New fab lab combines creativity with skills development

The new makerspace encourages creativity and hands-on learning©Muriel Gerber/EPFL

The new makerspace encourages creativity and hands-on learning©Muriel Gerber/EPFL

Thanks to an ENAC initiative, students now have a fully-equipped workshop called SKIL where they can carry out research projects on their own, with the guidance of professors. This new makerspace, which encourages creativity and hands-on learning, will be inaugurated on 24 September.

This summer, 15 containers were stacked up three levels high in the parking lot between the GC and BM buildings on the EPFL campus. Intended to house the new Student Kreativity and Innovation Lab (SKIL), this structure contains a vast array of research equipment, from miniaturized electronics to large machines like laser cutters and 3D printers. A full kitchen rounds out the creative working space. SKIL is an ENAC initiative to enable students to carry out research projects they design themselves, under the guidance of the school’s professors. This academic makerspace will be inaugurated on 24 September.

Learning from trial and error

“During the Solar Decathlon project, we saw that our school was missing an educational framework for students to design interdisciplinary projects, as well as a dedicated workshop where they can test out their own ideas. That’s what prompted us to create SKIL,” says Marilyne Andersen, who spearheaded the initiative during her tenure as dean of ENAC.

According to Samuel Cotture, head of SKIL, “Our lab gives the students a space to develop and carry out research projects either individually or in a group. They can come with a potential innovation already in mind, or with just a vague idea and get the support they need to turn that idea into an innovation. Here they have a safe place to try things out and make mistakes, all while learning valuable lessons about the creative process and project management.”

An initiative-taking culture

SKIL was launched in the spring 2018 semester in connection with a course for third-year Bachelor’s students offered as part of the Design Together program. It aims to encourage interdisciplinary research across all of ENAC’s core disciplines: architecture, civil engineering and environmental engineering. Nine research projects have already been carried out under the initiative – one on uses of mycelium, an environmentally-friendly shower, a system to recover weather balloons, and even a community website.

“We wanted to foster a new culture where students are encouraged to take the initiative and are supported in their nascent projects. Students should be given a chance to explore their own ideas and learn to work with their own two hands using a variety of materials and equipment. EPFL never had such a facility until now. Today, EPFL students have a new framework for fully developing their creativity,” says Anders Meibom, a SKIL professor and scientific advisor.

An open approach to interdisciplinary research

SKIL is currently being funded by ENAC with the support of central services. It is intended mainly for ENAC students but, because it aims to encourage interdisciplinary research and student initiatives, it is open to any group or project team with at least one ENAC student. Two of the projects already underway – EPFL Rocket Team and Lausanne Racing Team – are examples of this open approach.

The new structure will serve as students’ very own fab lab, although technicians will oversee the use of any equipment that requires special training or experience. Otherwise, students can sign up and work when they wish; the lab will be open 24/7.

SKIL is one of the many initiatives at EPFL to revamp teaching and promote innovation. Other such initiatives include its interdisciplinary research projects, X-grants, student clubs for makers, and the Enable program. SKIL empowers students to lead applied-research projects in their fields on topics they are interested in, and that contribute to their education. The lab and its equipment are being offered hand-in-hand with similar facilities set up under the Discovery Learning Program. Together these resources give students the tools to develop a broad range of skills.

Going forward, the lab will adapt to how students actually use it and what their needs are. In addition to accommodating hands-on courses and semester projects, it could also host high-school students during the school’s open-door days, provide training facilities or house a number of other student initiatives.

The inauguration ceremony will be held at 5:15pm on 24 September. Entry is free of charge; visitors can tour the building and learn about its equipment and the SKIL projects already underway. Find out more on the SKIL web page.