The Hydrocontest, a proving ground for future teaching models
The EPFL team won the Mass Transport category of this year’s competition. The event, which rewards students' multidisciplinary skills, also gives EPFL the chance to test models for both teaching and supervising students.
Behind their tan, their drawn features betray a lack of sleep that week. "The ambiance at the event was really positive, with the shared goal of building the most energy efficient boats possible. As a result, we barely slept 3 hours per night! Each team was committed to optimizing its boat while at the same time offering advice and help to the other teams,” said Félix Cazalis, the leader of EPFL’s Hydrocontest Team.
The local team competed in the second Hydrocontest, near the Vidy pyramids, from Wednesday to Sunday alongside 15 other student teams from around the world. Miniature boats – battery-powered and remote-controlled – squared off in the competition. The EPFL team won first place in the Mass Transport category. The object of that category, in which the boats have to move 200 kilograms of ballast, is to simulate cargo transport. “Our SWASH boat – which used a submerged torpedo equipped with a float on the surface to transport its payload – stood out for its maneuverability and stability. We finished in 1’14, while the organizers estimated the best time possible at 1’15 for the heavyweight category. And I’m sure we could trim another 15 seconds off our time,” said Cazalis. This victory is the payoff after a year’s worth of work for the eight Bachelor’s students and the five Master’s students involved plus the last-minute reinforcements. Once they've recovered from this event, they will debrief and plan improvements for the next one.
How should students be supervised in the future?
The Hydrocontest is a healthy competition in itself, but EPFL also uses it – along with other interdisciplinary projects – as a proving ground for models of student supervision. Pascal Vuilliomenet, the project manager at the Vice Presidency for Academic Affairs, put it this way: “We push interdisciplinary projects so that students can work on concrete cases that allow them to develop their soft skills too. This means they have to deal with real-world issues like technical problems, planning, project and team management, risk management, and so on. We are currently testing various models through several projects, including Hydrocontest and the Robotics Contest. The ultimate goal is to determine the best type of student supervision. Do students need close oversight by senior staff, or should they have a lot of independence?”
This is about more than just models of supervision, of course, since the objective is to eventually put students in the most effective learning environment. An example of this is the Discovery Learning Laboratories: they allow students to do practical work in different disciplines, and they offer space to develop prototypes. “In the end, the idea is to prepare the students as well as possible for the increasing complexity of the challenges they will face in their professional career. This complexity underscores the need to break down barriers between disciplines,” said Vuilliomenet.