One of the best universities of Saõ Paulo is opening an engineering course with an integrated fablab that favours learning by prototyping. Makery went to see what it was all about.
Saõ Paulo, from our correspondent
Even though fablabs originally come from the MIT course “How to make almost anything”, today, universities and other higher education institutions are, after all, ill represented. According to the fablabs.io list in France, only four fablabs open to all are headed by or linked to educational institutions: les Fabriques du Ponant supported by Télécom Bretagne, the FacLab, fablab of Cergy-Pontoise University, the Innovation Lab supported by Kedge Business School and the Glass Fablab from CERFAV.
However, regarding secondary education, things are changing. Makery has reported the multiple initiatives that are abounding to support new teaching practices: reversed class, learning by doing and sharing, experimentation before theory, practices that are found at the heart of fablabs.
The private university Insper in Saõ Paulo, that claims to be one of the best in the country, has just opened a new engineering course, the distinctive feature of which is to rely on the setting up of a fablab connected to the international network and having an open day at the disposal of the community.
Vinicius Licks, coordinator of the program, explains that the objective during the conception of this course in 2012 was to “do something different”. “We wanted this course to stand out from more traditional courses by basing itself on other teaching practices. When I took an interest in other universities like the MIT, I came across the fablab concept, and in the process, we got in touch with the local Brazilian association.” In an engineering school, you find several laboratories: chemistry, physics, material sciences…, less often small machines and other digital command tools. For Vinicius Licks, “the fablab is a ‘laboratory’ just like the others: we based this new course on a very simple principle, learning by doing. Even though it may seem commonplace, engineering schools are rarely like that. The fablab is a place where you can build, prototype and make things tangible. We had in mind spaces such as wood workshops, metal workshops that are found in other schools, and we thought that the fablab was version 2.0 of this.”
A place open to the whole school, and to the general public on Thursdays
The place is indeed a well-equipped fablab with a fabmanager who assists new students and two trainees who help to prepare classes and organise the mediation between the other students of the school. The fablab is actually open to the whole school, but also to external people. From 10am to 8pm on Thursdays, a growing community (the fablab has been open to the public for 6 months and classes have just begun) is coming to mingle with the students.
For Vinicius, this opening is necessary: “We want our students to rub against other practices, but most of all, to be exposed to a culture of collaboration. We want them to know how to work together. They will practise open innovation but only discover this word in the 4th semester.” This last point emphasises why this engineering course intends to be innovative. It relies upon educational literature that shows that students assimilate better when they practise before learning the theory. “The works of Paulo Blikstein (a Brazilian professor at Stanford creator of the Fablab@School program, editor’s note) can be summed up, by simplifying to the extreme, as “do it first, learn the theory, then do it again”. Compared to more traditional engineering schools, we are developing the majority of classes in project mode, labs are not only there to carry out applied work from the theory.”
Johnny the cockroach by Alejandro Quiroga, engineering student:
Toothbrush and electronic insect
Besides, in addition to the hours of humanity, social and economic sciences, common to the majority of engineering schools, students have 60 hours of design per semester. The teaching of design is delivered by professionals who also favour the practical side of things. Makery attended the first classes of “natural design”. In order to show future engineers what is expected of them, the construction of a Bristlebot, well-known micro-robot comprising a toothbrush head with a small motor and a battery that makes it move forward, was carried out and renamed for the occasion “electronic insect”. Students were next invited to take apart commercial Bristlebots by retro-engineering. They then downloaded software allowing them to establish a 3D model, drew a Bristlebot and printed it in 3D, following a few rules (less than one hour of printing, constrained size…).
First trial for the electronic insect, by the student Yuri Stefani:
For Héloisa Neves, in charge of design at the school, the objective was to “create an insect through learning by doing whilst developing a loop: “trial, error, learning”. Students are asked to “do” (hands-on) at every stage, and then take a moment for analysis and reflection on what they have done to get to the theory. We also ask them to keep a journal in the form of a blog so that they learn how to document what they do, in order to encourage them to put things into perspective”.
More autonomy, less maths
Vinicius expects these future engineers to have an “entrepreneur engineer profile, be capable of understanding customs and the market, able to work in a team, in collaboration, spend less time on analysis to offer solutions and more by agile iterative loops. In short, our future engineers need to be autonomous”. Even though the training of these very “horizontal” engineers may seem a little contradictory to the vertical models of large industries, for Vinicius, “the large corporations will need to adapt and offer a work environment in which those students can fulfil themselves”.
How does the top management of the school see this rather hybrid course? “We know that by developing hands-on experience, we had to make concessions regarding more classical teachings, admits the coordinator. Their hours are counted and not extendible. Our students will have less hours of maths, arithmetic, physics than a teaching course like Polytechnique but we think they will have other arguments to put forward.”