Boosting learning by putting theory into practice

For engineers, little can be more satisfying than turning your ideas into working objects you can see and touch. That’s exactly what two groups from EPFL’s chemistry and chemical engineering section recently got to experience. After six months of hard work on the DLL Molecular – Chemical Engineering program, the dozen or so Master’s students got to unveil their creations: a self-heating food box and a self-cooling vaccine container.

It all started with the Chemical Engineering Product Design class in the fall semester. Interested students were given the option of signing up for the Chemical Engineering Lab & Project in the spring semester, giving them a chance to build a prototype of their initial blueprints. “The class has a dual purpose: working through the design process from start to finish, and rethinking everyday products to make them more sustainable,” says Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher, who heads EPFL’s Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing (LPDC). The approach is about giving students the freedom to unleash their creativity, forge a sense of belonging to the School and their group, and develop cutting-edge engineering skills.

Students who signed up for the class chose from a predefined list of projects and started by developing a technical blueprint. The participants who showed the highest levels of motivation and interest were then selected to build a prototype. While EPFL has offered the desk-based class for many years, this was the first time students were given an opportunity to prototype their designs. The process inevitably threw up unexpected challenges but proved to be a valuable learning experience – one that produced compelling findings.

“The groups not only built something that works, but also performed a vast array of calculations and methods – it was an elegant exercise in chemical engineering,” explains Luterbacher, who was impressed with how the students applied themselves. Their hard work is embodied in the prototypes they built, each of which has a special feature. The self-heating food box, made from 3D-printed resin, is stylishly designed and decorated, while the self-cooling vaccine container – dubbed Frigivax – has its own logo, carefully engraved on the lid.

A hotbed of ideas

Ting-Wei Weng Jana Lukic, Maxime Brunisholz (back) and Lorenzo Mazzoli have design a self-heating food box. ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

The students were challenged to come up with designs that used neither microwaves nor electricity. The group behind the self-heating food box opted for a block filled with calcium oxyde – better known as slaked lime. It’s used widely in the construction industry and reacts with water to form calcium hydroxyde and release heat. The students dropped the block into the box, added a generous dose of water, placed the food on top, and then closed the lid. After 10 minutes, the food was heated through and ready to eat, with tests showing that the temperature inside the box could reach as much as 100°C. What’s more, the block’s contents can be recycled and reused – a fact that further bolsters the project’s environmental credentials.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, however. For the four students in the group, developing the food-heating system meant exercising their gray matter. “We spent at least two months doing nothing but brainstorming,” says Jana Lukic. According to fellow student Lorenzo Mazzoli, the group “put around a hundred ideas on the table.” Group member Ting-Wei Weng adds: “We considered every possible avenue, narrowing the field down to five or six realistic options.” Maxime Brunisholz says the students “even explored crazy-sounding options like whacking the food to generate heat.”

One challenge the students faced stemmed from the properties of calcium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns when it comes into contact with skin. They ultimately bypassed this problem by adding citric acid.

The oral exam was a unique experience: I ended up tasting the end product

Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing

Hands-on building

The group behind the self-cooling vaccine container faced a dual challenge. In order to maintain a temperature of between 2°C and 10°C for several days on end, they had to come up with a way to both absorb heat and keep the box insulated.

For the first challenge, the students drew on a property that’s common to most materials. Compounds in a solid state generate cold when they melt; those in a liquid state generate heat when they freeze. The group combed through research by NASA into the physical properties of cooling materials, looking for those that operated within their target temperature range. In the end, they opted for tetradecane, which they fashioned into ice packs to sit at the bottom of the container.

Tetradecane is a hydrocarbon that melts at around 6°C, keeping the temperature inside the box constant at around the same level. “If it’s 40°C outside, the system will last twice as long as if it’s 25°C, even with the same amount of tetradecane,” says Raphaël Finizola. “We can customize the containers by adding more or less of the material as required.”

To keep the box insulated, the group initially wrapped it in insulating foam. But that wasn’t enough, so they also added vacuum insulation panels. “Combining tetradecane with the insulating materials produced the result we were looking for: the temperature inside the container rose from 2°C to 6°C in just four days,” says Lise Boitard-Crépeau. “Self-cooling systems like these already existed, but ours is the first one that works for so long.” Although the Frigivax container is designed to carry vaccines, it could also be used to transport food, or potentially organs. What’s more, all the components can be recycled and reused.

“It was an interesting experience,” says Simon Baillet. “As self-reliant engineers, we had to do everything ourselves: design the system and choose the materials – while keeping within our assigned budget. We really learned a lot in the process. And it was good to do some hands-on building in what’s otherwise a very science-focused program.”

Author(s): Sarah Perrin
Imported from EPFL Actu

Summer in the Lab: bridging research and education

With the aim to develop the research culture at EPFL, the Vice Presidency for Academic Affairs (VPA) launched this year a program called Summer in the Lab. Implemented and managed by the School’s Education Outreach Department (SPE), this project encourages practical learning from the beginning of the Bachelor’s.

The Summer in the Lab program is designed for EPFL students who wish to explore or confirm their interest for research. The objective of these two-months immersions over the summer within one of the EPFL laboratories, is to offer interns the experience of a stimulating research environment. In addition, they can put their polytechnical knowledge into practice and so reinforce their career prospects in Switzerland and internationally. According to Kathryn Hess Bellwald, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach, participants can gain a much more in-depth vision of their studies in order to make informed decisions for their future academic and professional path.

Unlike projects and practical exercises during the semester, where the setting is usually adapted to the students’ level, these internships offer a concrete, less structured, and more realistic picture of the creative and innovative stages that happen in a cutting-edge research laboratory.

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

EPFL students have welcomed this new internship program with great enthusiasm and interest. For Marion Boissat, co-president of the School’s association AGEPoly, the remunerated Summer in the Lab internships fit perfectly into the academic calendar and could have a great success because it allows students not only to gain more hands-on experience but also to step out of their comfort zone.

In response to the suggestions of the student and alumni community to get a more multidisciplinary approach throughout their studies, the organizers also added workshops in science communication and leadership to the agenda. With these complementary courses, the Summer in the Lab program provides a rich and balanced training of scientific and transversal skills.

End of September, this year’s cohort will present their research at a closing symposium. This opportunity will also allow them to apply their newly acquired presentation and communication skills. Kathryn Hess Bellwald explains: “It is nowadays essential for future scientists, researchers or pragmatic managers to have the ability to present their projects, to work and to communicate in teams.”

The participants’ positive response to these courses would comfort us in our strategy to develop and integrate more and more soft skills training courses as part of the academic curriculum.

Kathryn Hess Bellwald

This year’s applications are closed. For the summer 2023 internship cohort, the applications will open in December 2022. For more information, check the Summer in the Lab program webpages or contact the Education Outreach Department:

Imported from EPFL Actu

EPFL offers three new Masters

The three new Master’s programs are offered at the intersection between disciplines. This allows students with varied backgrounds in science and engineering to have the opportunity to acquire a comprehensive set of skills to work in the MedTech, pharma and health care sectors (Master’s in Neuro-X) or become the main actors of the “quantum revolution” (Master’s in Quantum Science and Engineering). The Master’s in Statistics aims to provide scientists with the expertise and crucial skills for sound reasoning in the data-rich world, making them sought-after statisticians and data analysts.

EPFL constantly adapts its education offer to the new developments in science and engineering, as well as to the evolution of our society, the emerging needs of its economy as well as its numerous challenges

Prof. Pierre Dillenbourg, Associate Vice-President for Education

The Master’s in Neuro-X

Engineers in Neuro-X build their expertise on science, technology and computation. Their multidisciplinary expertise complements the fundamental skills of engineers and medical-domain specialists by a strong technological component, making them not only highly demanded and valued professionals in neurotechnology, but also preparing them for research in neuroscience-related fields. The study program includes several projects in labs, thereby providing students with a practical dimension and real research experience.

Prof. Dimitri Van De Ville, the Master’s program director, foresees that graduates will have an interdisciplinary profile enabling them to see the big picture in terms of complex systems, combined with a realistic perspective on what it means to develop a product or engage into research. This will make them key actors able to interact with experts at the intersection of domains.

The Master’s in Quantum Science and Engineering

Quantum science and technology is bringing a paradigm shift in the way we treat, communicate, measure and compute data, affirms the Master’s program director Prof. Nicolas Macris. He adds that to address this new shift, EPFL aims to form quantum science engineers who, thanks to their multidisciplinary profile, are able to thrive at the forefront of this “new technological revolution” and to pursue a career in quantum science or in the information technology sector as well as in the industry at large.

The Master’s in Statistics

In a world that is increasingly data-driven, industry relies on statisticians and data analysts who are able to navigate the data flood. Statistical expertise is now essential in nearly all domains: economics, finance, government, science, health, and social sciences, and the list goes on. “With the Master’s in Statistics, EPFL aims to train students with a scientific/engineering background in cutting-edge statistical methodology, in order to develop a mastery of statistical thinking, visualization and computation, and data analysis” – so says Prof. Joachim Krieger, the director in charge of the program. Teamwork and communication skills are also important aspects that the program strengthens, in order to enable graduates to integrate and apply their skills in the manifold fields of application of statistics.

For more information, see

Imported from EPFL Actu

Jupyter Notebooks: interactive, digital tools for better learning

Thanks to Jupyter Notebooks, students can solve structural engineering problems by watching structural deformation as it happens, understand signal processing with the help of sounds, music or images, and grasp abstract concepts in physics – all in a simple, accessible manner. The notebooks’ digital environment combines computing power with course content so that students can practice computational thinking. This bolsters their conceptual reasoning and expands their programming skillset. Teachers use them to run virtual demonstrations during class and for assignments that students can work on remotely. In addition, the notebooks’ interactive interface enables students to work out problems and deepen their knowledge.

Cécile Hébert, an associate professor of physics at EPFL, uses Jupyter Notebooks to help students visualize all the different variables involved in a physics experiment. This gives them a leg up in understanding concepts that would otherwise be hard to grasp.

The project to develop the use of Jupyter notebooks in education at EPFL got underway in 2019. “We’d already been thinking about it for some time,” says Patrick Jermann, Executive Director of EPFL’s Center for Digital Education. “We discussed it with Pierre Vandergheynst, who was EPFL’s Vice President for Education at the time, since incorporating computational thinking into our degree programs was in line with EPFL’s strategic educational objectives. And Jupyter notebooks make it possible to use computational methods to help students understand concepts from a variety of disciplines.”

The Jupyter notebooks are an open-source technology born in the US. “They were originally named IPython Notebooks, after the first programming language they supported,” says Cécile Hardebolle, pedagogical advisor in charge of the project at EPFL. “Then came the Jupyter project, whose name is a contraction of Julia, Python and R – the first three languages implemented in the platform. Today, there are many more.”

Music is a central element in the interactive textbook designed by Paolo Prandoni to teach signal processing with Jupyter Notebooks.

To support the use of Jupyter notebooks at EPFL, the project team first had to set up the required IT infrastructure and adapt it to users’ requirements. This task fell to Pierre-Olivier Vallès, a systems engineer at EPFL. “Assembling the various components and getting them to work together was a massive undertaking,” he says. “Our goal was to create a system that could meet EPFL’s needs and fit in with our other IT systems, like the Moodle learning platform and our MOOCs services.”

The Jupyter Notebook for education service was rolled out gradually with help from teachers who were interested in the new teaching method and from those who had already been using the Notebooks for research purposes. Cécile Hardebolle explains: “The real technical challenge was to adapt the system to specific teaching requirements. For example, if a chemistry professor wanted to demonstrate computational chemistry and needed a given library, Pierre-Olivier would add it. We’re always on the lookout for new libraries and extensions that could fit well in an educational setting.” A range of fields taught at EPFL – such as chemistry, machine learning and geographic information systems – can benefit from the notebooks’ digital environment.

Guillaume Anciaux uses Jupyter Notebooks as exercise worksheets to help students learn about civil engineering.

Although using Jupyter Notebooks is easy, installing the servers to support them isn’t. The added value provided by EPFL is that, thanks to noto, the JupyterLab centralized platform for education, the Notebooks can be used without downloading and installing special software. This saves teachers a considerable amount of time and means that students can work from anywhere, even if they don’t have a powerful laptop.

The effort to roll out the notebooks service at EPFL has paid off: since 2019, over 5,500 individuals have connected to noto, including professors and users from other universities who are curious about the technology. There are some 2,600 regular users, meaning the system needs to be robust enough to handle a number of simultaneous queries. “If a class of 30 students logs in at once, that must work fine,” says Cécile Hardebolle. “And if 50, 100 or 200 students try to connect at 8:15 am, all the servers must be up and running within 5 minutes.”

Pol del Aguila Pla uses automated grading in image processing labs based on Jupyter Notebooks.
Author(s): Sandy Evangelista
Imported from EPFL Actu

“I feel rewarded every day I teach at EPFL”

Prof. Martin describes his teaching method as connecting the chalkboard with the lab bench. Flattered to have won this year’s best teacher award for the microengineering section, he nevertheless insists that “I feel rewarded every day I teach at EPFL.”

And he’s been reaping those rewards for 17 years now. However, he admits it hasn’t always been easy. “I lacked experience at first,” he says. “And since I tend to be shy, people said I spoke too softly.” But today – thanks to the help of a voice coach, encouraging feedback from students, and a few semesters of experience – Prof. Martin is delighted to get back in front of the classroom each fall. “Every new school year feels like the first time, since each class is so different,” he says.

Capturing students’ attention

He adapts to that difference by tailoring his lectures to the class’s level of knowledge every year. Prof. Martin has come a long way from his days as a child, when he stuck his finger in an electrical socket to see how it worked; today he teaches electricity to first-year Bachelor’s students. “I give my theory class entirely on a chalkboard. It’s a good way to capture students’ attention,” he says. He also passes out thick stacks of handouts, printed on a single side to encourage students to take notes and write out their solutions to problems. “That helps them put in the effort needed to understand the material,” he explains. As a further incentive for students to take notes, they can bring their handouts with them to exams.

Hands-on experiments are another method Prof. Martin uses to teach his first-year students. The experiments are designed to closely parallel the theory studied in class and to introduce or illustrate specific concepts. “By bringing a practical dimension to arduous subjects like physics and mathematics, I want the students to experience lightbulb moments,” he says. The combination of theory and first-hand experience gives students a better – and longer-lasting – grasp of concepts.

Thinking ahead

“The first year of a Bachelor’s program can be difficult and highly abstract,” says Prof. Martin. “But it’s important for students to understand that the fundamental topics they’re studying now are necessary to make robots fly.” To help students make that connection, he has them run experiments in EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs (DLLs) – or as he likes to call them, “showcase labs.” His electrical engineering students can work with Prof. Martin as well as other teachers to explore the wide range of concrete applications for things like signal processing, embedded systems, photonics, acoustics and power.

Prof. Martin also teaches an optical engineering class for third-year Bachelor’s students along with one Master’s-level class. Here too, he wants students to get as much hands-on experience as possible, either by conducting experiments in DLLs or by running computer simulations on MatLab in order to model different types of optical systems. The student evaluations he receives are generally excellent, with 97–100% of them containing positive feedback along with praising remarks.

Prof. Martin led the microengineering section from 2016 to 2020. His is a relatively young field born from the merger of electrical and mechanical engineering around 20 years ago. “The study plan tends to change chaotically based on the opportunities at hand,” he says. He took advantage of his leadership role to revamp the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs – in close cooperation with fellow professors – by scaling back the number of first-year classes and introducing a common thread in subsequent semesters.

A MOOC in the works

Did the pandemic change Prof. Martin’s approach? It threw up several challenges, of course, which he navigated by recording some 180 videos – including of chalkboard lessons – which have been viewed on Switchtube over 18,500 times. The pandemic also made one thing clear. “I’m fully convinced that teaching in person is the best way to go,” he says. “Although I must admit that there were some benefits to structuring the content of a class to make it better suited for online lessons. I now plan to develop a MOOC version of my optical engineering class.”

Author(s): Anne-Muriel Brouet
Imported from EPFL Actu

Kristin Schirmer is awarded ENAC students’ prize

Every year in an anonymous voting process, the students at the EPFL award the “Polysphere” prize to their professors in recognition of their services to academic teaching. One prize is awarded in each faculty. On October 2nd 2021 at the EPFL graduation ceremony, known as the “Magistrale”, Prof. Kristin Schirmer had the honour of receiving this year’s Polysphere in the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC).

Since 2011, Prof. Schirmer has been engaged as adjunct professor at EPFL, and teaches ecotoxicology on the Environmental Sciences and Engineering bachelor’s degree courses. In addition, she supervises and mentors master’s and PhD students in the field of ecotoxicology. At Eawag, Prof. Schirmer has been Head of the Environmental Toxicology department since 2008. She is also adjunct professor at ETH Zurich.

Kristin Schirmer, what does this prize mean to you?

Kristin Schirmer: A great deal. I really value my interactions with young people, and it is very important to me to be able to impart my knowledge to the next generation. I would like to make sure that they are well placed to drive ecotoxicology further forward as a field of study – also at Eawag wherever possible. In doing so, I always try to show an interest in the students and their needs, and work with them as part of a team. So the fact that my commitment to them is recognised and valued means an awful lot to me.

What does excellent academic teaching mean to you?

I want to connect with the students on the level of everyday life – how ecotoxicology relates to them in their lives. For example, who hasn’t stood in the shower in the morning reading the ingredients on the label of the shower gel, and wondering what impact these substances might have on the environment once they disappear down the plughole? That’s where I come in. I believe also that people learn best when they have to work things out for themselves. For this reason, I usually take an interactive approach, with exercises, discussions and surveys. This also works very well in online classes, thanks to the various digital tools that are available. This year, as we were all sitting at home in front of our computers, I introduced a “song of the week”, which was always related to the topic at hand. A great playlist has come out of that, as well as an extra helping of fun and variety.

Can you tell us about any special experiences you’ve had in connection with your teaching?

I always encourage the students not to hold back with feedback to me – both positive and negative. On many occasions, the feedback has been very moving, and has stuck with me. For instance, I have been told that my course was the highlight of the week, or even the semester. It’s also especially nice to see that the students have taken something with them that they can apply in their careers. One former student, for example, wrote to me and thanked me, saying that he was in Brazil doing a work placement at an engineering firm and was able to apply certain things from our course when carrying out a sediment assessment. Those are wonderful boosters.

Author(s): Annette Ryser / Eawag
Imported from EPFL Actu

Excellence through Diversity

What does excellence in education mean to you?

Kathryn: To me, excellence means going beyond the expected, attaining a level of exceptional quality. In terms of education outreach, excellence means understanding where a prospective student is starting from and identifying the populations that would benefit the most from studying at EPFL, including populations that one might not think of at first. We need to reach out to them where they are, providing them with the information they need and most importantly making it relevant to them. We can achieve this by listening to them and by working with the entire system that surrounds them, that includes schools, authorities, families, etc.

Pierre’s teams and my teams work hand in hand with many other units at EPFL to achieve excellence in education and to foster the skills and knowledge graduates will require in the working world. To accompany them, we strive to provide them with learning opportunities that go beyond the classroom, taking their aspirations and needs into account.

Clearly, a higher education institution such as EPFL is concerned by multiple aspects of excellence in education.

Pierre: For me, excellence in teaching can be measured by how much students have learned at the end of their curriculum and what they can do with this kind of knowledge and skill in life. It is about how they can exploit what they learned here, beyond an exam.

To achieve excellence in education, it is essential that we listen to students and not assume that we already know what is best for each of them.​​​​​

Kathryn Hess Bellwald, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach
What do we need to do to ensure we provide a culture of excellence?

Kathryn: We need to be humble and listen to the needs and aspirations of the young people, and accompany them before and during their studies, as well as help them transition to the workplace. We should reach out to provide them with opportunities to discover and dive into science and technology, support them during their studies and in their extracurricular activities, to help them become well-rounded graduates, and smooth their transition into the work environment by offering them a mix of practical and theoretical learning experiences at EPFL.

Pierre: We have to ensure that we embody a culture of excellence throughout all of EPFL, from the administration through the teachers. All of us play a role in enabling students to come to their full potential and mature to excellence – and carry that excellence beyond the steps of our School.

What does this mean for our EPFL students, and for our prospective students?

Kathryn: Being part of an association or the coaching program, working on an interdisciplinary or MAKE project helps develop skills beyond what students learn in the classroom. Providing these opportunities to students means diversifying how we accompany them. With 10’000 students, we have an extremely diverse population with a wide range of interests and abilities. If we offer all of those students the possibility to further develop themselves, inside or outside the classroom, then we will have attained excellence, contributing to the development of high functioning members of society.

Pierre: Strengthening the diversity of excellence is key to achieving what Kathryn mentioned are well-rounded graduates. We work with the teachers to improve teaching methodologies, providing a combination of classroom and project-based learning opportunities or offer preparatory courses.

We are dealing with a diversity of excellence. When I think about the students in my lab, they can be excellent in many ways: some by their rigorous reasoning, others by their creativity; some by their ability to code, others by the data analyses skills, etc. A culture of excellence enables all students to attain their own potential beyond academic performance.

Pierre Dillenbourg, Associate Vice President for Education
A smooth transition from high school to tertiary education as well as a good first year experience is important to ensure we provide sustainable academic excellence in the future. What are we doing for that?

Kathryn: Through the Interface Gymnases-EPFL we have the opportunity to be in direct contact with high school teachers, to discuss issues related to their students’ transition and address them on both sides, at the gymnase and at EPFL, which will allow us to improve the transition and the first year experience. This is an important exchange platform, which we should maintain and expand.

Another form of direct contact, which is more hands-on, is the “stage pour enseignant·es”, where teachers are immersed in the EPFL environment, working and teaching side by side with a professor at EPFL. This experience allows both partners to learn from each other and integrate what they learn into their teaching activities.

Pierre: We have to continue considering the whole eco-system when we think of excellence. It needs to be part of every step in a student’s journey. That means working with the local authorities and high school teachers and, for instance, broadening our offer of extra training. For example, the LEARN Center at EPFL has trained nearly 1’000 elementary school teachers in Canton Vaud to bring computational thinking activities to their classrooms. This collaboration not only strengthened the dialogue among EPFL, the schools, and the authorities, it also allowed younger populations, who maybe otherwise would not have developed interest in science and technology, to discover a new universe.

Attainment of excellence does not begin at the doorstep of EPFL, however. Progress towards excellence should be initiated early on.

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

While there are many initiatives at EPFL that strengthen this culture of excellence among and for our students, attainment of excellence does not begin at the doorstep of EPFL. Progress towards excellence should be initiated early on, as we accompany our prospective students in their orientation and transition. EPFL offers a vast range of initiatives to support students’ discovery of science and technology, ranging from targeted summer schools to preparatory courses or the first year’s mentoring program. They have proven to facilitate considerably the transition from gymnase to EPFL and should absolutely continue to be developed.

Author(s): Education Outreach Department
Imported from EPFL Actu

Students disassemble everyday devices to grasp the underlying theory

Every year, some 150 third-year Bachelor’s students in microengineering get an opportunity to directly link the theory they learned in class to real-world objects through a fun reverse-engineering class that EPFL introduced in 2018. Students form groups and then select an everyday object – like an electric razor, a fan, an electric kettle, a fishing reel, a toaster or a bicycle derailleur – and take it apart completely, investigating its various parts, how it was built, how components are connected together, and what each one does. That lets them understand step by step how the object was manufactured.

This kind of hands-on approach is very effective for teaching, as Yves Bellouard – the professor who created the class – is happy to note. “Students are eager for classes that involve concrete applications,” he says. “These reverse-engineering assignments help them better understand manufacturing processes which, with their lists of operating procedures, can otherwise seem abstract.”

Discover the manufacturing secrets of an electric razor © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

The learning goes both ways

The truth is, Prof. Bellouard enjoys taking things apart just as much as his students do, as it gives him valuable insight into production methods. By helping his students examine an object’s inner workings, he can advise them on the best approach to take to decipher how the object functions and what materials it’s made from, and to formulate and test hypotheses by running models. “Reverse-engineering is a great way to enhance students’ engagement and motivation,” he says. “They get excited about learning for themselves how things are really made, including what aspects are particularly important and how the technology is used.”

Nadia, Aziz and Brahim chose to reverse-engineer a stethoscope, which is a much more complicated device than it may seem. For example, its ostensibly simple chest piece – the metallic disk that’s placed on your chest – contains a diaphragm. “This class lets us apply everything we learned in the first two years – materials science, tooling methods and even some concepts from electronics,” says Aziz. We used spark erosion to cut the chest piece apart and see how it was made.”

Nadia, Aziz and Brahim chose to disassemble a stethoscope © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

While this class takes a more fun approach to learning, the reverse-engineering assignment counts for 40% of the overall grade. “At the end of the semester, the students must be able to fully explain how the object they analyzed was built,” says Bellouard. “We also ask them to suggest alternative methods – this is mainly to focus their attention on sustainability issues, but also to stimulate their creativity.”

What is a metronome made of? © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

EPFL’s Discovery Learning Program, part of the cross-disciplinary MAKE initiative, is intended to supplement students’ curricula with hands-on learning opportunities. By enabling students to acquire skills gradually through a carefully orchestrated approach that runs throughout their studies, the Discovery Learning Program both reinforces students’ knowledge and boosts the quality of the education they receive.

Bellouard’s class is just one notable example of this hands-on approach. EPFL professors work closely with the Teaching Support Center (CAPE) and the LEARN Center to develop these kinds of teaching methods and better understand how they can be applied, in order to give students a well-rounded education.

Author(s): Sandy Evangelista
Imported from EPFL Actu

Reward for learning with a twist of real-life research

The explosion of machine learning in the past two decades has already transformed large sectors of society, including healthcare, education, transport, and food and industrial production, as well as having an enormous impact on science and research. Indeed, the growth of deep learning, a type of machine learning, has been compared to the Cambrian Explosion of half a billion years ago when life on Earth experienced a short period of very rapid diversification.

Martin Jaggi, head of the Machine Learning and Optimization Laboratory, with his colleague Nicolas Flammarion teach the masters level Machine Learning Course, open to students from across campus. Recently, they have introduced two novel, practical elements to the course that have been welcomed by students and labs alike.

The first allows students to participate in the international “ML Reproducibility Challenge” a competition in which members of the machine learning community select a paper from a top ML conference and try to reproduce – and therefore validate – the experimental results described.

The second is the “Machine Learning 4 Science” (ML4Science) project component that is building cross campus collaborations, matching science projects from laboratories of all disciplines with students who will bring their machine learning expertise to new fields. Between 2018 and 2020 more than 600 students participated in projects proposed by 77 labs across EPFL, and even outside institutions including CERN.

“As the course is quite theoretical I really wanted it to be complemented by something a bit more practical. I think it’s fair to say that both students and labs feel that they benefit from the structure, it’s a real win-win,” says Jaggi. “It’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture when learning a new tool. Doing a real team project in an interdisciplinary setting, the students experience the diverse aspects that contribute to a project’s success – not just how many layers to put in a neural network.”

Professor Sahand Jamal Rahi, Head of the Laboratory of the Physics of Biological Systems in the School of Basic Sciences (SB) says the impact of ML4Science on his lab cannot be overstated. “I believe the experience is transformative for students who have an opportunity to break out of the classical classroom setting. They learn to work on highly challenging, cutting-edge problems instead of standard questions that do not change year-on-year, and face obstacles as they present themselves in research or industry, such as noisy and incomplete data or difficult-to-understand research articles in different fields. Martin’s students have figured out many of the ingredients that went into multiple papers and have changed how my lab does science,” he said.

Other work looked at an incredibly diverse set of research questions, including: predicting stroke severity using pacman game data; avalanche forecasting; music beyond major and minor; and, improving freshwater quality measurements.

More broadly, Professor John McKinney, Head of the Laboratory of Microbiology & Microtechnology in the School of Life Sciences (SV), believes the ML4Science approach is a brilliant example of a transition from passive to active learning and how EPFL should be restructuring traditional courses to better engage students.

“Not only does this course focus on acquisition and mastery of useful skills, it provides students with exciting opportunities to engage in cutting-edge scientific projects, allowing them to experience what it is actually like to be a scientist and to interact on a collaborative basis. Further, these projects can also provide the “glue” that brings together two or more labs with different areas of expertise, promoting the spirit and practice of interdisciplinary research. It provides a paradigm of how we should strive to restructure learning at EPFL more generally,” he said.

For Martin Jaggi the Award is a great honor. Both his parents are teachers and, although growing up he never imagined himself standing in front of a classroom full of students, the events of the past 18-months have made him realize what he is able to contribute.

“The beginning of the 2021/22 term has been very special because, after 18-months of distance learning due to COVID-19, I was looking out at 300 or so real students in the classroom again, with a great vibe of motivation and eagerness to learn. With ML4Science they get to take their first steps in a research project and learn how to use their tools in practice. There is so much talent at EPFL and I think it’s our responsibility to put this talent to use.”

The Credit Suisse Teaching Award is given each year to a person or an education team at EPFL, rewarding the best contribution to education within the Institution.

Author(s): Tanya Petersen
Imported from EPFL Actu

Retrospective of the 2nd edition of the “Teaching Day”

The second iteration of the “Teaching Day” was held on the morning of Tuesday 14 September in a condensed, revised, and adapted format to comply with current health regulations.

Nicknamed “Teaching (Half) Day” for the occasion, this conference co-organized by the EPFL Teachers Council (CCE), the Center LEARN, and the Teaching Support Center (CAPE) aimed to present the results of the commissions formed at the beginning of the year under the leadership of the Associate Vice-Presidency for Education (AVP-E). The recordings of the presentations are available here.

From January to July 2021, around fifty members of the EPFL community including professors, teachers, section directors, staff members and students worked together to produce a report as well as a set of recommendations aimed at improving education within the institution. These commissions focused on four areas: the first year, project-based learning, hybrid/flexible education and the simplification of rules and processes.

“I wanted more support for the teachers,” Pierre Dillenbourg, Associate Vice-President for Education, explained to the hybrid assembly bringing together a total of around ninety members of the EPFL teaching community.

The chairs of the first three commissions took turns presenting the results of nearly six months of careful evaluation and analysis, drawing up a comprehensive report of the focus areas.

The first year commission investigated the status of success rates and overall well-being of incoming students which allowed for generating recommendations on teaching and mentoring support, exam revisions, and classroom formats that support diverse student populations coming into EPFL.

The hybrid/flexible teaching commission analyzed different modalities of teaching both from the perspective of teacher-driven pedagogical approaches and student self-regulated autonomous learning. This analysis supported the creation of a map that helps navigate through different modalities of teaching at different stages in the curriculum.

Finally, the project commission surveyed existing practices at EPFL and elsewhere to understand how to leverage the benefits of project-based learning for a larger number of students, such as bridging the gap between theory and practice, acquisition of transversal skills, and benefiting from a structured and well-balanced curriculum.

The full reports and recommendations of the commissions can be found here. These commissions were an opportunity to take a fresh look at traditional teaching methods and identify potential leads for the improvement and progress of practices, paving the road for future evidence-based implementations.

“We asked ourselves what studying at EPFL would look like in 2025,” Felix Naef, Associate Professor and Director of the Commission on hybrid/flexible teaching said.

Well beyond that, the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach (AVP-SAO), Kathryn Hess, reaffirmed that “the mandate of EPFL is to not only create excellent students, excellent technicians, but also well-rounded future members of society.”

The 2021 Teaching Day was completed by an analysis of machine learning throughout the curriculum (database available here) presented by Mathieu Salzmann and Alexandre Alahi, as well as an overview of the various resources available on campus to boost inclusion (fact sheets about special needs available to EPFL teachers) offered by the Student Affairs (SAE) in collaboration with specialists from CHUV.

The following work on some of the recommendations and actions proposed in the commission reports will entail wider discussions with the teaching community and appointing time and resources to make concrete steps in realizing some of the set objectives.

All teachers are invited to participate in the follow-up discussion through the appointed workshops for each of the commission, as well as through answering the survey prepared for giving feedback to the reports and suggestions provided by the commission teams.

The workshop dedicated to hybrid/flexible education will be held on 14 October between 12:15 and 14:00, the first year workshop on 22 October, same time, and the project commission workshop on 2 November, same time. All workshops are announced via the Center LEARN memento; make sure to subscribe to stay updated on this and other teaching related sessions!


Beyond the teaching day, we talk about teaching all year round. For example in Lunch&LEARN sessions, which are informal and open events for the EPFL community interested in innovative pedagogical approaches, opening possibilities for knowledge sharing and further collaborations.

Our guests encompass a range of innovative teachers and researchers from labs working on learning (CHILI, REACT, MOBOTS), service units (CEDE, CAPE), and educators with new visions for education at EPFL.

These short-format bring-your-own-lunch sessions allow teachers to present case studies of their novel practices and generate discussions among peers.

If you want to be informed about Lunch&LEARN sessions, please subscribe to LEARN’s memento. Also be in touch with us at if you would like to suggest a topic for a future session or would want to moderate one yourself.

Imported from EPFL Actu

Vaud elementary school teachers get training on digital education

In the science classroom at Cheminet elementary school in Penthalaz, small groups of elementary-school teachers are using their iPads to record songs, create GIFs, generate QR codes, take pictures and capture videos on their screens. They may appear to be a distracted bunch, but they’re actually highly focused on the task at hand. They’re just one of the many groups of teachers across Vaud who took part this spring in the first afternoon of a six-day training program on digital learning tools, as part of an initiative to incorporate digital technology into the education received by Vaud schoolchildren.

The initiative was launched by the Vaud Department of Education, Youth and Culture (DFJC) with the goal of training all elementary and junior-high teachers in the canton by 2023. These teachers will then be able to better incorporate digital subjects into their own curricula. The program is being carried out in association with HEP Vaud, UNIL and EPFL’s LEARN Center.

The initiative began in 2018–2019 when the LEARN Center trained around 350 elementary-school teachers from ten pilot schools on computer science and computational thinking. Then in 2020, the Center recruited around 15 of these teachers to participate in a train-the-trainer program to pass the digital-education methods they learned along to other Vaud schoolteachers.

“We selected a diverse group of participants with complementary backgrounds,” say Frédérique Chessel-Lazzarotto and Grégory Liégeois, the LEARN Center project managers in charge of continuing-education programs for teachers. “We met with the group once a week for six months, adjusting the training program based on teachers’ feedback in order to better meet their needs. The priority is to use hands-on learning methods whenever possible. We will hold meetings again regularly in this new school year.”

High uptake

The selected group of participants began training other teachers this past spring. The first step was to make sure all the teachers knew how to use a tablet, activate its different features and create online “multimedia book” with text, pictures, video and sound. At the training session at Penthalaz-Venoge elementary school, teachers who took part have various backgrounds, and only a handful had already used the technology in their classrooms. “We’re still in the very early days of our program, but the teachers are very interested and enthusiastic and want to get involved,” says Chantal Vial, a schoolteacher at Chernex elementary school, who is one of the trainers selected by the LEARN Center.

Chantal Vial (on the right) with a teacher at Cheminet elementary school in Penthalaz. © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

According to a survey of the 350 teachers who completed the LEARN Center training in 2018–2019, many of them went on to adopt the digital-education methods they learned. In April 2019, 97% of the teachers said they had run at least one of the digital activities with their students, and the rate was still 80% nearly a year later, in March 2020. Unplugged learning activities were the most popular.

Encouraging curiosity about digital technology

The initiative focuses on three aspects of digital education in particular: digital citizenship, computer science and information and communication technology. “We want children to learn to think critically about digital technology. That is, we want to encourage them to be curious about it and to try to understand how it works,” say Chessel-Lazzarotto and Liégeois who worked as teachers before joining the LEARN Center. “The idea is to show them that the power is in the hands of humans, that it’s just a matter of choice.”

In the program, teachers are trained to use unplugged activities – such as Jeu de la Grue (the “Crane Game”), where children have to move a cube virtually by going through various choices, and Pixel-Paravent (the “Pixel Screen”), where children learn the basics of the binary system – to introduce students to digital concepts. The students will then move on to activities on tablets, computers and the Thymio and Blue-Bot educational robots. “The goal is to encourage children to use devices in other ways and stimulate their creativity,” says Chessel-Lazzarotto. From the age of five, the students will be asked to perform more advanced tasks like creating a stop-motion animated video. “That shows them they can play around with images, that there’s no magic behind them,” says Liégeois.

We want children to learn to think critically about digital technology. That is, we want to encourage them to be curious about it and to try to understand how it works.

Frédérique Chessel-Lazzarotto and Grégory Liégeois, the LEARN Center project managers in charge of continuing-education programs for teachers

The LEARN Center also helped create the Oscar & Zoé series of children’s books on the topic of digital citizenship. “The Oscar & Zoé book called Bestioles de l’ombre (Creepy Critters in the Dark”), by Allison Ochs, addresses the issue of the fear that some digital content, such as scary images, could arouse in young children,” says Chessel-Lazzarotto. “One activity in our digital education program, inspired by that book, is to have students go on a ‘photo safari’ with their iPads, taking pictures of creepy critters they find and then modifying the images. That also opens the door to more philosophical conversations with children on topics like their emotions, the different opinions people can have and the importance of consent.”

Training all Vaud teachers in two years

The LEARN Center already took the first step towards the goal of training all Vaud teachers by 2023 through a program it ran back in 2019 for junior-high teachers at ten pilot schools. The program will be extended to all Vaud junior-high schools in the fall of 2022. It will be modeled after the one for elementary-school teachers. The Canton of Vaud has also funded the purchase of teaching materials, with the target of equipping all classrooms with Thymio robots (for schoolchildren aged 6 and up), Blue-Bot robot (for schoolchildren aged 4–8) and a set of five iPads (for schoolchildren aged 6–8).

© Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

Also as part of the initiative, the Canton of Vaud, along with EPFL, HEP Vaud, UNIL and outside experts, has developed a handbook for teachers called Décodage (Decoding”). “The handbook describes both plugged and unplugged activities that teachers can run, as well as various scenarios they can use to introduce the concepts of digital citizenship to schoolchildren and instill a digital culture from the age of four,” says Chessel-Lazzarotto. Experience has shown that materials like this, as well as the support, equipment and time to learn and implement activities are key to the long-term success of this kind of initiative.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

“Research and Practice are Intricately Intertwined”

In March 2021, Dr. Roland Tormey was named Senior Scientist in the College of Humanities (CDH) after serving since 2013 as a Scientist and as the Director of the Teaching Support Center (CAPE).

Tormey is a sociologist by training and began working in teacher education in the 1990s in Ireland. His research focused on inequality, inter-cultural education, and identity. From that starting-point, he also began to develop an interest in emotion. He recalls, “there was very little work on emotion and inter-cultural education…At that time there was just the beginning of a realization that discrimination and inequality very often arise from emotions as much as from mental representations.”

He observed that angry responses are often an expression of power dynamics and began to focus on “helping teachers to develop the competence to be aware of their own emotions and then let that feed into their judgement.” He explored these themes as the head of the teacher education department at the University of Limerick before he joined EPFL.

Tormey initially came to EPFL in 2011 to collaborate with Pierre Dillenbourg and then agreed to stay and become the director of the new Teaching Support Center (CAPE) when it was first established in 2013. For Tormey, joining the CAPE brought an important shift in focus from teacher education to engineering education. He stresses that inequality and diversity are important issues in both contexts and notably factor into engineering teamwork: “diverse teams make better decisions because they question themselves more. There tends to be less group-think. But being able to work in those teams requires a certain minimum level of emotional connection that enables that questioning to take place.”

Tormey underlines the importance of the concept of “desirable difficulty” for effective collaboration. “You may prefer to work with your friends, but you have a greater chance of being productive if you are working in a group where people question you more.” Yet teams must first “build enough coherence and shared warmth to enable that friction to happen.”

At EPFL, Tormey has continued to investigate the role played by emotions in teamwork and also in engineering ethics. Drawing inspiration from the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, he explains the importance of emotions for ethical decision-making: “if intelligence means the ability learn and to adapt to your world, then by definition emotions are intelligent because emotions help us learn and help us adapt to our world. They give us information that helps us make good decisions if we use that information correctly.” He remarks that consideration for the role of emotions has been notably absent in engineering ethics education. He is currently participating in two different international collaborations to survey existing research on this topic in order to establish a baseline for future work.

He also conducts practice-oriented research in order to help address the strategic priorities defined by the EPFL Direction. Those goals include improving student learning in the first year as well as promoting project-based education in teams. Tormey’s scholarly work on ethics and diversity align closely with this practical mission to support collaborative learning.

Tormey describes the services that the CAPE provides to the EPFL community and the scholarship produced by its members as a “virtuous cycle.” For example, research on gender dynamics in groupwork helped his colleague Siara Isaac develop the Make it Awkward Workshop. Tormey explains, “We don’t do research for its own sake. I don’t mean that as a criticism of blue skies research…it’s just not what we do. We do pedagogical engineering research. Research and practice are intricately intertwined.”

In his new role as Senior Scientist, Tormey will continue to conduct practice-oriented research to support the EPFL community as it shifts out of pandemic-mode, while also pursuing his scholarly collaborations focused on the role of emotions in engineering ethics.

Author(s): Madeleine Dungy
Imported from EPFL Actu