“Kindness is a powerful tool in teaching”

Jamila Sam is one of EPFL’s first teachers of computer science, and she was personally responsible for opening up this discipline to life sciences students. The trailblazing mother of four is constantly seeking out new projects for her students to work on, driven by her belief in the power of a “structured, disciplined, practical approach to teaching.” In 2013, Sam and fellow computer engineer Jean-Cédric Chappelier developed four massive open online courses (MOOCs) on programming. She describes it as a “huge undertaking” – not just the time it took to make the videos, but also the effort required to adapt the material to the flipped classroom format and to “get participants interested in attending in-person classes.” Ultimately, their investment paid off, with Sam and Chappelier winning the Credit Suisse Award for Best Teaching in 2015.

More recently, Sam and Chappelier have developed the MOOC: programming project with Java, and a similar course on C++ is in the pipeline. Jamila Sam also remains heavily involved in teaching, spending many a long hour in front of her screen. “It’s true that I’m often at my computer, especially during teaching periods,” says Sam, who was named best teacher in the life sciences section in 2020. “I couldn’t tell you how long I spend answering questions from students taking their first steps into programming. But it’s incredibly rewarding to see them progress with my help.”

Breaking the mold

Sam came to EPFL to complete her thesis research in the 1990s after studying in Algeria. She joined Prof. Boi Faltings’ Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she remains to this day. When she arrived in Switzerland, she was surprised to find an environment dominated almost exclusively by men. “I’d say that made my first foray into teaching something of a challenge,” she says. Fortunately, things have improved since then, although women remain the minority in computer science.

I couldn’t tell you how long I spend answering questions from students taking their first steps into programming. But it’s incredibly rewarding to see them progress with my help.

In another change since those early days, Sam notes that students now arrive at EPFL with a more solid grounding in digital skills. “That doesn’t necessarily make my job easier, since many students have developed bad habits,” she explains. “There’s a tendency to teach programming in an overly formal way and to merely scratch the surface. I take a different approach. Instead of concentrating on specific programming languages, my classes focus on instilling the underlying concepts. I try to take a structured, hands-on approach – one that equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to switch from one language to another. That isn’t something you see often in the computer science literature.”

Project-based learning

Sam gets her students tackling practical projects in pairs, as a way to help them develop teamwork and collaboration skills. For instance, she’s set a number of game-related projects for students in her Introduction to Programming class. “Games are a great way for students to get creative and learn through a process of trial and error,” she says. “They find the whole experience incredibly stimulating. Each year, the pairs behind the three best projects present their work to the whole class. It’s impressive to see how much effort the students put in.”

Students who take Sam’s classes also work on more formal projects designed to introduce them to cryptography, machine learning and other key aspects of computer science. In addition, she designs specific, targeted tasks for life sciences students, such as projects focusing on epidemiology and on self-organizing biological systems.

Games are a great way for students to get creative and learn through a process of trial and error.

“The projects I set are deliberately demanding,” she explains. “But they’re also incredibly instructive. And because the students have to invest their time, cooperate and interact, you see a sense of community develop within the class.” Sam is no stranger to hard work herself, having developed a series of toolkits for teaching coding using project-based methods. These resources are real time-savers, given how long it can take to devise a programming project – from developing the application, to writing at least 50 pages of instructions and testing the solution to make sure it works.

Sam built the toolkits – for the Java and C++ programming languages – with support from students as part of their research projects. Each kit comprises a set of reusable tools and abstractions that can be applied to projects in a range of contexts. For instance, the Java toolkit, which contains around 20,000 lines of code, lets students prototype various grid-based games in just a few hours.

Sam’s templates teach students about the importance of developing reusable, non-context-specific resources pitched at the right level of abstraction. “When you approach coding in this way, it becomes an exercise in modeling, discipline and abstraction,” she says. “These are key skills in all areas of engineering.”

Ongoing support

Sam is a big believer in the importance of interaction, devoting a large portion of her time to answering students’ questions. “I’ve set up a coaching system for students working on my projects,” she explains. “I assign an assistant to support each pair, and I expect students to provide regular updates outlining their progress and detailing any issues they’ve encountered. We also have extremely active forums and run sessions where students can get help. When classes moved online in the spring 2020 semester, I personally answered over a thousand questions. There’s always a risk that students could fall behind and give up, especially if they arrive at EPFL with minimal programming experience. That’s why personal support is so important. Kindness is a powerful tool in teaching.”

Sam welcomes feedback from students, which she uses to review and improve her approach. She also keeps pace with the latest developments and is eager to try out new methods in her classes. Her goal, at all times, is to “see students make tangible progress and help them acquire useful knowledge and skills.” And those efforts often pay off. On one occasion, she received a card from a former student, who wrote: “Thanks to your help, I’ve built a successful career programming exoskeletons.”

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

Innovative application helps students 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 to this problem 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. Dynamilis has already been downloaded more than 10,000 times and will be released soon in England and the United States.

While Dynamilis was free during its testing phase, it switched to a subscription model this past March. After a free trial week, parents, therapists, and schools are offered a monthly or annual subscription. Costs depend on the number of children using the application.

L. Boatto, A. Peguet, T. Asselborn, S. Viquerat, P. Dillenbourg © 2022 Dynamilis / Sven Viquerat

Strengths and weaknesses at a glance

School Rebound was founded in 2021 based on the research done by CEO Thibault Asselborn for his PhD thesis at EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction Laboratory (CHILI). “Some children have handwriting problems that may stay hidden for months. Because the problems are not obvious, parents and teachers may hesitate to consult specialists,” says Asselborn. “During this time, the students can accumulate learning difficulties as these handwriting problems monopolize their concentration and prevent them from developing other skills. This could cause students to lose confidence and develop significant educational blocks.”

As part of his PhD research, Asselborn helped develop an algorithm that can rapidly analyze a child’s handwriting. The child only has to write for 30 seconds on an iPad with an Apple Pencil for the application to establish their handwriting profile. “The tests we ran in the lab lasted about 20 minutes, but they didn’t take certain factors into account, which may reduce the accuracy of the analyses,” says Asselborn. Dynamilis evaluates dynamic aspects of handwriting that the human eye can’t see such as stability, pressure, speed, and angle. “Our app gives detailed analyses about the motor aspects of handwriting. This can give parents an initial indication before determining whether their child has difficulties with handwriting and, if so, to what degree. If the difficulties surpass a certain level, they’re recommended to go see a specialist.”

Learning dressed up like a game

Based on a child’s handwriting profile, the app recommends personalized activities to practice the fundamental aspects of handwriting – all while playing games. “The in-app tests don’t look like medical tests in the strictest sense,” says Asselborn. “It’s important to have an air of fun to avoid making children feel like they’re taking an exam, which can put them on edge.” The playful aspect during the testing phase is crucial for the School Rebound team and their Chairman, Pierre Dillenbourg, also head of CHILI. “While we were developing Dynamilis, our aim was to help children,” says Dillenbourg. “To do that, we knew we had to go beyond a simple handwriting-analysis program and give them activities to support learning and, for the more severe cases, correction. Games are an effective solution for children who are having problems in school because of their issues with handwriting.”

These activities, developed with game-design experts, can be done by children at home to help them improve their handwriting or at school for enhanced learning. For children with handwriting difficulties, the activities can be done with a therapist.

Close collaboration with therapists and schools

“We worked with nearly 50 therapists to develop our app and we received encouraging feedback,” says Dillenbourg. “The alacrity and precision of Dynamilis’ analyses lets them dedicate more time to children during their sessions.” Children may also use the app to continue practicing between sessions, concentrating on certain aspects (like pressure) which are difficult to practice on paper.

School Rebound teamed up with many schools to test the application on students. “We worked with schools in the Geneva, Vaud, and Neuchatel cantons as well as the Bern University of Teacher Education, the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), and the International Schools of Lausanne and Geneva,” says Asselborn. The collaboration with Swiss schools is continuing as a pilot project in 12 Vaud canton schools. “We’ve gotten letters from teachers who’ve seen their students improve leaps and bounds,” he adds. “Some students even come before class to practice.”

Science and ethics council

School Rebound has created a science and ethics council composed of experts in dysgraphia, dyslexia, data science, and education. “Our scientific model and rigor are important, and are what set us apart from other existing applications,” says Dillenbourg. Dynamilis is not alone in its market, “but is the only application that combines a complete handwriting analysis with personalized learning activities.”

Author(s): Leila Ueberschlag
Imported from EPFL Actu

A design class that gives students free rein

The idea behind the Product Design & Systems Engineering class couldn’t be simpler: students have to design and build an object that serves a purpose. “That’s the only instruction we give them,” says Prof. Yves Bellouard, who heads the Galatea Lab at EPFL’s School of Engineering (STI). The class was launched in 2016 as a way to get students working as a team and experiencing the entire design process, from developing a concept to making a prototype. Over the course of three months, groups of six students carry out market research, build a prototype, deliver a presentation and write a technical report that includes a patent proposal. Each team has a maximum budget of just 500 Swiss francs. “The idea is to stimulate innovative thinking,” explains Bellouard. “This year, the teams came up with some amazing concepts, some of which have market potential.” Prof. Edoardo Charbon, who heads the Advanced Quantum Architecture Lab at STI and has taught the class alongside Bellouard since 2017, adds: “One recent project even spawned a startup.”

A pill box for the elderly

This year, two groups opted to design an automatic pill dispenser for senior citizens. “After talking to medical professionals, we learned that people over the age of 65 often take two or three pills a day,” says student Titouan Marois. “Our machine is designed to help older members of society maintain their independence.” The device, dubbed Pill It, consists of three wheels: one for the morning, a second for lunchtime and a third for the evening. Each wheel has 31 compartments – one for every day of the month. “Once the machine is filled, it dispenses the pills automatically over the course of a month,” adds Marois. “Our prototype works in a similar way to a coffee machine, since it releases the drugs into a small cup.” The dispenser is paired with a smart watch that vibrates to remind the user that it’s time to take a pill. The watch can also alert a family member if the wearer falls ill or has an accident.

Myriam Rihani’s team developed a different kind of pill dispenser called Drug Minder. “Our design uses drawers,” she says. “Each one contains a particular type of drug. The machine mixes and dispenses the right combination.”

Aquatic debris and water analysis

Other students tackled environmental issues with their designs. One group built a floating garbage can called Fluenta that uses the force of the currents to collect debris. “The structure is made from recycled materials,” says student Florian Maître. “And it’s secured to the sea or river floor with an anchor.” The design includes a hatch to stop trash from escaping from the cage. “It has to be emptied every two days,” adds student Philippine Milward.

“Fluenta”, the lake bin. © Alain Herzog 2022 EPFL

Another team developed a robot that can collect samples at different locations in the water column. Baptized Seampler, it features a series of empty tubes that can be filled at the desired depths. “Plastic pollution is a major problem in the oceans,” says student Lara Laamari. “But before we can remove this waste, we first need to know where it’s located – and that isn’t as easy as it sounds.” The samples would then be sent to a lab, where they would be analyzed to determine if microplastics are present.

Purifying water by evaporation

Student Costanza Baudino and her team designed a solar-powered water filtration machine. The device, named Aquacycle, purifies dirty water through a process of evaporation and condensation. “Normally, evaporating water through a filter to make it safe to drink isn’t a practical option because it takes too long,” says Baudino. “We decided to speed up the process by heating the water using solar power.” Student Leonardo Cele’ adds: “Our prototype isn’t complex in structure, but it serves a practical purpose.”

Aquacycle © 2022 EPFL

The best class

Aside from working on the technical aspects of their designs, the students also learned how to work together and divide the tasks among themselves. Some of them found the teamwork aspect challenging. “Assigning responsibilities and dividing up the workload wasn’t easy for us,” says Baudino. Other teams, like Milward and Maître’s, hit the ground running right from the start. Laamari, meanwhile, says she enjoyed being given free rein by the professors. “We could design whatever we wanted,” she explains. “We had to manage our budget and our time and decide who was going to do what. The professors and their assistants were on hand to advise and guide us.” According to Marois, it’s the best class in this Master’s program: “We didn’t gain technical knowledge, but we picked up skills in areas such as marketing and team management.” He adds that building the prototype in the workshop was his favorite part of all.

Author(s): Valérie Geneux
Imported from EPFL Actu

EPFL introduces new Bachelor’s excellence fellowships

EPFL has introduced new Bachelor’s excellence fellowships to enable talented students to study at the School without sacrificing their involvement in charitable work, sports, the arts or other extracurricular activities. The scholarships are open to Swiss citizens and eligible Swiss residents. They mirror EPFL’s existing Master’s excellence fellowships.

The scholarships are offered through the School’s Student Support Program, which provides financial support for student-focused initiatives such as MAKE projects and the Summer in the Lab internship program. Together, these programs aim to help students obtain a higher-level education that combines a solid grounding in science and engineering with cross-disciplinary experience and transferable skills. “We want to promote all forms of excellence and encourage students from all walks of life to apply to EPFL,” says Kathryn Hess, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach and the architect of the new Bachelor’s excellence fellowships program.

Rewarding well-rounded students

The scholarships grant CHF 10,000 over three years and include guaranteed housing for applicants who select this option.This year, EPFL will offer 35 fellowships. Recipients will lose their funding only if they have to repeat a year.

Anyone joining an EPFL Bachelor’s program is eligible to apply as long as they achieved a GPA of at least 5.3 out of 6 in high school or the Special Mathematics Course (CMS). Excellence is required at the academic level, but this is by far not the only selection criterion. As well as demonstrating outstanding academic achievement, applicants should also provide a summary of their maturité thesis or an equivalent project along with a cover letter, a résumé detailing their extracurricular activities, and two letters of recommendation.

We want to promote all forms of excellence and encourage students from all walks of life to apply to EPFL

Kathryn Hess, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach

Shortlisted candidates are asked to give a short presentation before a panel of EPFL faculty members. “We feel it’s important to meet applicants in person,” explains Hess. “We need to see how they express themselves, how driven they are, what their interests are and what plans they have for the future.”

Applications close on 30 April and more than 50 students have already applied. The program, which is open to candidates from across Switzerland, is part of EPFL’s drive to build an even more diverse student community.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

EPFL opens a new Makerspace for project-based learning

The new mechanical and electronic prototyping Discovery Learning Lab stands proudly on Allée de Savoie, opposite the EPFL Pavilions center. Awarded the Minergie-P label for its low energy consumption, the SPOT – the name chosen by the EPFL community – is a sleek, spacious structure with glass façades that flood the interior with natural light.

At its heart, a 400m² open space with a 10m-high ceiling speaks to the building’s vocation as a place to meet, collaborate, get creative, and do hands-on prototyping work. The facility is open to students working on MAKE, Changemakers, Bachelor’s and Master’s projects, as well as on projects for officially recognized associations. “Hands-on learning equips students with the skills they’ll need to face future challenges“, says Pascal Vuilliomenet, who heads EPFL’s Discovery Learning Laboratories (DLLs). “The changing nature of our society is giving rise to increasingly complex problems that require interdisciplinary responses.”

Three separate spaces

What makes this new Makerspace unique? “Having all these resources in one place means that students can work on highly sophisticated projects, says Vuilliomenet. The building is divided into three spaces: the communal areas, which are open 24/7; the mechanical and electronic prototyping workshops, which are supervised and open to students who’ve completed some basic training; and the professional workshops, which can be commissioned to design more complex components. Each space is intended for projects at different stages of maturity. We visited a number of Makerspaces in Denmark, the US and elsewhere. The fact that ours has everything under one roof makes it rather unique.”

© Alain Herzog 2022 EPFL

Aside from the cutting-edge workshop facilities, the first floor of the building also features seminar and meeting rooms, brainstorming spaces and a computer room with simulation software. The basement, meanwhile, houses a 360° projection room where users can create immersive virtual environments, as well as equipment storage areas. “This new facility is fully aligned with our educational philosophy, which is to give students a solid grounding in scientific concepts as well as the broad-based skills needed to take a project from ideation to completion,” says Pierre Dillenbourg, Associate Vice President for Education and head of EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction (CHILI) lab.

Understanding real-world problems

The SPOT is also open to students taking classes with a project-based component. “This facility opens up a wealth of new teaching opportunities,” says Pedro Reis, an EPFL professor of mechanical engineering. This semester Reis uses the new facility to teach his “concurrent engineering project” class, in which students work with sewing machines on a project spanning aspect of mechanical engineering. “Students grapple with real-world challenges,” he explains. “They have to come up with an idea, find the best way to implement it, plan their project and work as a team. These are all important skills they’re gaining.”

Mechanical engineering students Victoria Destras and Zoë Marsaly, who are working on a sustainable fashion concept, say they enjoy the class because it gives them a chance to “roll up our sleeves and make something. We learn a lot of theory at EPFL. But we also enjoy the practical side of things. Here we have the freedom to develop our own project, although the ideation process is difficult.”

Prototyping forces them to deal with problems they might not otherwise have considered. –

Julien Delisle, who coordinates the interdisciplinary MAKE projects

As they work through each stage of the project cycle, from brainstorming to prototyping, students have to overcome the same obstacles they will face in their careers. They also come to understand the complexity that’s involved in building certain components. “Students gain a lot more knowledge and skills in the process,” says Julien Delisle, who coordinates the interdisciplinary MAKE projects. “Prototyping forces them to deal with problems they might not otherwise have considered – not least since, as engineers, they’re often well-drilled at applying solutions but less experienced at asking questions and digging deep into an issue or a need. Working on these projects pushes them to think differently and tackle unfamiliar problems. After all, prototypes never work on the first try.”

As well as training students to deal with adversity, project-based learning is also an exercise in interdisciplinary teamwork. “Working in groups and explaining their projects to coaches and professionals means students have to learn how to communicate with people from different backgrounds and find a common language,” says Samuel Cotture, who coordinates the Student Kreativity and Innovation Laboratory (SKIL). As manager of the SPOT, he will be responsible for facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration and bringing the new building to life, including through “repair cafés” and other events.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

Girl Power: Can we Break the Bias in Al and Beyond?

“Going back to the theory of Man the Hunter, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence. And these silences are everywhere. Films, news, literature, science, city planning, economics, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present and future, are all marked – disfigured – by a female-shaped “absent presence”. This is the gender data gap. These silences, these gaps, have consequences. They impact on women’s lives, every day.”

This is an extract from Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, a book that Anastasia Ailamaki a Professor at EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC), and head of the Data Intensive Applications and Systems Laboratory says was very difficult for her to read, “I wanted to break whatever furniture we had in the house. I’m a woman and I’m a database person and it touched me at a very profound level.”

Most offices, the book outlines, are five degrees too cold for women because the 1960s formula to determine ideal temperature used the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old, 70kg man. Cars are designed around ‘reference man’ so women are almost 50% more likely to be seriously hurt in an accident. In 2019 a Facebook algorithm was found to be allowing advertisers to deliberately target adverts according to gender with nursing and secretarial work suggested primarily to women. The same year, claims were made against Apple’s credit card for being biased against women by offering different credit limits based on gender.

“Men are just biased against women. Women are biased against women. Everybody is biased against women. In my work, I am the only woman everywhere I go, and people say it’s because of what I do – but that’s not an input that’s an output,” continues Ailamaki. So how can we break this bias as AI becomes ubiquitous with the risk that gender equality is set back decades?

There is an obvious bias in a lot of historical data as it reflects how society was at that time and machine learning algorithms are trained with this data. Is it possible to tweak these algorithms to account for historic biases?

Assistant Professor Robert West is Head of EPFL’s Data Science Lab (dlab), “I think we don’t know at this point because the digital world is a complex dynamic system. It’s not like you turn a knob and then you fix the problem. It’s more like a stock market and by turning the knob you change the incentives and then everything is affected, and you don’t really know what comes out of it. I think it will come down to having experimental platforms in place where we can turn knobs and then see, for that affected group of people, how things changed.”

Despite the systems complexity today’s computer scientists have to navigate, there is work happening on bias mitigation, trying to optimize algorithms to not only be accurate but to be fair, however what does fair mean and how do we measure whether something is fair?

“Fair could just be that if you’re a female student the algorithm has the same accuracy for your prediction as if you were a male student. Now at least people are often aware that their algorithm might be biased and maybe it needs to be checked. I feel like it’s a first step and if I look at my research field, I would say 10 years ago no one talked about fairness, everyone just talked about accuracy. Now it’s completely changed,” said Tanja Käser, Assistant Professor and Head of the Machine Learning for Education Laboratory.

West agrees that definitions of fairness will be different for different people and computer scientists need to actively embrace these conversations, “It’s a bit like the atomic bomb – when you have the technology, you can build power plants and you can build bombs. We have the search engine, it allows us to do fantastic things but it also has negative side effects. I definitely think computer scientists should take ethics classes. Computer scientists shouldn’t make these decisions on their own, it’s important to be to be aware of the evaluation criteria that will at some point be applied to their technology.”

As this problem is a broader reflection of the biases in society, of how we are raised and how we see the dynamics of our parents’ relationships and working lives, Käser believes we need to start educating both boys and girls at a young age.

“We should start with math and STEM at elementary school level, we need to make it cooler for girls to do STEM but this isn’t going to change fast. I like to emphasise the cool things that we can do with computer science that have an impact on society. My topic, how machine learning can optimize human learning, is interdisciplinary and I’m doing technical things, but it’s very human and I can have an important impact. I hope I can be a good role model, this is so important,” she said.

Ailamaki has a slightly different perspective. “We can’t do anything about the lady next door who thinks blue is for boys and pink is for girls, she has an opinion and we need to respect that, but we can make changes in a professional environment. We need to promote a genderless world in the workplace, one where you are judged for your ability, not whether you are a man or a woman. Then it’s a question of how far back we go. We need to stop naming kids boys and girls while in school and we need to stop teachers from telling kids ‘we’re going to give you this question because you are a boy and you this question because you are a girl’, but outside, people need to be who they are.”

West, who has three young daughters, often thinks about the world that they will grow into and his role in shaping the future, “I want them to be able to do whatever they want without social constraints. Maybe this sounds silly but I think it’s important to be nice and welcoming to everyone and that’s maybe even more important earlier on. I think there are a lot of girls that shun away from certain activities because they would be the only girls doing them. Thinking about what we have to change at universities is important, and yes we have to change, but I’m not sure that is the biggest bang for the buck. And, we need to involve men in the conversations and solutions, we are 50% of the population and we need to be as proactive as women to create a less biased future.”

Author(s): Tanya Petersen
Imported from EPFL Actu

“We need to restore a feeling of community”

Like many professors, Hilal Lashuel has long been swept up in the whirlwind of academic life. In addition to heading up EPFL’s Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Neuroproteomics and a startup company, Prof. Lashuel teaches classes and spends a lot of time applying for funding, preparing publications, and mentoring students and members of his team. He has led a full, exciting career, but one that also presented many challenges and demanded sacrifices over the years, including not prioritizing mental health and wellness.

“Excitement, stress, anxiety, fear, impostor syndrome, and time pressure are part of our daily experience as faculty, but our passion for science and research and love for our job make us numb and less conscious of our own health and well-being. In addition to this, the hypercompetitive nature of academia, need of peer recognition, and fear of failure make it difficult to open up about our mental health challenges and failures.”

After suffering two heart attacks in three years, Hilal Lashuel realized he needed to seriously reconsider his work-life balance and reassess his personal and professional priorities. He began reading up on various topics related mental health. He published several articles to share his own experiences and advocate for a more holistic approach to tackling mental health in academia. Today, Prof. Lashuel advocates for universities to better acknowledge this issue and make it a strategic priority. He believes that it is in the interest of these institutions and of society not to let members of the academic community suffer in silence.

Most of the time, when universities speak about mental health, they focus almost exclusively on their students. But we must also support those who support our students – that is, our faculty members and administrative staff.

What prompted you to create a series of free webinars on mental health in academia?

This was the result of a brainstorming session with one of my PhD students, Galina Limorenko, who has her own podcast where she interviews authors on various topics related to science and society. The main goals in creating these webinars are to break the taboo surrounding this issue, help normalize the conversation and increase awareness about this topic.

Our ultimate goal is to create a space for people to talk freely about mental health, share their experiences, coping mechanisms, and work collectively to come up with creative ideas to improve the working environment and culture in our institution and academia. Past topics include: What’s normal? How can we cultivate and sustain our well-being? What can we gain by rethinking our daily routine? And there are more topics to come. The speakers are from many different backgrounds and discuss these topics from a holistic perspective. After all, we’re all in the same boat. We can only address mental health as a community and the first step towards achieving this goal is to restore a feeling of community.

Most of the time, when universities speak about mental health, they focus almost exclusively on their students. But we must also support those who support our students – that is, our faculty members and administrative staff. Universities are highly interconnected, interdependent ecosystems. We need to look after each other – one for all, all for one. Just because you can’t see a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need to prioritize our mental health just like we do our physical health.

Can you tell us what you learned from your personal experience with this issue?

I learned that the two most valuable things in life are your health (physical and mental) and the time you spend with your loved ones. At one point I started to wonder whether it was really worth spending my days trying to meet other people’s expectations. In academic circles, saying that you feel stressed, under pressure or mentally exhausted is still seen as a sign of weakness. But when I began to speak openly about my experience, several other professors told me they’d been feeling the same way. That’s why it’s so important to talk openly about these things.

Now I try to maintain a healthier work-life balance by not working on the weekend, by doing fewer things and doing them better, and by being more available to spend time with and listen to others. I also speak more freely about my feelings and the setbacks I face, such as when a grant application is refused. I also run regularly and never miss a good occasion to enjoy time with the family and reconnecting with nature. One of the personal achievements that I am most proud of in 2021 is completing the 10 KM run during the Lausanne 20 KM.

I learned that the two most valuable things in life are your health (physical and mental) and the time you spend with your loved ones. At one point I started to wonder whether it was really worth spending my days trying to meet other people’s expectations.

Why has mental health become such a pressing issue at universities?

Several studies have shown that failure to address mental health challenges like stress, anxiety and depression will negatively affect students learning experiences and performances.

Universities are extremely competitive environments where people are expected to do many different things at once. There is a culture of perfectionism, failure is not seen as a constructive experience, but as a weakness.

The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health, and the urgency to act. Facing challenges is healthy to some degree. The only way to find out what you’re capable of is to push yourself, but you have to take care of yourself.

What are the key warning signs?

We all experience highs and lows; that’s normal. Some types of stress even help us perform. But if you look at the mental health spectrum, it’s important be aware where one is in the spectrum and seek support and help if we feel that we are about to enter the red zone. If stress is starting to affect your physical health – such as if you’re having trouble sleeping – or your dealings with other people, or if you find yourself isolating from others and no longer feel capable of attending to your basic needs, then the problem is getting serious.

At that point it’s important to get help. Don’t be afraid to confide in someone you trust, learn more about the resources available and schedule an appointment with a professional. The good news is that most people who seek help do get better, and there are effective techniques and treatments to help people cope and deal with mental health challenges and even become more resilient. But, one must take the first step and seek support. Do it for you.

We also have a responsibility to be there for people struggling with mental health challenges. Unfortunately, we are not provided with the training we need to recognize those suffering or how to support them. Despite this, we can still help by educating ourselves, being ready to listen with non judgemental ears, directing them to the right resources, and supporting them.

We often underestimate the power of words. I remember at a graduation ceremony one year, the mother of one of my students came up to me and thanked me for “saving her son’s life.” In fact, all I’d done was write very positive comments on his assignments that encouraged him to keep up the excellent work. The student really needed to read that after failing the first year and apparently my comments and interactions with him had a big impact. That’s when I began to understand how powerful words can be, not only positive words but also negative ones.

What can universities do to create a healthier environment?

Universities, through their leadership, should first publically acknowledge mental health and the well-being of students, faculty, and staff as a strategic priority. This declaration should be translated into institutional strateg that prioritize mental health and wellness in all aspects of university life.

In developing the strategy, they should survey all community members in order to identify the organizational culture, factors that affect mental health and aspects which are contributing to this problem. I think universities should provide more training to students and staff members on stress management and well-being, and on how to recognize and support those experiencing mental health challenges. They should also and set up the appropriate support programs. The goal should be to create a safe environment where people don’t suffer alone and where everybody feel comfortable talking about mental health without being judged.

I am very pleased that the EPFL’s Associate Vice Presidency for Student Affairs and Outreach is championing this cause with the creation of a Task force to study the issue of mental health at our School and propose concrete and proactive measures to create a culture where everyone can learn, succeed and thrive without compromising their health and wellbeing. In the end, a healthier environment will enable us to better achieve our mission. [The task force’s objectives will be published during the spring semester.]

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

Interdisciplinary projects attract ever more students

With a rocket that climbed to 3,167 meters, EPFL Rocket Team was crowned champion at the European Rocketry Challenge (EuRoC). The student-built Swiss Solar Boat, nicknamed “Dahu,” came in second in the Monaco Solar & Energy Boat Challenge. EPFL Xplore’s Argos space rover, the first of its kind to be designed on campus, took third place in the European Rover Challenge. EPFL Racing Team’s electric single-seater racing car finished fifth in the Formula Student race in the Czech Republic. And the SP80 team developed a scaled prototype of a boat designed to “pulverize” the world sailing speed record in 2022.

These are just some of the achievements of the 15 MAKE projects supported by EPFL in 2021, building on a 10-year-old program designed to encourage hands-on learning and interdisciplinary approaches. “These success stories are the tip of the iceberg,” says Pascal Vuilliomenet, head of the Discovery Learning Laboratories (DLL) program. “They’re supported by an entire ecosystem of people and teams sharing skills and pooling equipment – something we’re constantly working to improve.”

The DLL provide cutting-edge facilities and guidance of subject-matter experts to help students prototype their projects. Teachers can also use these laboratories to host practical sessions. “For early-career professors looking to create effective practicals, having access to the right facilities, supervision and resources is vital,” says Vuilliomenet. “A prime example is Josie Hugues, who launched the AgriFood interdisciplinary project for Master’s students.” (See inset for more details.)

Intrinsic motivation

EPFL provides a wide range of hands-on learning experiences. “Our aim is to give students the opportunity to work on projects throughout their time at the School, with programs tailored to their knowledge and abilities,” says MAKE project coordinator Julien Delisle. From the MAKE projects to Bachelor’s and Master’s semester projects, Student Kreativity and Innovation Laboratory (SKIL) and class-specific projects, students have ample opportunity to gain new skills, depending on their preferences and, crucially, how much time they’re willing to invest.

“Students earned more than 2,000 credits through MAKE projects in 2021,” explains Delisle. “To take one example, members of EPFL Racing Team collectively put in over 90,000 hours of work. These projects rely to a large extent on students’ intrinsic motivation. The amount of time they devote will inevitably exceed the number of credits they earn, by a significant margin.”

A study by researchers from EPFL’s Teaching Support Center (CAPE) and Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) found that intrinsic motivation was the main factor behind students’ decisions to take part in a project, concluding that participants were happy to devote so much of their time to the endeavor because they were curious, eager to learn and keen to confront new challenges. The team also found that this effort paid off, with students gaining new skills in the process.

These projects rely to a large extent on students’ intrinsic motivation. The amount of time they devote will inevitably exceed the number of credits they earn, by a significant margin.

Julien Delisle, MAKE project coordinator

“These projects give students a lot to think about, whether it’s prototyping, finding sponsors, budgeting, arranging insurance, planning IT resources, or handling the legal, safety, intellectual property and communication aspects,” adds Delisle. “We have subject-matter experts on hand to offer guidance on all these matters. There’s an instructive side to advising students in this way, and the program can only succeed with the input and support from units across the School.”

Preparing students for future careers

As they work on their projects, students gain expert insights and support from scientific, administrative and teaching staff, specialist workshops and around 40 different laboratories. They also make connections with people and organizations outside academia, which will serve them well in their future careers. “Some employers won’t even consider applicants without formal hands-on experience,” says Delisle. “The automotive industry is a case in point, where companies expect candidates to have taken in part in Formula Student or similar competitions.”

“These success stories are the tip of the iceberg. They’re supported by an entire ecosystem of people and teams sharing skills and pooling equipment – something we’re constantly working to improve.

As well as equipping students with theoretical knowledge and practical skills, hands-on projects like these nurture the kinds of soft skills that employers look for, such as an ability to work in multidisciplinary teams. For instance, the CAPE and LEARN Center study found that participants became better at assessing project-related risks. However, students still expressed difficulties with project coordination, internal communication and time management.

“It’s our job to help students overcome these challenges by assisting them as best we can,” say Delisle and Vuilliomenet. “It’s about finding the right balance: supporting them while encouraging them to work independently. We’re accustomed to working with specialists from the Teaching Support Center, who help us monitor student projects. We’re also developing a centralized platform for managing project-related information and activities. And we’re always looking for ways to improve the program, because we want all our students to have the best possible learning opportunities.”

In 2022, more than 1,000 students are expected to take part in around 20 MAKE projects. And in March, a new DLL Prototyping – Mechanics and Electronics lab will open on campus. The facility, spanning more than 1,500 square meters, will include a space for students to meet and share expertise, workshops, a computer room, a 360-degree projection room, and spaces for hosting seminars, classes and group meetings.

New MAKE projects supported in 2022

The MAKE selection committee has announced that it will support five new projects in the 2021–2022 academic year, most of which have a sustainability focus.

Low Tech

The team behind this project intends to demonstrate the feasibility of using components from demolished buildings to create low-tech housing in an urban setting. The students are aiming to build a circular habitat by summer 2023, and to complete a community pavilion by summer 2024.


In this semester project, multidisciplinary teams of between three and five Master’s students will come up with and present a proposal for developing a robotics system to aid agrifood systems. At the end of the project, the teams will pitch and demonstrate their solution at an event for both the academic community and industry representatives.

Carbon Removal

This project aims to develop a new low-cost, scalable and sustainable solution for direct air capture. The students will use carbon capture membrane technology to pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere and lock it away in underground geological formations. The project team will take part in the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, which is funded by Elon Musk and offers a $100 million prize purse.

Design for Sustainability

Under this program, EPFL students will collaborate with their peers from Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). Working in interdisciplinary teams, the students will design and develop sustainability-focused approaches in areas ranging from household consumption to workplace automation and lifelong learning. The program covers the framing, ideation and prototyping phases of designing for sustainability.

RoboCup at Home

The aim of this project is to create a team to compete in the international RoboCup competition, in the @Home Open Category. An interdisciplinary team will develop a robot with locomotion, manipulation and perception capacities in order to provide assistive services in the home.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

Three climate-related projects win the 2021 Durabilis Awards

The winners of the Durabilis Awards are selected by a panel of judges comprising representatives from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and EPFL, a cantonal forest inspector and a journalist. In this 15th year of the awards, the judges reviewed 33 applications and selected three projects. All the winning students are from EPFL’s environmental sciences and engineering (SIE) section, within the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC).

The awards were handed out at a ceremony at EPFL on 2 December 2021. During the ceremony, Augustin Fragnière, chair of the selection panel and deputy director of UNIL’s Competence Center in Sustainability, explained that this year’s winning projects all suggest practical methods to help combat climate change. He also thanked the mayor of Ecublens, who attended the ceremony, for supporting the awards.

A strategy for offsetting carbon emissions

Julie Reznicek, a Master’s graduate from EPFL’s Laboratory of Environmental and Urban Economics, won a Durabilis Award for her thesis titled Developing a Strategy to Offset Carbon Emissions at EPFL. She conducted her research as part of EPFL’s Campus Climate Plan, examining five different carbon-offset methods that could potentially be used in Switzerland: producing biochar, an organic charcoal-like material that is made by burning biomass; restoring wetlands by reintroducing water to dried-out areas, which limits decomposition and thereby reduces methane production; improving how forests are managed and increasing the production of Swiss wood products; installing solar panels as part of a Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (VPPA) whereby any unused electricity is fed back into the grid; and finally, installing a geothermal heat pump, which transfers heat from the ground to warm buildings.

Reznicek’s initial aim was to identify the best strategy for EPFL, but in the end she shifted her focus to a much broader question. She examined whether investing in carbon-offset systems was the best way for an engineering school to achieve carbon neutrality – and she gave a very clear answer during the award ceremony:

An engineering school like EPFL would be better off exploring innovative technological solutions rather than focusing solely on carbon offset projects

Julie Reznicek, SIE Master’s graduate and winner of a Durabilis Award

The judges praised Reznicek’s analyses for being “thorough and accurate” and concluded that her research would help “improve EPFL’s climate policy.”

A tool for managing urban ecosystems

Marine Manche and Quentin Chiche, both Master’s students, received a Durabilis Award for a project they completed during the Design Project module of their Master’s program. Their aim was to develop a method for monitoring sustainability in Fribourg and evaluating the resilience of its urban ecosystem. They worked hand-in-hand with local stakeholders and identified 17 key issues along with 38 indicators. They compiled these key issues and indicators into a “sustainability wheel” – a tool that policymakers can use to visualize each indicator and track how it changes over time.

By taking a collaborative approach, we discovered things that, as engineers, we hadn’t previously considered.

Marine Manche and Quentin Chiche, SIE Master’s students and winners of a Durabilis Award

According to the judges, the wheel design is “ingenious” and “makes it easier to understand the various aspects of sustainability.” They added that it could easily be adapted and used in other contexts.

Concrete ways to reduce our carbon footprint

The third winning group was made up of Alexis Barrou, Edouard Cattin and Blanche Dalimier. As part of their life-cycle analysis class, they worked on a project called Annual Carbon Footprint of an Average Swiss Resident and his/her Key Actions, with the goal of identifying concrete steps people could take to reduce their carbon footprint.

The students began by identifying four main sectors that contribute to consumers’ carbon footprint: food, transportation, housing, and goods & services. These sectors were selected because they encompass most aspects of daily life. In analyzing the emissions of each sector, they found that a Swiss resident produces an average of 11.6 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. In Switzerland, 60% of total emissions are generated by the transportation and goods & services sectors (30% each), while residential heating accounts for 12.5%. The goods & services sector includes many subsectors – in some of them (like healthcare) it would be hard for consumers to reduce their carbon emissions, but in others it would be possible by making certain lifestyle changes, such as by opting for more sustainable clothing or buying fewer digital products. All the potential actions identified by the students and their detailed calculations will soon be published on the Climpact website.

Drinking bottled water for a year produces more CO2 emissions than flying from Geneva to Barcelona.

Alexis Barrou, Edouard Cattin and Blanche Dalimier, SIE Master’s students and winners of a Durabilis Award

The judges were impressed that the students had calculated the carbon footprint for an average Swiss resident so meticulously and precisely and were able to suggest around 50 ways for people to reduce their carbon footprint.

According to Fragnière, the three winning projects demonstrate how important it is to address problems in a multi-faceted, holistic way. Just before the award ceremony, Klaus Schönenberger, head of EPFL’s EssentialTech Center, gave an inspiring talk on this very topic. He stressed that taking a cross-disciplinary approach will be crucial if we are to use innovation to achieve the goals of sustainable development, social justice and peace.

Author(s): Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle
Imported from EPFL Actu

EPFL and ETH Zurich launch their first joint doctoral programme

Anyone who’s sat in a classroom knows how important it is to have the right learning environment, teaching methods and study materials in order to learn a subject properly. Learning sciences are a field of study that combines fundamental research into human cognition with information and communication technology to improve teaching outcomes and enhance the learning experience.

The learning sciences sit at the crossroads of several disciplines. They require experts from an array of fields who are eager to put their expertise to work to improve education while advancing the understanding of human cognition and learning. The new joint doctoral programme is especially aimed at Master’s graduates from the STEM fields- science, technology, engineering and mathematics- who have a keen interest in learning and education.

A significant step

“Our goal is to train experts who can address education-related issues by drawing on a scientific background,” says Professor Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education and head of EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning & Instruction (CHILI) laboratory. He conceptualized and designed the joint doctoral programme with Professor Manu Kapur, who holds the Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich and heads up ETH Zurich’s Future Learning Initiative.

Our goal is to train experts who can address education-related issues by drawing on a scientific background.

Professor Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education and head of EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning & Instruction (CHILI) laboratory
Professor Pierre Dillenbourg © 2021 EPFL

“Research shows that traditional methods of teaching are often not optimal,” says Manu Kapur who has experience as a mathematics teacher himself. For example, the professor has shown that the systematic use of productive failure is significantly more effective than teaching by means of lectures. “Data science, artificial intelligence and robotics open up new research approaches that further promote such insights. “ He adds: “The joint programme is a significant step for the learning sciences in Switzerland, but also for science in general, as it sets the framework for joint programmes in other fields to be established.”

In fact, this is the first doctoral programme offered jointly by the two universities, each of which has extensive experience in the learning sciences (read below). “There are great synergies and opportunities between our schools and we look forward to more joint doctoral programs in the near future!”, says Luisa Lambertini, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Postgraduate Education.

The new EPFL-ETH Zurich programme lasts four years and is being funded by the Jacobs Foundation. “Collaboration is key to driving innovation, which is why we are delighted that these two high profile institutions are jointly offering this programme which will shape the future of learning,” says Simon Sommer, Co-CEO of the Jacobs Foundation.

Students must obtain at least 12 credits during the programme, including a total of eight credits from two mandatory courses (worth four credits each) taught each year at ETH Zurich and at EPFL. The first course looks at the theories of learning sciences, the latest research findings and different perspectives on the field. It focuses on two questions: How do people learn? And how can we improve the learning experience? The second course explores the interdisciplinary methodological toolkit of various research, data-collection and data-analysis methods that learning scientists employ.

The joint programme is a significant step for the learning sciences in Switzerland, but also for science in general, as it sets the framework for joint programmes in other fields to be established.

Professor Manu Kapur, who holds the Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich and heads up ETH Zurich’s Future Learning Initiative
Professor Manu Kapur © 2021 ETH Zurich

Students can also choose from a wide range of optional courses on topics like machine learning, how to learn and digital technology for education. The programme will also feature joint colloquia, seminars, summer and winter schools, and events for strengthening the community of learning science experts both within the programme in Switzerland at large.

“At the beginning of every innovation is learning. Our education system must build on current research knowledge at all levels – from childhood to adulthood – in order to meet an ever more rapidly changing world. In this regard, the new doctoral programme is an important step”, says Sarah Springman, the Rector of ETH Zurich.

Making abstract concepts tangible

With this new programme, the two universities aim to produce a generation of learning scientists who leverage advanced research and cutting-edge technology to improve the way subjects are taught across the entire educational system. The goal is to develop teaching methods that equip students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of our rapidly transforming society.

Aditi Kothiyal, a scientist at CHILI and EPFL executive director of the new joint doctoral programme, gives an exemple: “Intuition is very important in science and engineering – it’s what lets us pull together different concepts in a fluid manner. But the trick is how to instill this kind of intuition in students and help them grasp highly abstract concepts. That’s the challenge I find particularly interesting in the learning sciences. At CHILI lab at EPFL we have developed the Cellulo robot, for example, which lets students run experiments on electrical forces and see their effects – even though the forces themselves are invisible.” Kothiyal, who decided to specialize in learning technology after obtaining a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, is also a postdoc at EPFL’s Center for Digital Education.

Students can take the joint doctoral programme through either EPFL or ETH Zurich, depending on where their primary thesis supervisor is based, although they will also be co-supervised by a professor from the other university. Their doctoral degree certificates will bear the logos of both universities. People wishing to apply for the programme should submit their application by 1 December 2021; another application round will be held in the Spring 2022.

Two universities with an extensive experience in the learning sciences

ETH Zurich has been training baccalaureate school teachers in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – since it was established. It initiated programmes for the development of digital technology for teaching and learning in 1999. Since then, it has also set up three learning centers to develop more effective teaching methods for STEM subjects at all grade levels, and is steadily increasing its research efforts in the learning sciences.

EPFL has over 15 years of in-depth experience in digital technology for educational applications. The School opened its LEARN Center in 2018, which brings together learning-science researchers, practitioners and local businesses – including the 85 startups in the Swiss EdTech Collider program – to develop innovative teaching materials and methods. The R&D conducted at LEARN spans all levels of the Swiss educational system.

Author(s): Laureline Duvillard
Imported from EPFL Actu

A new master’s program for computer science teachers

From shopping and eating to banking and communication, computers touch nearly every aspect of our modern daily lives and as a result, understanding computer science of increasing importance. This is particularly true for young people who will continue to live through what is sometimes described as the fourth industrial revolution – in which disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robots and virtual reality are changing the way we live and work.

In response, from 2022 across Switzerland, computer science will be a compulsory subject in high schools, driving a need for teachers who can inspire students in this broad subject. To fast track teacher training in this field, EPFL and HEP-VD have jointly developed a new Master with specialization in Computer Science for teaching, where students obtain a Computer Science, Communications Systems or Data Science master’s, as well as a teaching diploma in Computer Science at the high school level.

“This new program is about the right balance of subjects and classes to ensure that students can earn sufficient credits on the one hand from computer science and then on the other, the pedagogical side. The feedback we have had is that the balance is working and that the program is in good shape,” said Olivier Lévêque, a senior scientist in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) who led the development of the new master’s program.

“In the past, for many students studying computer science at university their primary motivation probably wasn’t to go into teaching, particularly when computer classes in high schools were more focused on things like Microsoft Office. We hope that the new high school curriculum, focused on teaching the fundamentals of computer science, will be much more interesting and motivating to potential teachers,” he continued.

Micha Hersch is a lecturer at HEP-VD who teaches the didactics of computer science as part of the new master’s program and whilst the technical aspects of the field are important, he says students gain broader knowledge through this course.

“For those who enjoy the technical aspects of computer science but are also interested in humanities subjects such as learning processes in humans, or psychology, there is a wide range of subjects. In addition, increasingly, the teaching of computer science involves more than the basics of programming or algorithmics or computer architectures. We also explore the social, environmental or ethical effects of digitalization. I think this is really important for the coming generations and it makes the teachers’ jobs quite broad and rich,” he said.

The new master’s course will be presented at the EPFL Information Days, Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 November, where prospective students can learn more about the choice of bachelor and master’s programs offered by EPFL.

“I chose this master’s degree because teaching, and in particular helping others, is something that is close to my heart. In addition, it allows me to earn a double degree which is an asset when leaving EPFL. I’m looking forward to the new computer science subject in Swiss high schools, which I hope will integrate “real” concepts of computer science like algorithms and binary base, unlike what I learned,” explained Sophie Ammann, a Communication Systems student at EPFL.

Another EPFL computer science student who has just started the new master’s program, Tom Demont, is looking forward to gaining the theoretical knowledge of teaching and then to applying it, “I feel that many younger students have an aversion to math and computer science, but math isn’t a monster, it’s an amazing tool. I want to inspire high school students to be connected to these subjects because they are critically important. I hope I can teach them to code something small and help solve a problem so that they can use computer science in their everyday lives.”

“We’ve had good interest in the new masters within Switzerland, and have been positively surprised that students living outside of the country, who aren’t even native French speakers, want to take part in this course. It shows that we are on the right track and that there is space for a program like this. It also increases the visibility around different career options in computer science, including teaching, and that’s certainly one of the goals we had in mind when we were developing this,” concluded Olivier Lévêque.

The Master with specialization in Computer Science for teaching spreads over 120 + 9 ECTS credits, with a first year corresponding to a Computer Science (IN), Communication Systems (CS) or Data Science (DS) master, and a second year comprising the master project, as well as specialization courses at HEP.

Author(s): Tanya Petersen
Imported from EPFL Actu

Happy 10th birthday to Thymio, the teaching robot!

Imagine coding without even realizing you’re doing it. With Thymio, that’s exactly what you can do! This little teaching robot was created at EPFL 10 short years ago, and since then has performed admirably in its mission to teach schoolchildren about programming languages and about how computers think. “We picked the right time to launch it” recalls Francesco Mondada, academic director at the EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences, and affectionately known as Thymio’s dad. “Digital sciences first made their way into elementary education about a decade ago. Our robot provides a simple, intuitive, fun and non-gendered way to approach the subject.”

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that 74,000 of these robots have been manufactured over the last ten years! Over half of them are hard at work in Swiss and French schools, and in January, the Canton of Vaud announced that Thymio robots would be making their way into all elementary school classes to teach children from the age of six. “We’ve had wonderful feedback from teachers who’ve used them”, adds Francesco Mondada. The robots also grow alongside the children, and can teach and challenge them throughout their education. In fact, there are even courses at EPFL where Thymio robots are used as learning aids.

So why are they so popular? A lot of this is down to the simplicity and versatility of the design, created in partnership with the Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). Thymio only uses two motors (these power its wheels, but are also compatible with Lego equipment), and can communicate using sounds and colors, while also interacting with its environment through its five touch buttons alongside array of sensors used to detect proximity, movement, temperature and sound.

Most importantly, it also has a highly intuitive visual programming language (VPL) interface, allowing children as young as seven to immediately grasp the basics of programming. Programs can be built from blocks on the screen, and then sent to the robot so it can carry out the instructions in real life.

Thymio is distributed by Renens-based non-profit organization Mobsya, whose mission is, in the words of its CEO, Sandrine Prunière: “to allow everyone to develop curiosity and a critical mind regarding digital technologies by demystifying them and giving everyone the tools to master them”

Over its ten years, Thymio has built a considerable user base. The internet is full of videos, examples, stunts, and challenges that anybody can have a go at doing for themselves.

Starting this evening, and running until Saturday, several groups of fans will come together virtually for a “hackathymio” event. The goal is to imagine scenarios where Thymio robots can be used to help with understanding of basic concepts behind artificial intelligence. At ten years young, there’s plenty more to come from this little robot!

Author(s): Emmanuel Barraud
Imported from EPFL Actu