National Research Programme (NRP77): Assessing computational thinking skills

Computational thinking (CT) is the ability to develop a problem-solving methodology that complements computers. This project studies the extent to which Swiss students are able to do so, and develops tools to measure these skills.

Portrait / Project description

We will assess the computational thinking (CT) skills in Swiss compulsory schools in three steps. First, we will design an age-based competency model for CT and identify typical problems found in each age group. In a second step, we will develop an intelligent tutoring and assessment system that can help students solve problems while measuring their computational thinking skills. In a third phase, we will test this educational robotics approach in compulsory schools in the cantons of St. Gallen, Vaud and Ticino. A special focus will be placed on the Swiss educational robot Thymio II, which is currently in the process of being introduced in schools in these cantons.


Computational thinking is the ability to break down problems into their different parts, to develop solution strategies and to present these in an algorithmic way which can be understood and executed both by humans and computers. Computational thinking is recognized as a central element in various national and cantonal education strategies. Unfortunately, very few tools are available to measure the impact of the implemented measures.


The aim of this project is to provide policy-makers and teachers with tools and protocols for the large-scale assessment of competencies in compulsory education. The project especially aims to define a competency model, to develop an intelligent tutoring and assessment system, and to test the developed tools in the cantons of St. Gallen, Vaud and Ticino.


The results will make it possible to evaluate the developed competency model; notably to determine how it can be used in schools, and how it is accepted by students, teachers, school principals and cantonal services. The findings will also enable the evaluation of the effectiveness of the different approaches to teaching CT skills. This project therefore provides a tool to appraise the impact of educational initiatives that focus on computational thinking.

Original title

Assessing the development of computational thinking skills through an intelligent tutoring system: an exploratory study in the cantons of St Gallen, Vaud and Ticino


Project leaders

Prof. Francesco Mondada, Mobile Robotic Systems Group, EPFL

Prof. Luca Maria Gambardella, Faculty of Informatics, USI Lugano

Dr. Alberto Piatti, Dipartimento formazione e apprendimento, SUPSI Locarno

Dr. Dorit Assaf, Didaktik der Informatik und Medienbildung, Pädagogische Hochschule Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz (FHNW), Windisch

Teaching in times of covid-19

The teams in LEARN provided support for teachers at different levels in their efforts to setup and constantly adapt their distance and blended teaching. LEARN teams worked with teachers to face the sudden switch to distance teaching during the lockdown. Part of the team worked with EPFL teachers, while others focused on teachers in public primary schools.

The teams in LEARN provided support for teachers at different levels in their efforts to setup and constantly adapt their distance and blended teaching. LEARN teams worked with teachers to face the sudden switch to distance teaching during the lockdown. Part of the team worked with EPFL teachers, while others focused on teachers in public primary schools.

Our aim is to make these resources available to all teachers across institutions and levels. Some of these resources are translated in English and in French.

Support for teachers at EPFL

As a means to continously minimize the risk of transmission of covid-19, the Center for Digital Education (CEDE) and the Teaching Support Center (CAPE) have set up documentation, workhops and a helpdesk to support EPFL teachers in mixing online and on-campus teaching modes. Their ressources are regularly updated.


Support for teachers in primary schools

Since 2018, the LEARN Center has been working with the Department of Education, Youth and Culture (DFJC) of Canton Vaud on the “Digital Education” project, in collaboration with HEP Vaud and UNIL.  The phase of distance learning offered a particular challenge to teachers: to ensure continuity of learning for students and to maintain the link with families. The LEARN team wished to support them in the definition and implementation of this new task, with the tools at their disposal while remobilising the content already seen in the training that is part of the project.

We proposed, in collaboration with HEP Vaud, online sessions starting one week after the beginning of lockdown in 2020. These short and operational sessions helped to co-construct remote teaching. The ressources shared here are in French:

  1. Défis 1 – Démarrer l’enseignement à distance
  2. Défi 2 – Organiser ma première classe virtuelle
  3. Défi 3 – Animer ma classe virtuelle
  4. Défi 4 – Interroger ma classe à distance
  5. Défi 5 – Lecture d’histoires à distance
  6. Défi 6 – Parler du covid-19 avec les enfants
  7. Défi 7 – Aborder le covid-19 en classe

LEARN collaborated with Edit Change Management to create a trilogy of picture books, called Oscar & Zoe, to adress the digital challenges related to the pandemic (e.g. fake news, screen time management). Here is the news article with links towards the free download in English, French and German.



Support team for EPFL teachers -
Ressources created for primary school teachers -

Research on Education in Times of Covid-19

The two main questions our research teams dealt with concerning covid-19 and education were: How does distance teaching during lockdown affect students and teachers? How can we collect the evidence in order to inform decision-makers?

1. Research into remote teaching during the lockdown

As a reaction to the pandemic, our research teams worked to provide evidence about the impact of covid-19 related measures on education by studying teaching at EPFL and in public schools during the lockdown.

1.1. Study on EPFL teachers adapting their teaching

A study on teacher adaptability was ongoing at the moment when covid-19 hit tertiary education in February 2020. It was quickly re-designed in order to capture teachers’ adaptability in the situation of forced change. The analysis introduces perspectives of pedagogical innovation and touches upon social components of learning which, during the lockdown, have left an impact on the meaning of professional teaching role. The recording and slides of a presentation of this study in a lunch&LEARN session are linked on the left.

1.2. Study on teachers’ experiences with remote teaching in Canton Vaud

More than 5500 teachers from the Canton Vaud have participated in the study. The analysis of the factors associated with effective distance learning reveal that there are three types of factors that play a role: contextual factors (student, teacher and school equipment;  as well as the technical and socio-emotional support available), individual factors (teacher and student autonomy, competence and motivation) and pedagogical factors (practices and tools). The complete report is available here.

2. Collecting research evidence on the impact of covid-19 on education

The pandemic has had a major impact on education, not only because of the social isolation during the lockdown, but also because of the need to organise education differently after reopening of schools. New practices have emerged. Educational researchers have quickly accompanied the emergence of these new practices with research activities. Many have conducted studies to document and investigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on education. These studies can make a significant contribution to understanding what has happened, but also to preparing future scenarios, based on evidence.

But how to gather all these studies in order to make them accessible and useful for the entire research community? The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK/CDIP), the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI/SBFI/SEFRI) and the EPFL Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) teamed up to propose a platform for the sharing of research on Covid-19 impact on education in Switzerland.

2.1. Open repository

We initiated an open online repository of studies addressing Covid-19 impact on education in Switzerland and were able to gather more than 60 studies. Please feel free to use the repository for your research and share it with colleagues.

Link to access items on the platform:
Link to add your study to the repository:

2.2. Online informal conference

In December 2020, more than 100 researchers participated in an informal conference to share the current knowledge about covid-19 in education. 17 studies were presented by colleagues from UniFR, FORS, EHL, UniZH, PHZG, FSO, SFIVET, UZH, UniGE, UniDistance and EPFL. Full programme


Studies on the impact of covid-19 on education

Digital Education (EduNum)

Flagship project of the Center LEARN, its main objective is to train students to master the three pillars of digital education (computer science, uses and media).

The Digital Education project dubbed “EduNum” is a large-scale educational reform initiative in which the Center LEARN has been mandated by the Department of Education, Youth and Culture (DFJC) of the Canton of Vaud to pilot the introduction of this new subject across the entire administrative region’s school system.

Flagship project of the Center, its main objective is to train students, digital citizens of tomorrow, to master the three pillars of digital education (computer science, uses and media), to encourage creativity, to ensure the emancipation of pupils and to enhance the potential for educational diversification.

These ambitions are supported by collaboration between the major Vaud institutions specializing in education, in particular, the HEP Vaud, the University of Lausanne, the Educational Department (DP) of the canton, and EPFL via its Center LEARN’s experts.

This project is based on a 2-year continuous training of teachers, with a pilot phase aimed at measuring and making the necessary adjustments before deployment.

More details and updates on the project’s evolution are posted here on a regular basis.

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Interactive Learning environments for pharmacy assistants can encourage the students to test their knowledge in consultation situations without the fear of making mistakes. Moreover, they can be used to collect meaningful data to analyze the student’s behaviors and have the potential to provide exclusive insights to teachers.

Students shall be offered an interactive learning environment (ILE) that allows them to explore the subject matter through a realistic consultation scenario.

The ILE mitigates the consequences of mistakes and offers a motivating learning opportunity. Students shall be trained to actively engage in counselling sessions, to react (critically) to the information at their disposal and to identify cross-selling opportunities.

Pharmacy assistants apply the learning content they have acquired in school in consultation situations at the pharmacy. Teaching strategies must therefore foster the transfer of theoretical knowledge to applied competencies. Role plays are one way to simulate real world scenarios. However, many students tend to avoid risks in group work settings. Furthermore, it is difficult to engage learners in learning activities regarding subject matters they can not relate to. Against this background, PharmaSim offers a protected learning environment and enhances motivation through gamification.

Christian Giang -
Peter Buhlmann -
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We develop learning opportunities around Interactive Simulations that allow students to complete experiments online and explore concepts while sitting at their desk…

The use of interactive learning environments (ILEs) to engage students in inquiry- and scenario-based learning is of great pedagogical potential. Especially when such approaches are not a viable option in the physical world (e.g. because they would be too dangerous, time-consuming, or expensive), ILEs represent an interesting alternative for students to learn through exploration and inquiry as a supplement to deductive reasoning.

HeatingSim is a simulation for heating technicians, which helps to impart the technical functionalities and the interdependencies of the different components of complex heating systems.

ChemLab allows laboratory technicians to explore concepts and theories by performing experiments online – without the need for a physical science lab. The project uses the PhET Interactive Simulations developed by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Peter Buhlmann -
Christian Giang -
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MOOC – Discovering Digital Sciences with Thymio

Taking your first steps in the digital world is possible!

The MOOC titled “The Thymio robot as a tool for discovering digital sciences” is the result of a fruitful collaboration between education experts which offers a smooth introduction into the fascinating world of digital technology.

To get started, you don’t need to have a Thymio robot at hand: thanks to its virtual version, you can immediately get to the heart of the matter.

As for its physical version, it will allow you to experience all aspects of interaction and programming that this educational robot has to offer.

The educational materials (videos, texts, images, exercises, quizzes and many more resources) supplied in this MOOC have been carefully selected with the aim to provide learners with a captivating journey into the digital world. What’s more, all the educational materials can be transposed and applied within a classroom context.


The French version of this MOOC was jointly designed by EPFL and Inria and adapted into German through a cross-institutional and cross-organizational collaboration (ETHZ, PH Luzern, SUPSI, PH Bern, PH St. Gallen, PH Schwyz, amXa, Bischoff). It is available on several platforms such as,,  The Italian version is under development.

The course is divided into six chapters:

Chapter 1: Introduction to Computer Science and Robotics

Chapter 2: Thymio

Chapter 3: First steps in programming with Thymio (VPL)

Chapter 4: Programming Thymio with Scratch

Chapter 5: Programming Thymio with Aseba Studio

Chapter 6: Educational activities with Thymio

The first chapter introduces the basic concepts of computer science and robotics. The second chapter is an introduction to the Thymio robot. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 cover programming the robot in different environments with increasing complexity. Finally, Chapter 6 is a practical application of the elements presented in the MOOC.

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E-Puck – The Ultimate Tool to Teach Embedded Robotics!

After more than 15 years and multiple generations, the Swiss-designed e-puck is still used worldwide by more than 4’000 universities and research centers. This modular mobile robot is a key tool to teach mobile robotics.

The e-puck is an educational robot that helps generations of students learn about embedded systems and robotics. First developed at EPFL in 2004 by Francesco Mondada and Michael Bonani, a new version was released in 2018, produced by GCtronic in Ticino.

The e-puck contains 15 sensors including 4 microphones, a color camera, 8 infrared proximity sensors, a time-of-flight sensor, an inertial measurement unit, in addition to speakers, 8 red LEDs, 4 RGB LEDs, and many more features to explore. Its simple structure with 3 contact points and two wheels makes it mobile, leading to a wide range of possible uses. All of the necessary resources are available on the GCtronic wiki for e-puck2!

Although the e-puck is mainly used for educational purposes, its completeness and modularity led it to be part of research in various other fields including collective and evolutionary robotics, but also in artistic performances!

Daniel Burnier -
Matthieu Broisin -
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Thymio: The State-of-the-art in Mobile Educational Robotics

Thymio is an open-source educational robot designed by researchers from EPFL, in collaboration with ECAL, and produced by Mobsya, a nonprofit association whose mission is to offer comprehensive, engaging STEAM journeys to learners of all ages.

The increase of digitalization offers an unprecedented opportunity to make digital education accessible to everyone on an equal opportunity basis. Many countries such as Switzerland, France, Belgium, Canada, and Tunisia have already included programming, computational thinking and educational robotics in their compulsory curricula, with more and more policymakers following suit each year.

The Thymio mobile robot can already be seen equipping schools across primary, secondary, and University levels. It is produced and distributed by Mobsya, a nonprofit association that continues to develop Thymio into a complete digital education concept centered around three core pillars:


  • Sustainable, open-source platform: The Thymio educational robot is a small interactive teaching device, based entirely on open-source hardware and software. The robot is compact, very robust and features numerous LEDs that provide immediate feedback on the robot’s perceptions, touch-sensitive keys, an accelerometer, two independent motors, a microphone, speakers and much more. It is designed and suitable for use in all educational contexts from primary schools to universities.
  • Simple programming interfaces: Thymio enables you to discover the world of robotics and to learn a robot’s language. Everyone can grow at their own pace, starting with six plug-and-play pre-programmed modes and advancing through increasingly sophisticated programming options (visual, block-based, full text code) in order to develop computational thinking and coding skills, as well as transversal skills, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.
  • Rich learning resources and ecosystem: One of the key strengths of Thymio in supporting compulsory education is that the platform comes with exciting learning journeys based on ready-to-use educational activities that empower, inspire, and raise curiosity in users of all ages, whose expertise may range from novice to proficient. Building these diverse STEAM and so-called 21st century transversal skills through multi-faceted learning journeys, such as those shared among members of the Thymio and Mobsya community hub, encourages active involvement in digital society.

Come and join the community of teachers and supporters of educational robotics with Thymio!

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Educational Robotics

The Educational Robotics projects aims to design and build novel human-robot interactions for learning. The Cellulo robots allow visualizing in a tangible manner what is intangible in learning, and mediating learning activities.

We envision making robots ubiquitous, namely a natural part of the classroom ecosystem, in order to shift the focus from the robot to the activity.

Cellulo robots can be imagined as swarm robots, each of them very simple and affordable, that function on large sheets of paper containing the learning activities. 

Cellulo robots allow to grab and move a planet to see what happens to its orbit, or vibrate a molecule with your hands to see how it behaves. As part of this project, the team designed learning activities for topics ranging from geometry to emergent behaviours, using Cellulo robots to engage students.

Social robots have been used in various learning activities as a peer to collaborate with, as a mentor or a mediator in a learning activity and even as a protégé for the students to teach to. 

As part of this project, learning activities are designed and developed with social robots for topics ranging from handwriting to computational thinking. The focus is on designing real-time robot behaviour and adaptation/personalization strategies which support learning and rely on run-time student data analysis.

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Roteco: Robotic Teacher Community

The goal of the Roteco project is to create a vibrant community of schoolteachers interested in the field of robotics and computational thinking. Sharing classroom practices around educational robotics, informing about new developments in the field and opportunities for training are the foundation. To support the growth of this robotic teacher community the Roteco project designed, developed and has community managers for the web platform. If you are a teacher or have interest in the world of educational robotics come and join us!

Today we live in a digital society that requires the acquisition of new skills related to computer science, such as computational thinking or coding skills as well as cross-curricular skills, such as communication, collaboration and creativity.

One possible tool to foster these skills in schools is educational robotics. However, the question is how to bring educational robotics into schools?

This is where Roteco comes in. We aim to create a community of teachers interested in educational robotics and offer training in this field in order to facilitate the sharing and uptake of educational robotics activities. As part of the project, a teacher training concept, an online platform for collaboration and various teaching resources were developed.


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Computational Thinking Assessment

The goal of this initiative is to build a test to gauge computational thinking skills in a valid and reliable fashion. We are building, testing and validating a test that can be taken by anyone regardless of their previous knowledge or expertise in computer science.

This initiative builds a new assessment tool to measure computational thinking (CT) among science and engineering students.

Why is this needed?

First, the pervasiveness of digital tools and the use of computational methods is essential in contemporary sciences and engineering, which turns CT into a vital set of skills for current scientists and engineers. Thus, CT becomes a pillar of scientific and engineering education alongside other foundations traditionally considered as mathematics and physics.

Second, in accordance with the current relevance assigned to CT, EPFL has adopted CT as a subject for first-year students in an attempt to promote a transferable base in solving problems computationally. EPFL is offering an introductory course on CT and it intends to further implement courses for all degree programs, from Bachelor’s to Masters’ through to PhD. Therefore, we seek to advance our evidence-based understanding of how to best teach and learn CT such that teaching practice can be informed. Measuring learners’ CT in a reliable and valid fashion is necessary as it will help to identify effective methods.

Third, the tools built up to date to evaluate CT skills are, to the best of our knowledge, not sufficient for our intended use: they are scarce, have multiple shortcomings for evaluating CT skills in higher education, and are not validated for populations of engineering and science students.

A lunch&LEARN session was dedicated to this initiative, watch it below:

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