Advancing research on the role of emotions in engineering education

This symposium is a continuation of the work initiated in 2020 by a research group comprised of eight experts in engineering education, educational sciences, psychology and faculty development, including Roland Tormey, Head of Service at the Teaching Support Center (CAPE) at EPFL.

Following a first virtual symposium held in 2020, the need arose to conduct a scoping review of the field in order to set an agenda for research. In parallel, a dedicated network was also created to foster international exchanges and collaborations on this topic.

The 2022 edition of the symposium was held in person with a series of hands-on workshops designed to link existing research projects, identify opportunities and blind spots, and formulate concrete implications for engineering education.

The meeting served to consolidate and expand the network of participants and is the first larger exchange of the work done in the field as well as the first attempt to bring together different positionalities.

The symposium’s highly interactive format as well as the small number of participants were a deliberate choice of the organization led by Johanna Lönngren, Associate Professor of Science and Engineering Education at Umeå University –also part of the original research group– and was a response to a desire to create a safe space to freely explore topics still perceived as marginal and contradictory within the field and to organize workshops that delved into the participants‘ own emotions.

© Helena Kovacs / 2022 EPFL

In this context, Helena Kovacs, scientist at the Center LEARN’s internal mission, was challenged to create a workshop on art-based approaches from scratch in collaboration with Nadia Kellam, Associate Professor at Arizona State University.

Nihat Kotluk, researcher at EPFL’s College of Humanities, and Roland Tormey presented their work in a parallel workshop entitled “ Inducing emotions in engineering ethics case studies”.

Following the event, a working group of six participants focused on conceptualizing future research on emotions in engineering education and sustainability, delineating the main theoretical and methodological frameworks as well as the core principles and values at the heart of the project. The group consisting of Johanna Lönngren, Maria Berge (Umeå University), Nadia Kellam (Arizona State University), Amy Brooks (Oregon State University), Madeline Polmear (Vrije Universitet Brussels), and Helena Kovacs also explored various potential funding opportunities and will soon meet at Arizona State University to further develop the scope of this work in practical ways.

Author(s): Julie Clerget
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Summer in the Lab gives Bachelor’s students research experience

Summer in the Lab, a program run by EPFL’s Education Outreach Department, gives Bachelor’s students an opportunity to apply the theory they acquired in class, deepen their understanding of specific subjects and acquire or improve transferable skills. Students spend eight weeks conducting research in an EPFL lab under the guidance of a supervisor. Challenging the students in this way can really make a difference. “It’s not easy for students to grasp the full extent of what a research project involves,” says Ambrogio Fasoli, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Research. “So the more first-hand experience they can get, especially early on in their studies, the better. This will also help instill in them the approach we foster at EPFL: putting science and engineering to work for the benefit of our community.”

The 34 students who participated in this first edition of the research internship program were selected out of nearly 170 applicants. Through the program, they were able to explore their budding interest in research, see the different kinds of challenges involved, and better understand what careers in research and academia actually entail. Students also got to work directly with EPFL scientists and engineers at the cutting edge of their fields. The projects covered the following topics: microsystems, the human genome, algebraic topology, plasma physics and machine learning.

Learning both technical and transferable skills

Summer in the Lab also provided a unique opportunity for the students to follow a series of workshops led by experts to help students develop transferable skills. These skills – such as leadership and scientific communications – are essential for careers in research, as they allow people to work effectively on projects with different partners, better understand their own personality traits and those of others, work as a team towards a common goal, and tailor their message to different circumstances.

It is incredible what the students were able to achieve in just two months. We are very proud of them, and we hope this edition was the first in what will be a long series of Summers in the Lab.

Kathryn Hess Bellwald, Associate Vice President for Student Affaires and Outreach

The scientific communication skills were taught through exercises and role-playing games, where students learned the fundamentals of technical writing and public speaking. Here, the objective was to show students how they can adapt their research presentations to different kinds of audiences, from laymen to specific experts. And it was a perfect warm-up for the presentations they gave to the EPFL community at the closing ceremony.

A successful first edition

This first edition of the Summer in the Lab was supported by the Fondation du Domaine de la Villette and took place on Thursday, 29 September. It culminated in a ceremony at which a number of students were given three minutes to describe their projects.

The format was similar to that of My Thesis in 180 Seconds, a competition at which participants present their research findings in a way the general public can understand aimed at explaining research appropriately to a non-specific audience. Others displayed their work in poster presentations. Those attending the ceremony lauded the participants’ hard work and excellent results. “It is incredible what the students were able to achieve in just two months,” says Kathryn Hess Bellwald, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach. “We are very proud of them, and we hope this edition was the first in what will be a long series of Summers in the Lab.” Plans are already under way to run the program again next year.

The students themselves were really pleased with the experience and everything they learned. “It showed us all the different aspects of research and the various career options available,” says Farah Briki, shortly after giving her presentation. “It also taught us some of the skills that will be essential in our careers, like giving research presentations and communicating about our research more broadly – what it entails – to the general public.” Applications for the 2023 edition of Summer in the Lab are now open and must be received by 30 November 2022.

Learn more about the program

Author(s): Education Outreach Department
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The secret to acquiring professional skills

When it comes to soft skills like project planning, communicating and risk assessing, there is often a gap between the employer’s expectation and what engineering graduates bring to the table. Engineering schools could do more to prepare their graduates for the job market by incorporating these skills into their curricula. Various kinds of team-based projects are used to address this challenge, but a new study clarifies which approaches work best.

“Although team-based projects are very common in engineering programs, we do not really know to what extent students learn professional skills from this type of experience,” says Cyril Picard, a PhD student at EPFL’s Laboratory for Applied Mechanical Design. For his thesis, he looked at what approaches could promote the development of these skills among engineering students. The research was carried out jointly with Prof. Jürg Schiffmann, the head of Picard’s lab, and Cécile Hardebolle and Roland Tormey from EPFL’s Teaching Support Center (CAPE). Their paper, titled “Which professional skills do students learn in engineering team-based projects?,” appears in the European Journal of Engineering Education.

Learning soft skills doesn’t happen automatically

Professional skills tend to be addressed implicitly in traditional curricula. When courses include projects, students are often expected to pick up these skills alongside the technical concepts – but often the technical concepts are the only ones addressed explicitly.

“It’s widely believed that by working in teams, students will automatically acquire soft skills like project management,” says Picard. “Our study aimed to find out whether that is actually true.” The research team used a questionnaire developed at EPFL to assess students’ professional skills in two Bachelor classes and one Master class in mechanical engineering taught by Prof. Schiffmann. The results indicate that while team-based projects do help students learn technical skills and prepare for exams, they do not necessarily equip them with professional skills.

Targeted instruction needed

The Master class used for this study explicitly addressed planning and risk management through both theoretical discussions and individual feedback, which was not the case for the two Bachelor classes. As a consequence, the researchers could compare the two groups of students and gain valuable insights. “The students who worked on team-based projects but were not given specific instructions on project management and risk assessment did not learn much about those things,” says Picard. “On the other hand, students who received classroom instruction and project-specific feedback on those skills, and were then assessed on them, ended up acquiring them.”

“There is no secret”, adds Hardebolle, who works as a teaching advisor at CAPE, “if we want students to develop professional skills, we need to support them in this task.”

Small changes with a big impact

Prof. Schiffmann was not surprised by the study’s findings. “Teaching always involves building students’ awareness of the specific issues we want to address,” he says. The study shows that “real gains can be achieved by making a relatively small effort – such as including theory and project-specific feedback, particularly in the area of planning and risk management. Our findings are notable in that they can help us better understand how projects can be effectively incorporated into traditional classes.”

Author(s): Leila Ueberschlag
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Three questions for IC professor Tanja Käser

Prior to coming to EPFL, Tanja Käser was a senior data scientist at the Swiss Data Science Center of ETH Zurich. As she explains, her interdisciplinary research combines computer and education science. She uses artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, algorithms, and data mining to model and predict human learning and behavior. This facilitates, for example, the customization of learning tools.

IC: Can you tell us briefly about your research background? What inspired you pursue a combination of education and computer science?

TK: I completed my master’s and PhD degrees in computer science at ETH Zurich. My research uses machine learning to understand and improve human learning. I am particularly interested in creating accurate models of human behavior and learning.

I chose this research direction because I am very fascinated by how humans learn, and also because of my desire to have an impact on society with my research; i.e., through providing high-quality education to everyone.

IC: What is your mission for the Digital Vocation, Education, and Training Laboratory?

TK: My vision is to use technology to support the vocational education of students, to help them become better learners. Increasing digitization means that knowledge circles are becoming shorter, which in turn necessitates the adaptation of knowledge and skills.

Digital environments, such as interactive simulations, have the potential to teach students new content, while at the same time allowing them to practice important skills for learning. The use of AI to personalize these learning environments will also enable students to learn content more efficiently, and to develop more effective learning strategies.

IC: In your opinion, what are some of the most interesting problems to be pursued in the field of digital education today? 

TK: Gaining a full understanding of student learning, so that we can accurately model it and hence facilitate more effective and efficient teaching. Education is both about students learning material effectively, as well as about preparing them for continuing to learn on their own. Until now, a lot of digital and online education has been focused more on the first part. However, computers also make it easier to observe how students learn by gathering data on their interactions and learning processes, and to therefore gain new insights.

I am also interested in the explainability of model decisions. Today, we have powerful AI models, but they are often a black box. It can be hard to explain to teachers and students how models make decisions. I think this is important for education, so that that people using these models understand how decisions are made.

Author(s): Celia Luterbacher
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