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.)
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.
“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.