Lab sessions get a makeover at EPFL

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At EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs, professors are taking a whole new approach to lab sessions. They are inviting students to don the hat of professional researchers – exploring open problems and experimenting in new ways.

Tucked away in EPFL’s Mechanical Engineering building lies a room unlike any other. In addition to standard classroom equipment – chairs, tables and computers – it also contains tiny machines that activate on their own. With these machines, students in Christophe Salzmann’s automatic controls course are performing experiments remotely, via the internet. Salzmann, a research associate at EPFL, runs the course using the concept of a flipped classroom. “The course is tied to a MOOC that includes several lessons as well as exercises where students conduct their own experiments. They can decide whether to perform the lab sessions themselves or come to class and ask questions,” he says.

Students participating in Christophe Salzmann’s lab sessions

This “remote access” lab session is just one of the novel methods employed at EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs (DLL). These labs provide state-of-the-art equipment that students can use to carry out many different kinds of measurements and analyses – and that professors can use to test out new techniques for hands-on learning. “These next-generation lab sessions expose students to a project-oriented approach early on in their academic careers. The sessions also give them a chance to become familiar with the DLL equipment and staff, which will help them as they carry out cross-disciplinary projects later in their degree programs,” says Pascal Vuilliomenet, who heads the DLL.

Getting students involved from start to finish

The DLL are part of EPFL’s Discovery Learning Program – an initiative to encourage students to learn by doing, whether through lab sessions with direct ties to research and industry or by leveraging synergies with other disciplines. “We are fortunate to have excellent teachers at EPFL, and with the DLL they can supplement their lectures while giving students the support and equipment they need,” says Pierre-Etienne Bourban, DLL coordinator for engineering, materials science and bioengineering.

Maartje Bastings, a tenure track assistant professor in materials science, and John Martin Kolinski, a tenure track assistant professor in mechanical engineering, have both taken advantage of the DLL’s facilities. In the 2018–2019 school year, they began offering lab sessions where students take on the role of researchers.

Students participating in John Martin Kolinski’s lab sessions

«When students have to do everything themselves from start to finish, they tend to be more motivated and committed – and they learn better

Bastings asked her Master’s students to spend two hours a week developing biological micro-fabrics using the polymers they studied in class. “They had to select the materials they wanted to use, test the cellular interactions and conduct experiments without knowing ahead of time what the results would be. But in this kind of approach, there are no “wrong’ results,” she says. Meanwhile, Kolinski’s Master’s students were given three hours a week to run experiments based on recent research findings, bringing together methods from electrical engineering, image processing and chemistry. “I wanted to get students involved in every step of the lab work. They had to develop the devices they used to take measurements, and then corroborate the measurements they took. When students have to do everything themselves from start to finish, they tend to be more motivated and committed – and they learn better,” he says.

Both assistant professors noticed that the students were more inspired and motivated – and worked better together – when they learned by trial and error and had to think outside the box. And the student feedback on the lab sessions was overwhelmingly positive. All this is proof that innovative teaching approaches can really get students thinking.

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