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Student projects rescheduled and redesigned

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Students taking part in EPFL’s interdisciplinary projects have had to work from home to limit the spread of COVID-19. Despite this challenge, they remain optimistic.

EPFL’s interdisciplinary projects give students from a variety of fields an opportunity to collaborate on real-world problem-solving. In 2020, project coordinators have been working closely with student teams to adapt their project plans to the constraints posed by COVID-19.

When the campus closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak in spring, the six student teams competing in the robotics competition were still drafting specifications for a new type of cleaning robot. “Everything came to a halt from one day to the next,” says Alessandro Crespi, a research assistant at EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory and the competition’s coordinator. “What motivates the students is being able to physically build a robot. That’s not something you can do with a simulator,” he adds. That competition – like EPFL’s Lab-in-a-Tube contest – was postponed. Students seem to be on board with this decision, as they’ve all re-upped.

“In the meantime, the project coordinators have been giving online workshops so that students can acquire the necessary skills to meet challenges they will face in their professional careers,” says Julien Delisle, the interdisciplinary project coordinator.

Robotics competition, 2019 edition © Alain Herzog / EPFL

Remote design presentations

Several student events scheduled for summer 2020 have been shifted online, including the SensUs competition. The 2020 challenge for the student teams was to develop biosensors for treating epilepsy. Members of EPFL’s team, named Helvet’Sens, worked remotely on theoretical design aspects – and some even runned tests at home. “We’re kind of in DIY mode,” says Aurélie Ducrot, a life sciences engineering student.

In response to current events, the team was hard at work on a biosensor that can be applied to other molecules. “For example, we could conduct serological testing to detect the presence of coronavirus antibodies in blood,” says Maxime Marchionno, a microengineering student. He adds: “It was a big engineering challenge that required other skills as well. Still, there was a lot of value in what we did.”

Helvet’Sens therefore presented its project from Switzerland, as bioengineering students took part in the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) worldwide synthetic biology competition. “It was a challenge to stay fully motivated during lockdown,” says Laura Iacobucci, a chemistry and chemical engineering student, and Harshdeep Harshdeep, who is studying communications systems. “But we supported each other and got through it.” Even though they weren’t able to use the lab to pursue their project and learn the basics of synthetic biology, they kept their spirits up. She adds: “Lockdown forced us to probe all aspects of our proposed solution.”

Competitions provide opportunities for students to speak directly with industry experts and to gain a foothold in the world of startups. This is a real loss for participants, who are now waiting to see whether an online networking option is planned.

«It was a challenge to stay fully motivated during lockdown. But we supported each other and got through it.»

While these projects are moving forward, plants are also thriving. This is the positive takeaway of Victoria Letertre, a systems engineering student who’s also president of the GrowBotHub student association. Her team developed a robot that grows and harvests plants without human intervention and is intended for use in extreme environments. This project was presented online in July 2020 at the second edition of IGLUNA.

Behind schedule or ahead of time?

Due to postponed or canceled competitions, EPFL Racing Team did not make the rounds of European racetracks, Swiss Solar Boat did not sail the Mediterranean and the China Hardware Innovation Camp (CHIC) group did not travel to China. In addition, the New Mexico desert did not host the Spaceport America Cup, in which EPFL Rocket Team was planning to compete. Their rocket was slated for completion and a test launch in April 2020. Instead, the team made progress on some rocket parts from home, and arranged a July slot for a launch at a Swiss military base.

EPFL Racing Team has decided against building its prototype. “We plan to use the resources we have to further enhance our racecar design for next year,” says team leader Pierre Georges. This sentiment is shared by the Swiss Solar Boat team, except that their boat’s assembly was under way when the campus went into lockdown. “We had just received parts from the shipyard,” says Adrien Peltier, the committee president. “We changed our working method to focus on design aspects, which turned out well, because now the project is much more advanced.” Students can carry out simulations from home thanks to the efforts of Julien Delisle and Alessandro Crespi, who provided remote access to computers powerful enough for this type of work.

Less impact on longer-term projects

The 40 or so SP80 alumni and students still hope to set a new world sailing speed record in 2022. Projects have been revamped so they can be worked on remotely, students will earn credits as planned, and the team has even used lockdown to catch up on some technical dimensions. “When activity partially resumed in early May, I returned to campus along with a few other team members,” says project manager Mayeul van den Broek. “We used our downtime to move forward on building a prototype and providing feedback to students.” For van den Broek, the pandemic created significant sponsoring challenges: “Because a number of things can be accomplished in-house, we have the resources we need to keep going until early 2021. However, we need to source the funds necessary to begin building the boat in April/May 2021.”

Nicolas Martinod, vice president of the EPFL Spacecraft Team association, considers his team one of the lucky ones. “We’ve started in on the initial construction phase for our satellite, which is design-oriented and can be done remotely,” he says. “All we needed to do was adapt our recruitment procedure for next year’s team, but everything went well because we received some 40 applications.”

Finally, the Bal’eclectic project – which enables students to explore new technologies in the cultural field – has merely been postponed. The team’s app for assessing festival-goer flows and tracking emotional responses will be ready for field testing during the 2021 edition of the Balélec music festival.

A good time for new initiatives

A new initiative by students from EPFL Rocket Team expands on what was originally planned. “In a spirit of outreach, we contacted European teams to find out how they were handling the situation, and what opportunities there were on their end for a European-scale launch,” says Pierre Groslambert, a microengineering student. Even if no date has been set, this initiative seems to have gotten off to a good start, since they are dialoguing with around 30 teams and with space agencies from various countries to find a launch site. Baptiste De Christen, who is studying mechanical engineering, says, “All this is done in the hopes of creating a European competition.”

Many students have used the lockdown to think up new project ideas, and a large number of proposals have landed on Delisle’s desk. “It’s a good sign because some of the projects involve students from fields that have been underrepresented,” he says. Onward and upward!

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