"Above all, we need to change the culture"
Working on the fastest sailing boat in the world, building an electric racing car, a rocket or a rover for planetary exploration: EPFL students are involved in fascinating and ambitious challenges. The EFPL's MAKE initiative wants to encourage these interdisciplinary projects – and more than that, explains Pascal Vuilliomenet, project manager of the Discovery Learning Program at EPFL.
Where did the impetus for the Discovery Learning Program come from?
We talked a lot about the issue of transversal competences and realised that they are very often acquired on the job, especially soft skills such as project management, communication or ideation. We have set up a school-wide initiative to develop these skills and at the same time reinforce the knowledge acquired during the courses, in particular through interdisciplinary, cross-curricular and motivating projects.
An ambitious goal! How do you intend to achieve it?
The MAKE initiative brings together projects with very high visibility, but our programme goes much further. It addresses other very important aspects: the integration of projects into the academic curriculum, the establishment of efficient infrastructures, and the issue of the human factor, i.e. professionals who have the skills and time to support students.
What types of programmes do you support?
Some projects are centrally coordinated through the MAKE initiative. This initiative supports their coordination, including the identification of professors who can mentor them and award ECTS credits for their work. It also facilitates access to useful resources, such as legal and logistical resources. We also support activities that are already integrated in the study plans, such as practical work, as well as coordinated campus-wide initiatives that are not recognised in the academic curriculum, i.e. hackatons, summer schools, or the Climate and Sustainability Action Week. Our programme accompanies certain projects of an entrepreneurial nature that are neither credited nor centrally coordinated – such as those of the Changemakers programme, which supports students’ ideas for innovation and technology transfer. In short, we launch top-down programmes while supporting bottom-up initiatives.
What changes are you making to the infrastructure?
We are creating specialised, optimised workspaces that are accessible to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These include technology platforms such as fab labs, 3D printing, and prototyping, as well as biology, chemistry and electronics labs. These shared facilities help break down barriers between disciplines. There are different types of workspaces: those where students work alone, some where they are supervised, and others reserved for professional technicians for specialised work. A new building is currently under construction and will open at the end of 2021.
What is the impact on the organisation of studies?
Until recently, most of the practical work took place in the research laboratories. However, this can no longer be expected to work reliably with the growing number of students: you can hardly fit 100 people into a state-of-the-art laboratory. So the idea is to take some of the practical work out of the institutes and into dedicated facilities.
You were talking about the issue of training staff.
Students must have access not only to technical but also to people skills: professionals in project management, design, ideation and computational thinking.
The academic world is still quite traditional and still often focuses on notes and scientific articles. How can we make more room for creativity?
Above all, we need to change the culture. New infrastructures or a credit system are only means to this end, in particular by lowering the barriers to creativity. Cultural change is a gradual process, often based on examples: you can see that one project is successful, you are inspired, and you launch the next one yourself.
Rover, rocket, boat: the spectacular projects carried out by students in Lausanne are numerous. What's your secret?
To listen as much as possible to young people who have ideas, and to encourage them while giving them as much autonomy as possible. Students who had worked on the Swisscube satellite, a precursor project, told us that they had done so "despite the system"... We must avoid anything that could generate resistance which might lead to abandonment. Care must be taken to ensure that students keep enough time for their studies, in particular by having the time spent on projects credited. We try to support them as much as possible for things that are not essential to their learning. Like filling out a form to borrow a drill?
Is the EPFL a forerunner in Europe?
Such projects exist at American universities the MIT comes to mind. In Europe, universities such as TUM in Munich or DTU in Copenhagen offer fab labs and large projects. But EPFL stands out for its holistic approach to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary learning.
What else do you need to achieve?
In terms of infrastructure, we do not yet have facilities for the manufacturing of large parts. MAKE's projects are spectacular and exciting, but they are still often typical engineering projects in which it is above all a question of building an object with extreme characteristics. We want to deal with an increasing number of topics that are more directly related to society, such as opening up to environmental issues, industrial problems and the big and small challenges of everyday life. The question of "how" to solve a problem is interesting, but the question of "why" adds meaning.