Francesco Mondada receives prestigious Polytechnik-Preis 2022

© Leonardo Mondada / 2022

© Leonardo Mondada / 2022

Francesco Mondada, head of the Center for Learning Science and of the Mobile Robotic Systems Group (MOBOTS) in the School of Engineering, has received the Polytechnik-Preis for his work on the educational robot Thymio II.

A first for Switzerland

Endowed with 77’000 euros, the Polytechnik-Preis is the most important prize for research in subject didactics and honors outstanding scientists from the regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Under the patronage of the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, it recognizes contributions to the research and development of innovative teaching concepts, with this year, a focus on the use of digital tools as a resource for STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Professor Mondada distinguished himself with the educational robot Thymio II and its application to the teaching of computational thinking, becoming the first Swiss scientist to receive the prestigious award.

Thymio II was chosen as one of eight shortlisted concepts after a rigorous selection process by a panel of Germany’s top didactics experts, and was announced as the winning project during the award ceremony held Friday in Frankfurt, which was attended by several hundred prominent German officials.

In accordance with Polytechnische Gesellschaft tradition, the prize is awarded for projects that hold strong transfer potential. The program’s goal is to foster young people’s curiosity and spirit of experimentation and in the long run, the winning projects will contribute to the city’s educational landscape.

Collaboration encoded in its DNA

While there are currently 80,000 Thymios on the market, with 70% of them being used in schools outside of our borders, this initiative did not come about overnight. In fact, it is primarily thanks to the invaluable partnerships and close collaboration with the cantons that it was able to gain popularity among Swiss children.

“Thymio is a project that was progressively built from the ground up, it was a journey enabled by a range of committed partners,” Professor Mondada emphasizes. “These results are the outcome of our collaboration with the cantons, who were instrumental in providing a field for us to develop, test, co-construct, and deploy our concepts together with teachers.We focused on computational thinking concepts in particular and were able to scientifically assess their reactions as well as those of the students.”

Thymio, which recently celebrated its eleventh birthday, was designed from the get go with collaboration encoded in its DNA. EPFL, ECAL, ETHZ, INRIA, the NCCR Robotics, and cantonal authorities have all gathered around the project over the years. The canton of Geneva was the first to introduce the Thymio robot into schools, followed by Valais, which also made this tool available to teachers who showed interest in it. With the EduNum project, the canton of Vaud included it in its project to introduce digital education in every school, enabling the study of teachers’ reactions on a large scale. In its current implementation of digital education, the canton of Neuchâtel makes use of the link between Thymio and computational thinking. Furthermore, Thymio has been included in the canton of Bern’s “MINT mobil” approach, which aims to reach all schools in the canton. Finally, Ticino, in collaboration with the SUPSI and the USI, has made significant contributions to the implementation of computational thinking models and the introduction of Thymio to Ticino teachers.

This diffusion was facilitated by Thymio’s highly innovative design. Designed from the outset to be open source, the educational robot is equipped with sensors and actuators and allows anyone to learn basic programming skills through a tangible framework allowing users to grasp and manipulate the robot directly. A very intuitive visualization of the robot’s functionalities allows for a quick understanding of its mechanisms. Because of its open and easily repairable design, it is a tool that adheres to several sustainability principles. Today, it is at the center of many communities, each one more innovative and creative than the other, that all feed its ecosystem with a plethora of educational resources. This ecosystem is supported by the non-profit association Mobsya, which produces the robot and maintains the software tools around Thymio.

Thirty years of translational research

The development of these technical and educational elements has been guided by continuous translational research in robotics and learning sciences, a true strength of the EPFL’s Center LEARN. Thymio has been the subject of numerous studies on its impact in a variety of contexts, the results of which have led to over twenty international scientific publications and significant visibility in these two areas of research. These studies are currently being carried out as part of the CTskills project, which is part of the National Research Programme “Digital Transformation” (NRP 77)

Francesco Mondada, a true pioneer in the field, has been designing tabletop robots for education and research as early as the early 1990s and has infused Thymio with nearly three decades of research findings, making it the ideal tool for teaching the fundamentals of computer science.

“Using it in a problem-solving setting fosters a link between the teaching of computer science and the teaching of traditional disciplines and cross-curricular skills such as thinking, creativity, or collaboration. This linkage facilitates teacher adoption as well as the introduction of elements of computer science at the school level,” says the professor.

Following the announcement of the ranking by the jury, he remains unwaveringly humble: “It’s quite incredible considering that Germany is not a country where Thymio has spread much (it is more present in French-speaking countries), it is an international prize that seeks to support innovation in didactics specifically in STEM fields. We’ve received other awards, but never on this scale; this is truly an honor and surely an unforgettable moment” he adds.