While it’s essential for scientists and engineers to have solid technical skills, that’s not enough if they’re to make a real positive impact on society. Today’s challenges are increasingly complex and require a cross-disciplinary approach, excellent adaptive capacity and highly developed notions of social and environmental responsibility. That’s why EPFL is making transversal skills a key element of the education it provides. “Transversal skills are skills that can be applied in just about any situation, whether socially, at school or on the job,” says Tamara Milosevic, previously an advisor at EPFL’s Teaching Support Center (CAPE) and now head of the new center.
Transversal skills include communication, teamwork, project management, analytical thinking, creativity and more. Kathryn Hess Bellwald, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach, says: “I’m delighted about the new center. It will help make sure our students acquire the professional skills they need in addition to their technical knowledge and give them a solid foundation for outstanding careers in science, engineering and architecture. It will also better prepare them to work with colleagues from an array of disciplines.”
Filling the gap
The first step for EPFL will be to “map out what we already offer in this area,” says Milosevic. “Then we plan to speak with each department to pinpoint their priority needs.” A recent EPFL study of class descriptions for Bachelor’s and Master’s classes found that there’s a big gap in transversal-skills teaching between the two levels, and that considerable efforts are needed to reinforce these skills at the Bachelor’s level.
“That’s especially important given how essential these skills are for doing well at university,” Milosevic adds. Not to mention how crucial they are in the job market, since many employers still feel engineering graduates are lacking in transversal skills. A 2021 CAPE survey of 800 EPFL alumni found that over 40% of respondents had to fill gaps in project management and “real-world experience” after starting their career, and nearly 30% felt they lacked leadership training.
Explicit objectives and feedback
The EPFL study revealed another problem – most transversal skills are currently taught at the School through humanities and social sciences courses or in optional classes. “That needs to change,” says Milosevic. “These skills need to be a clear part of our core curricula and taught progressively throughout students’ degree programs. Our role is to make teachers aware of that and help them adopt the right teaching methods.”
Transversal skills need to be a clear part of our core curricula and taught progressively throughout students’ degree programs. Our role is to make teachers aware of that and help them adopt the right teaching methods.
Project-based learning is one popular method for imparting transversal skills. And it can be effective, provided that the skills are listed explicitly as a learning objective. “If that’s not the case then acquisition is only marginal, as we saw in a study we recently carried out,” says Roland Tormey, the head of CAPE. “Beyond having students complete projects, teachers should get them to examine the entire process – how and why they made certain decisions. Providing feedback is an important element of this approach, as is evaluating students on criteria that don’t look just at the final outcome.”
Assessment is a particular challenge for these kinds of soft skills. “Some skills are applicable only in specific situations, and it’s hard to evaluate them without influencing the very behavior we’re trying to observe.” says Milosevic. “One option is to have students perform peer evaluations, but in a constructive way – that is, without assigning a grade. Another is to have students complete self-assessments at regular intervals throughout their degree programs. If students are familiar with professional skills, it’ll be easier for them to apply them later in their careers. Facilitating this transition from university to the job market is part of my role as head of a center that spans both career placement and transversal skills.”