Summer School: Mobile Robotics Between Online and in-Person Learning
Early July 2020, twenty motivated high school students, of whom 30% were young women, from three different language regions of Switzerland, got together virtually to attend the EPFL Summer School in Mobile Robotics. It was organized by EPFL’s Education Outreach Department in collaboration with Dr Amaury Dame, a research scientist in educational Robotics. Initially the week was designed to be held on the EPFL Campus and was aimed at discovering the foundations of mobile robotics, using the Thymio-robot and alternating theory and exercise sessions in the setting of the Campus and its laboratories.
A Strong Collaboration to Respond to the Students’ Needs
Due to the global COVID-19 Pandemic, the EPFL Summer School in Mobile Robotics for high school students kicked-off slightly differently. Thanks to the collaboration of several interested high school teachers, the students were hosted in small groups of three to four at their school, set up with all the materials they needed including a virtual communication system to attend the sessions and discussions with the other high schools and the EPFL Summer School team. This set up allowed them to be part of and interact with a bigger group virtually and still have in-person contact with their classmates and conduct group work together. Providing this mixed framework was important to also keep students motivated and encourage peer learning. Over the course of the week, they acquired the skills and tools they need to design, build and control their own mobile robot, this time using the Micro:bit controller.
A group of students from the Gymnasium Burgdorf emphasized how motivated they were to join this Summer School to deepen their knowledge, challenge themselves and get a feel for the university setting; at least virtually by familiarizing with a different way of learning and interacting with peers and researchers. Of course, they would have loved to feel the Campus vibe, but “given the circumstances, this was a very interesting and well organized course,” they added. Several students had previous knowledge in mobile robotics, but never had the chance to learn how to program and drive one, something they found extremely exciting during this Summer School.
Easing the Transition Between High School and University
In the true sense of EPFL’s Education Outreach Department’s goal to facilitate the transition between high school and university, this course allowed students to appreciate the knowledge they already bring and what they could further explore during their studies by giving them an insight into robotics, a specific area of engineering taught at EPFL. The students reported that they learned how to assign responsibilities, understand and structure workflows from conceptualization, design, construction to presentation, all skills that are important for higher education. “I really liked programming something, seeing the result and doing actual problem solving”, a student from Biel confirms.
One of the supporting teachers from Burgdorf confirmed that the students really enjoyed the week and improved their skills in various areas from electronics and problem solving to teamwork. “Every time I visited the group, they were keen on showing me their latest models and innovations. The group asked me to start an optional course in electronics/robotics during the next term at our school.” (Teacher, Burgdorf)
The atmosphere was dynamic despite the challenges in keeping the interactions lively over a virtual platform; the students kept on discussing with and motivating each other. All students presented great innovative projects that addressed challenges such as remote controlling a robot that is able to navigate in space and through redesigning enhancing its capacities. The students peer-evaluated the projects according to certain pre-defined criteria. The first prize went to the exclusively female team of Collège Sainte-Croix in Fribourg, closely followed by the second prize for the Kantonsschule Solothurn (KSSO).
“My takeaway form this week?” so Dr Dame, the instructor of this Summer School, “… That it is always a treat to work with motivated and focused teenagers that are full of enthusiasm and so creative.” The supporting high school teachers and the Summer School Lead are convinced that this special edition certainly has further sparked the interest of these enthusiastic students to allow them to discover areas they may previously not have considered; so confirms Jehan, a student from Fribourg: “Getting involved in engineering was an absolutely amazing experience that I didn’t expect.”
Whilst this mixed format certainly was a success, the valuable experience of attending a Summer School on the EPFL Campus remains undebated. An experience that allows future students to get a more comprehensive picture of university studies, experience the lively Campus and the labs, interact with professors, students and faculty staff members.
This special edition of the Summer School was offered as a re-designed course to the following participating high schools and was made possible thanks to the support of their teachers: Gymnasium Kirchenfeld (Bern), Gymnasium Burgdorf, Kantonsschule Solothurn, Gymnasium Biel-Seeland, Liceo Lugano 1 and Collège Sainte-Croix (Fribourg).