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.

AgriFood

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