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

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

“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.”

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

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: sil.internship@epfl.ch

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

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 https://www.epfl.ch/education/master/programs/

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