EPFL students innovate educational solutions in Bangalore schools

Jean-André Davy-Guidicelli tests the space divider prototypes (image from Feb. 2020, before COVID-19) © INSSINC/Vivian Ambros

Jean-André Davy-Guidicelli tests the space divider prototypes (image from Feb. 2020, before COVID-19) © INSSINC/Vivian Ambros

For the second edition of the India Switzerland Social Innovation Camp (INSSINC), ten students spent two weeks in February prototyping multifaceted solutions to challenges facing underserved communities in India.

As part of the INSSINC program, master’s students from fields across EPFL, along with students from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and research assistants from the EPFL + ECAL Lab, travelled to India over the school holidays in February. They brought their diverse backgrounds and skills to bear on practical, social, and technological challenges at two schools located in migrant camps just outside of Bangalore.

In this unique program, however, the prototyped solutions are just one outcome: the other is the valuable learning process that goes into creating them. “We like to say that a prototype is not a product, but a process,” summarizes academic coordinator Marc Laperrouza, a researcher and lecturer in the EPFL College of Humanities (CDH).

The one-room schools, set up by INSSINC partner the SELCO Foundation, can accommodate up to 60 students of all ages. Space, time, and resources are often in short supply. To ensure that solutions were applicable beyond the context in which they were developed, the three groups of students from Switzerland each tested their prototypes at both schools.

A new measure of innovation

Dana Ghosn (Mechanical Engineering) addressed the problem of crowding in her project with Jean-André Davy-Guidicelli (Environmental Sciences and Engineering). They reimagined the schools’ open spaces using modular activity boards that doubled as light partitions. The boards – which can support magnets or chalkboards – help to reduce disturbances, while encouraging students to complete educational activities autonomously.

“The major takeaway from this program for me is the understanding that innovation is much more about positive social impact than profitability,” Ghosn says. “I used to think of innovation in terms of market viability, without realizing that by thinking like that, you focus on people who can afford innovation, thus restricting it to a certain social class. Having learned how to bring together a positive social perspective and professional ambitions is truly special to me.”

Meanwhile, Valentine Calame (EPFL + ECAL Lab) and Amara Slaymaker (Energy Science and Technology) aimed to optimize the work of the teachers, who spend a lot of time record-keeping using pen and paper. The students noticed that while the teachers did not have access to computers, most did have smartphones, and so they prototyped an easy-to-use, custom app to help take care of administrative tasks.

Finally, Iscia Vos (Physical Engineering) worked with Patricia Cavestany (Mechanical Engineering) and Romain Talou (EPFL + ECAL Lab) to develop a mobile, modular and washable display panel that could be used to present different types of student projects in different settings. However, practicality was only one driver of the students’ design.

“We realized that showcasing the students’ work would increase their self-esteem, as well as their parents’ acceptance of the school and teacher, which in turn would have an impact on the community’s perception of education,” Talou explains.

A “convergence of solutions”

INSSINC design coordinator Marius Aeberli, who led the 2020 edition, says that this year the final prototypes are the result of “a convergence of solutions”, having been selected from several initial concepts based on the results of field tests.

The program organizers are now working to ensure that this unique iterative design process can be applied to other student programs in the future, notably through EPFL’s Digital Resources for Instruction and Learning (DRIL) program.

“The INSSINC human-centered design process is invaluable for the development and refinement of social innovation, as it facilitates new streams of thought and techniques to be integrated into very complex and deeply embedded social challenges,” says Hilda Liswani, Business Development Manager at INSSINC partner Tech4Impact.

About INSSINC

INSSINC is a collaboration with a local partner in India, the SELCO Foundation, which works to bring sustainable energy solutions to under-served communities. The program is also made possible thanks to funding from the Canton of Vaud, as well as collaborations with swissnex India and Tech4Impact.

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