s student in mechanical engineering, needs to drill about a dozen holes in an aluminum plate. The plate will be used to fasten items in a battery box for an electric hydrofoil — a high-tech surfboard that literally skims over the water. “We’re building the entire surfboard ourselves except for the engine, part by part. It’s a great way to apply what we’ve learned while doing something we enjoy,” he says with a smile.

Florian is getting help on his design from Pascal Morel. First, Florian — with his pencil and graph paper — calculates the coordinates of the spots to be drilled, Pascal Morel assists him with technical aspects like the flanges, taping, marking gauges, washers and tolerances. Next Florian places the aluminum plate in the milling machine and calibrates the machine: he sets the zero point so the drill starts from the correct spot and then enters the x, y and z coordinates for the holes. A lot goes into drilling a hole!

Suddenly, from the mezzanine corridor, a paper helicopter floats downward — the ambiance here is studious, yet far from boring. Viviane, a second-year Master’s student in mechanical engineering, is testing a helicopter design; her teammate Jianan recovers the paper model ten feet lower down. Their group is working on a project for an optimization class, where they decided to calculate how to optimize the flight time of a paper helicopter using various methods. “The helicopter has to land on the ground as softly as possible, as if it were a real one,” says Viviane. The group is calculating different wing-to-body ratios for the aircraft and testing out various approaches, switching between a computer mouse and real-world scissors.

Illustration © Corridor Cosmique

A logic of knowledge acquisition

The projects are deliberately open-ended — there’s no right or wrong answer. “We teach students to work with uncertainty and to be able to explain their decisions,” says Vuilliomenet. That often goes against what they learn in the classroom, where each problem is usually presented with just one solution. We want to deconstruct that way of thinking.” With project-based learning, students are also encouraged to think about the bigger picture. “We ask them to consider more strategic issues like whether their idea is feasible, viable and sustainable — and whether there’s a real need for it,” says Vuilliomenet. In other words, the goal is not to reinvent the wheel or build a smart toilet-paper dispenser.

“At SPOT, we aren’t seeking to perform R&D but rather to equip the next generation of engineers with the skills they’ll need,” says Samuel Cotture, SPOT manager and SKIL coordinator. However, that doesn’t mean the student projects don’t evolve, or are pointless, or aren’t innovative. MAKE projects generally require students to be creative and clever, and to improve on the solutions they come up with. This year, EPFL Racing Team is on its third racecar, which weighs 20 kg less than the last one thanks to its lightweight, tubular chassis that’s also more rigid and safer. A big step forward!

Advances are being made in other areas, too, such as by students in the simultaneous engineering class given by Prof. Pedro Reis. He teamed up with Bernina, the Swiss sewing-machine manufacturer, to procure five latest-generation machines for his third-year Bachelor’s students in mechanical engineering. One pair of students — Gonzalo and Guillaume — are designing a security system that can prevent users from injuring their fingers. Their idea is to install a laser on the machines that can detect whether there’s a finger at the point where the needle will fall — and if so, stop the machine immediately. “We never could have experimented with electronics to this extent in a regular class,” says Gonzalo. “Of course, we don’t know enough to make the systems ourselves, but we’ve been put in touch with people who do.” Those people include employees at Bernina. “This kind of project makes us feel like real engineers,” says Guillaume.

At SPOT, we aren’t seeking to perform R&D but rather to equip the next generation of engineers with the skills they’ll need

Teaching braille to a sewing machine

Other student groups are creating modular clothing with sections that are held together using magnets; sewing “smart” wires into bandages that can send alerts if a significant amount of fluid accumulates in a wound; and developing a glove that can help sufferers of arthritis contract their fingers. In addition, three exchange students from Canada and Spain — Juliet, Anusha and Maria — are looking at how to program sewing machines to sew braille characters into clothing. “Our idea is to make the machines capable of sewing information — like the color of a piece of clothing — either into the label or directly onto the fabric, says Juliet. “That way, the visually impaired can select their outfits more easily and more independently.” Juliet and Anusha are currently testing out their braille-sewing method on samples of fabric.

On 25 May, EPFL Racing Team’s big day has finally come. By 7pm, the workbenches, stools and movable screens have been cleared out of the open space. Taking their place are rows of chairs arranged in a U shape for the 250 guests attending the launch event. A red carpet lines the main entrance, with the Racing Team’s previous two cars — Orion and Mercury — on display. Spotlights cast a red glow on the building’s structure. Everything is decked out in red and white — the team’s colors. The new speedster, dubbed Artemis, covered with a black sheet, sits encircled by the rows of chairs. It’s taken the team ten months of hard work to reach this point. “I learned how to build a racecar from A to Z and discovered that yes, it is possible,” says Jawad. And the excitement is just beginning, as the team already has four races lined up this summer.

EPFL opens new center for transferable skills

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Emmanuel Barraud
Students and prospective employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of open-mindedness and the ability to work effectively across disciplines. In response, EPFL is in the process of setting up a new center to teach precisely those skills.

EPFL has always been about building bridges among disciplines, ever since we were first established as a polytechnic institute. But two decades ago, we started investing even more in this aspect of our mission by opening our first explicitly interdisciplinary R&D centers, designed to encourage dialogue among the different fields we study and teach at our School. One standout example is our Center for Neuroprosthetics, which brings together experts from the life sciences and engineering to develop breakthrough technology that can significantly improve the lives of the handicapped.

Today, employers in particular are looking for graduates with a broad array of skills. “Whether through our mandatory classes in computational thinking, the courses we offer in the humanities or our project-based learning initiatives, we now expose students to cross-disciplinary approaches that train them to think beyond their specific field,” says Kathryn Hess, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach. Students are keenly aware of the importance of transferable skills and requesting that they be included in their degree programs, since these skills will be essential to their careers.

EPFL now plans to go further in this direction with a new center devoted entirely to communication and transferable skills. The center is currently being set up and will start holding classes this fall in a pilot test. The goals will be to compile all the different classes that can be shared among degree programs, encourage teachers to open up their classes and exercise sessions to students from different fields, and either develop or expand classes on topics that go beyond our core focus at EPFL — topics such as foreign languages, communications, entrepreneurship, project management and interpersonal relationships. “These transferable skills will be listed on the degrees we give out,” says Hess. “We believe that it will really help our graduates stand out in the job market — even if that’s not our only objective. By equipping the young men and women who come to EPFL with transferable skills as well as technical know-how, we can help them feel more confident in all aspects of their lives.”

The popularity of our other cross-disciplinary initiatives — like our MAKE projects — shows that students are already eager to learn skills they can take with them wherever they go. Efforts to make this kind of learning even more attractive and effective, such as the creation of this new center, are the natural next step. ■

These transferable skills will be listed on the degrees we give out

Four teams of three students worked for one semester to design and construct their robots from A to Z. During the competition, the robots will have 10 minutes to gather as many empty PET bottles as possible and bring them back to the recycling station. EPFL biorobotics lab & MAKE initiative. © EPFL - Alain Herzog
Four teams of three students worked for one semester to design and construct their robots from A to Z. During the competition, the robots will have 10 minutes to gather as many empty PET bottles as possible and bring them back to the recycling station. EPFL biorobotics lab & MAKE initiative. © EPFL - Alain Herzog
Four teams of three students worked for one semester to design and construct their robots from A to Z. During the competition, the robots will have 10 minutes to gather as many empty PET bottles as possible and bring them back to the recycling station. EPFL biorobotics lab & MAKE initiative. © EPFL - Alain Herzog

Play dough and LEGO ® bricks

Knowing that the total body of knowledge doubles every ten years, how can we prepare future engineers to parse through the facts and apply them to meet pressing global challenges? One answer lies in giving them a holistic education: teaching them to be flexible and versatile, and to take on a more interdisciplinary approach combining their engineering know-how with concepts from fields such as ethics, public policy, sustainability and even art.

Most communication courses for engineers focus on the technical aspects of writing papers and making presentations. However, about 60% of the communication that engineers do in their jobs involves less structured modes of communication, often with professionals from different backgrounds and cultures.

Thus, our School needs to provide students not only with in-depth technical knowledge of their chosen fields, but also with cross-cutting skills that can be applied in about any field or profession. These skills include negotiation, conflict resolution, critical thinking, communication skills, public speaking, inclusion, sustainability, ethical reasoning, and much more.

At EPFL, we are rolling out several initiatives to equip students with transversal skills. One of these is called 3T PLAY, in which students are engaged in using a variety of tangible objects such as LEGO® bricks, play dough, popsicle sticks, glue, masking tape, and cardboard to learn these skills in a fun, hands-on way.  This approach gives students the opportunity to develop these essential skills in playful, low-stakes environments.

3T PLAY is supported by the LEGO Foundation and focuses on creating innovative pedagogical activities and documenting the impact of these activities on students’ transversal skills’ development. This initiative is led by a team of researchers and pedagogical advisors in collaboration with EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN), the College of Management of Technology (CDM), the Teaching Support Center (CAPE), and the Discovery Learning Labs (DLLs).

Technology has only a potential impact. It’s what we do with it that counts.

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Emmanuel Barraud
Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education, and Manu Kapur, his colleague at ETH Zurich, have launched a new joint PhD program in the education sciences. The program, which is intended for science and engineering students, aims to foster cutting-edge teaching practices in an era of fast-paced technological progress and shifting societal expectations.

Mastering your subject and talking about it passionately is all well and good. But being able to pass on your knowledge in a way that’s effective is even better. At EPFL, we continually revise and rework our teaching practices as new methods come to light, the demands and expectations of graduates evolve, and new contingencies develop. We have set up various centers and units to help pass on knowledge and insight to our student community; these include the Teaching Support Center (CAPE), the Center for Digital Education (CEDE), the Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Education (CHILI) lab, and the Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN).

So it’s no surprise that, in 2012, EPFL became the first university in mainland Europe to introduce its own massive open online courses (MOOCs), or that, in spring 2020, we were able to switch all our classes to online format in the space of a weekend when Switzerland went into lockdown.

“Dual-discipline” experts in subject-matter expertise and teaching skills

The man behind most of these initiatives is Pierre Dillenbourg, head of the CHILI lab, Associate Vice President for Education, and founder of the Swiss EdTech Collider incubator, which champions educational technology (edtech) startups based in Switzerland. A former elementary-school teacher, he strongly believes in reforming teaching practices for learners at all levels — from school-age children and apprentices to PhD students.
This year, Dillenbourg and his colleague Manu Kapur, who holds the Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich, are rolling out a new joint PhD program in the education sciences. “Our aim is to produce what we call ‘dual-discipline’ graduates — people who hold a Master’s degree in a science or engineering discipline as well as a PhD in the education sciences,” says Dillenbourg, who adds that the program spans teaching and learning methods for pupils and students of all ages: elementary school, high school and higher education. “We believe the best way to learn how to teach is to develop your own methods, not merely to apply existing ones,” he explains.

The first year’s intake will see nine students join the program from a pool of 51 applicants. The selection process was extremely demanding, not least because each student will have two supervisors: one at EPFL and another at ETH Zurich.

Our aim is to produce what we call ‘dual-discipline’ graduates

Adapting tools and resources, including mid-program

EPFL students are already experiencing the benefits of novel teaching approaches that have been developed in recent years. And given the pace of innovation in this field, more new resources could emerge even before they leave our School. “For instance, we’ve replaced some of the platforms we used in the past with new software and applications,” says Dillenbourg. “One example is Piazza, a Q&A system for students and teachers that’s more powerful and efficient than Moodle forums. We’re also promoting more widespread use of Jupyter, which lets students create documents combining class notes with live code. In addition to sharpening their coding skills, Jupyter lets students create dynamic, interactive displays in which they can adjust variables and observe the effects without having to switch platforms.”

For Dillenbourg, the most important thing is to be open to innovation and willing to try out promising new methods — even if they don’t always work. Kapur, meanwhile, is a proponent of a technique known as productive failure. “Studies have shown that when students are first presented with a problem and then given instructions on how to solve it, they gain more skills than if the process is reversed,” he explains. “That’s because when students try — and fail — using their prior knowledge, they identify gaps in their understanding, and are more receptive to gaining new knowledge to fill those gaps.”

Productive failure could prove especially useful in project-based-learning approaches. By incorporating this technique into teacher training programs, we could help future educators employ it in their own classrooms.

Laboratory of Educational Ergonomics (CHILI) of prof. Pierre Dillenbourg. © EPFL – Alain Herzog

Infographic on the future of job © Emphase Sàrl

90 edtech startups in Lausanne

No discussion of innovation would be complete without mentioning startups. Many of these fledgling businesses are active in the edtech space. In 2017, EPFL once again blazed a trail by opening the Swiss EdTech Collider — the first incubator of its kind in mainland Europe, which has supported more than 90 startups to date. “Now we’re starting to see some of these companies being bought out by major digital education firms,” says Dillenbourg. “It’s a real success story.”

Several businesses hosted at the Swiss EdTech Collider are developing virtual and augmented reality systems. Only time will tell whether these systems are a mere flash in the pan — or whether they have demonstrable benefits for teaching and learning. “There are already some notable examples out there,” adds Dillenbourg. “Take UbiSim, for instance. It has developed immersive VR simulation software for trainee nurses. Its application lets users practice for hours on end without supervision, and without needing to interact with real patients. UbiSim was bought in late 2021 by Labster, the market leader in virtual lab simulation technology — whose CEO is one of Manu Kapur’s PhD students.”

Coorpacademy, meanwhile, was one of the first startups to take residence at the Swiss EdTech Collider. Its online training platform caught the attention of Australian firm Go1, and — after being acquired by its bigger rival — Coorpacademy — now spearheads Go1’s operations in Europe.

Infographic on the future of job © Emphase Sàrl

Now we’re starting to see some of these companies being bought out by major digital education firms

Transforming the potential

Education is a fast-moving industry with new methods and technology coming to the fore as educators aim to keep pace with changing needs and expectations as well as wider societal shifts. The ultimate goal is to equip today’s learners — tomorrow’s citizens — with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in an unknown future, with jobs and professions we can’t yet conceive of. “In all this, it’s important to remember that technology is not a silver bullet,” says Dillenbourg. “In education, as in other industries, technology has only a potential impact. It’s up to educators and their students to transform this potential by harnessing the technology that best fits the subject matter in question. Tools alone are no guarantee of success. What really matters is how these tools influence human cognition and learning.” ■

Tools alone are no guarantee of success. What really matters is how these tools influence human cognition and learning.

Solo lessons, in-class exercises: a winning combination

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Leila Ueberschlag
In a flipped classroom, students first study the lectures online, then work on exercises in the classroom, with the teacher on hand to answer questions.

“With our study, we wanted to explore ways for making the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — i.e., the STEM subjects — more inclusive and representative,” says Himanshu Verma, one of the study’s authors. The research was conducted on two cohorts of EPFL Bachelor’s students taking the mandatory first-year linear algebra course across two fall semesters between 2017 and 2019. The class taught by Prof. Simone Deparis was given in the flipped format, and the classes taught by other professors (eight in total) were given in the conventional format as a control group. A total of around 900 students volunteered for the study, and over 300 students took the course in the flipped format.

Narrowing the gap

“We found that the flipped format appears to be more inclusive than traditional teaching methods,” says Verma. “Specifically, this format significantly reduced pre-existing disparities between different types of students.” Students with weaker math backgrounds who took the flipped class performed better on their final exams than those with similar backgrounds who took the non-flipped one. So, the gap between students with different initial skill levels was narrowed (whereas it remained the same among students in the control group), without this affecting the performance of students with stronger initial math skills.

“We also observed a gender effect,” says Verma. “Female students with a weaker background in mathematics who took the flipped class did just as well as the ‘high-performing’ students.”

A difficult model to evaluate

Cécile Hardebolle, from EPFL’s Teaching Support Center, led the research and helped Prof. Deparis implement the flipped classroom format. “This format is a complex teaching model with a range of components, including preparation at home and a variety of activities in the classroom,” she says. As a result, the model is hard to evaluate. “In our study, we implemented the model in a real-world setting while evaluating it through a rigorous, quasi-experimental protocol allowing us to compare a control group with a test group. This is what gives all their validity to our findings, and for EPFL it’s valuable to have such data coming directly from its own teaching environment.”

Achieving more equitable outcomes in heterogenous classes

Hardebolle finds the research results encouraging. “For professors who are thinking about flipping their classes, knowing that this model can help students who don’t necessarily have a very strong background in the subject is a positive sign.” She notes that professors sometimes wonder how best to approach first-year Bachelor’s classes, since they generally include students from a wide range of backgrounds. “Flipped classrooms are effective for these kinds of situations and help students better integrate into our degree programs,” says Hardebolle.

While interest in flipped classrooms has existed for several years at EPFL, the pandemic accelerated the format’s adoption. Some teachers used the videos they recorded of their lectures to experiment with alternative ways of imparting knowledge in class. Students can now take flipped courses in a number of fields, at both Bachelor’s and Master’s level. ■

Application helps learn to write

Handwriting problems affect nearly 25% of children aged 5 to 12. These problems, if not managed early on, can negatively impact them throughout their school years. EPFL startup School Rebound has provided a concrete solution by developing an application that uses tablets and artificial intelligence to better detect potential handwriting problems and support children as they learn. The subscription app is called Dynamilis, and can be used by all children learning to write — with difficulties or without — at home or at school.

EPFL supports robotics and digital education in schools

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Nathalie Jollien
EPFL is developing new teaching tools and methods for primary and secondary schools — some of which incorporate programmable robots — and helping provide digital education training for teachers.

Since its inauguration in 2018, EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) has played an active role in reshaping the Swiss education system by developing innovative teaching practices that improve classroom learning. Researchers at LEARN work closely with educators on the ground to test and explore the benefits of new teaching techniques. They then turn their findings into innovative, sustainable educational practices.

Thymio, an educational robot developed 11 years ago, is a prime example. It introduces students to robotics and enables them to gain computational thinking and coding skills, as well as soft skills such as communications, teamwork, critical thinking and creativity. Designed by researchers from EPFL, in collaboration with the Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL), it is now used in primary, secondary and even university classrooms around the world. Schools in Switzerland and France are home to over half of the roughly 80,000 robots that have been produced thus far. And in January 2021, Vaud set the goal of getting one into every primary school classroom in the canton.

In the Cellulo project, robots replace pencils. Swarm robots, each very simple and affordable, are used on large paper sheets containing learning activities. © Catherine Leutenegger/EPFL
In the Cellulo project, robots replace pencils. Swarm robots, each very simple and affordable, are used on large paper sheets containing learning activities. © Catherine Leutenegger/EPFL

Robots, the pencils of the future

Thymio is based on a three-pronged approach to digital education: a sustainable, open-source platform; simple programming interfaces; and a rich ecosystem and set of learning resources. One of the educational opportunities it offers is Remote Rescue with Thymio II (R2T2), a space-themed program introduced by EPFL and NCCR Robotics to bring together students from all over the world. Children aged 8 to 18 collaborate on tasks to complete a space mission, like a rescue operation set on Mars. Each team must program and — using video feed streamed to their classroom — remotely operate a robot that is stationed at an EPFL “Martian base.” Since 2015, R2T2 space missions have been carried out by over 3,000 students in 13 countries across Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, and the program has expanded to include a wider range of assignments. The newest mission, Corona, is fully online, created specifically to accommodate lockdown teaching constraints.

Another focus at LEARN is a swarm robotics project featuring Cellulo robots, designed to make abstract concepts more tangible for learners. A student can pick up and move a Cellulo planet to find out what happens to its orbit, for example, or shake a Cellulo molecule to find out how vibration affects its behavior. These robots can help teach a variety of topics like geometry, handwriting, computational thinking and emergent behavior. More than 600 children worldwide have tried out Cellulo in research contexts. Recent studies have also evaluated its potential for use in cognitive training for older adults.

In the Cellulo project, robots replace pencils. Swarm robots, each very simple and affordable, are used on large paper sheets containing learning activities. © Catherine Leutenegger/EPFL

Digital education

Digital education is also making its way into the classroom, as part of Switzerland’s digital transformation strategy. The subject was officially incorporated into the curriculum in French-speaking regions (through the Plan d’études romand) in April 2021, and is now on the same footing as math, languages and the arts. Vaud is a pioneer in this effort, partly because it has formed strong partnerships with top local universities, and partly because it is the only canton whose digital education reform encompasses all levels of schooling, benefiting even the youngest pupils in the system. To ensure the success of its initiative, the canton tapped LEARN to head up the project, also seeking support from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and the Vaud University of Teacher Education (HEP).

The project is called EduNum and has two main objectives: to improve training for teachers at all levels of compulsory education, and to allow students to begin receiving digital education as early as possible — at just four years old. Digital education is being integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, helping students develop the fundamental knowledge and skills they need to become informed, mindful, autonomous citizens in an increasingly connected society, and to successfully face the challenges that come along with that.

In terms of schoolteachers, the goal is to encourage creativity and highlight the potential of more diverse teaching methods. To this end, the LEARN team worked in conjunction with partner institutions from 2018 to 2020 to provide digital-education training to nearly one thousand primary school teachers (students aged 4—13) from 12 pilot schools. Starting in the 2020—2021 school year, some of the instructors who received training began training other teachers in turn. 20% of primary and lower-secondary school students — that is, over 20,000 children in 30 Vaud schools — now benefit from the preparation their teacher has received.

For three schools that participated in a pre-pilot program, the 2020—2021 school year also marked the first time that lower-secondary students (aged 12—15) received computer science instruction. To help meet teacher training needs, LEARN began offering a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Computer Science. At the request of the canton, another team coordinated the development of teaching resources for upper secondary-level classes in computer science, which the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education made mandatory beginning in 2022. ■

Illustration © Corridor Cosmique
Illustration © Corridor Cosmique

Education that never stops

EPFL introduced its first MOOCs — online classes available to anyone, free of charge — in 2012. Since then, we’ve regularly expanded our full slate of continuing education programs to encompass a range of topics useful to today’s professionals. Our Extension School, for example, runs courses on data science, computer programming and artificial intelligence that lead to a Certificate of
Open Studies (COS).

Our School is also a member of the Swiss Circular Economy of Skills and Competences (SCESC) consortium set up in February 2022 for a period of four years. The SCESC brings together major Swiss universities, including the University of St. Gallen, to develop a website where individuals can enter their skills and the professions they’re interested in; this information will then be used to select continuing education programs and job offers suited to their profiles. The website will employ artificial intelligence to pinpoint the most relevant results. This initiative was launched out of a belief that systemic change is required to meet the formidable needs of both individuals and companies for job retraining and continuing education. The hope is that the website will prompt people to rethink the way they assess their skills, envision their career paths and approach local job markets. ■

Illustration © Corridor Cosmique

We should normalize that learning is part of any job

Photo Corridor Cosmique
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Anne-Muriel Brouet
Till Leopold is the head of Education, Skills and Learning at the World Economic Forum and a co-author of Catalysing Education 4.0, a report published in May. He shares his thoughts with us on the relationship between technology, soft skills and education.

What do you mean by Education 4.0?

In many countries, education systems have undergone little change since the “original” industrial revolution. Many education systems take a factory-like approach, using standardized processes for mass production, pretty much like in the 1930s. That may be a slight exaggeration, but if you look at other parts of society, such as how office work is organized, there have been obvious changes in the last 100, 50 and even 20 years. Compared to that, we can fairly say that education hasn’t changed much. So what we mean by Education 4.0 is an education system that successfully adapts today’s learning to the fourth industrial revolution, in terms of both workplace and live skills. It also means being able to navigate the economy and the society of the future, which will have more technology and growing interdependence between everything. Education 4.0 deals with what we need to learn but also how we learn it.

Which skills are important under Education 4.0?

Of course, technology skills in a very broad sense are important. I don’t mean very specialized technology, just a basic familiarity with how technology works and an openness to it. There will be a bigger role for technology in many jobs. But the other skills that are needed are more human: personal skills, emotional skills, social skills, innovation, creativity and so on.

Last but not least, there’s the need for global citizenship, which includes everything from ethical awareness to environmental awareness. If you look, for example, at the situation in Ukraine, or what we need to do to address climate change, it’s clear that the goal of education can never just be to get a job. So we can see that citizenship skills are also more and more important, even in the workplace.

Where does informal learning fit in?

It is estimated that about 70% of what we learn is basically through informal learning, or learning on the job. So to get an idea of what a learning system for the future looks like, it should include methods to demonstrate, document and measure both formal and informal learning.

How could such skills be measured and valued?

In the spirit of project-based learning, new ways of measuring could involve a more ongoing and iterative assessment process that includes giving people feedback on what they are good at in order to motivate them over time. What we would ultimately measure with that is not how good you are at calculus at the age of 18, for example, but the emotional skills that are actually a predictor of your success in the workplace and of your ability to collaborate with others, work on a team, and so on.

What can technology bring to education?

Technology takes many forms, from wireless connectivity to artificial intelligence assistants. It can expand access to education for people in remote areas and increase inclusion by focusing much more on the needs of particular learners, thus creating a much more tailored and targeted learning experience for everyone. At the same time, there’s always the risk of seeing technology as a silver bullet or an end in itself. We know that those who are already doing well are more prone to benefit from technology. So bringing technology in — in any way — should be part of a holistic approach. We should continue to look at low-technology or no-technology solutions as well.

What would be a good education system?

The days when you learned something once that will serve you for the rest of your career are definitely gone. No education system can be expected to do that. Whatever job you do, whether highly specialized or not, we estimate that 40% of the skills you use on a daily basis are likely to change in a five-year period. This shows that we are to become lifelong learners. So education systems really need to be set up to equip people for that, teaching them how to learn, but also how to be motivated and curious.

Whatever job you do, whether highly specialized or not, we estimate that 40% of the skills you use on a daily basis are likely to change in a five-year period.

What should we change in the actual educational system?

One thing we should get rid of is the traditional way of doing exams. It hasn’t changed since the 19th century: put your books away, don’t talk to anyone, you have 30 minutes to write down everything you know — and that will lead to a certificate that will get you a good job. Of course, the real world is not like this. Instead of teaching facts, teaching why they are relevant or not is much more sensible.

Which sectors face the highest job losses under the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Actually, job creation under the Fourth Industrial Revolution is net positive: technology creates more jobs than it destroys. What’s even more encouraging, many of those jobs are not very specialized and can be found in a wide variety of sectors, from marketing to the green economy and the care economy. And rather than particular sectors completely changing or disappearing, we are seeing how certain roles within these sectors are being transformed. The problem is that those newly created jobs are often very different from the outgoing ones, so you can’t just shift people from the job they had to the new job. Our research has found that 50% of the current workforce will have to be reskilled over the next five years.

Where do universities come in?

High schools and universities are, of course, absolutely central to this. But the formal education system cannot deliver everything we need. The educational process should involve various entities in both the public and private sector. But it’s equally important to accept that learning will be part of any job — and not only on your off time, but also during working hours. That could include returning to school periodically with the backing of your employer and with financial support and incentives from the government. The work-life-learn balance needs to change. ■

Link to the report:

Technology creates more jobs than it destroys.