The Erasmus+ project ELPID (E-Learning Platform for Innovative product Development) has finally come to its conclusion after three successful years of education initiatives that involved more than one hundred students from 4 countries. Politecnico di Milano (Italy), together with the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Technische Universitaet Wien (Austria), under the coordination of the University of Zagreb (Croatia) and the technical support by SRCE - its Computing Center, started working on the issues of blended learning long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020.
Indeed, it was about the end of 2018 when the Croatian national agency for the Erasmus+ program awarded the consortium with the grant to set up an e-learning platform to combine the traditional ex-cathedra teaching and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) for innovative product development in an international context. The kickoff meeting took place in Zagreb in November 2018 and none of the participants could by far foresee that they were somehow going to anticipate most of the issues that the world of education needed to face because of the social restrictions enforced due to the pandemic a year and a half later.
The e-learning platform progressively changed over the three years of the project, along with the related educational approach. If delivering ex-cathedra lectures required just few adjustments on contents and modalities of teacher/student interaction, as they simply shifted from live to remote lectures, it wasn’t the same for collaborative activities of teams of students. Since they were held in a remote setting, the consortium had to integrate different online tools and methodological instruments in order to achieve the desired learning outcomes.
During the first year of the project, second semester of AY 2018/2019, approximately 40 mechanical engineering students (both graduate and undergraduate) from the four universities had the chance to collaborate from home on a real industrial project proposed by Bosch Siemens Hausgeräte Slovenia (BSH Nazarje). They worked on the development of an innovative and smart waste bin that facilitate recycling. The early version of the e-learning platform relied on Moodle, used in combination of CAD modeling tools for the virtual prototyping of solutions, on Adobe Connect to deliver lectures and for distant communication in project activities and on a cloud-based repository for file sharing. After a whole semester of remote collaboration, the students finally had the chance to meet all together in Ljubljana for a live workshop and a factory visit at the plant of BSH in Nazarje, where they presented their solution in front of the top management of the plant.
In the academic year 2019/2020, right before the COVID-19 outbreak, a new group of 40 students, 10 from each partner university, enrolled in the second edition of the PBL-based ELPID class. They met for a live event organized by Prof. Gaetano Cascini and Ass. Prof. Niccolò Becattini, held at the Lecco Campus for one week after the mid of February. There, the international students familiarized with each other and attended live lectures on design methods and tools held by university professors from the different involved institutions. The students, in 5 teams of 8 members, started collaborating under the supervision of academic coaches to practice the design methods and tools they had to work with for the whole semester. For the second year of ELPID, as well, the students had the chance to address real industrial projects. Electrolux Innovation Factory and its Open Innovation division (Porcia, PN, Italy), in collaboration with Elettrotecnica Rold (Nerviano, Milano, Italy), provided the students with two project themes presented as a design challenge. Specifically, the 5 teams competed against each other for the design of an innovative system for the drying phase in a domestic dishwasher and a system to clean up the rinsing water of a washing machine and make it suitable for reuse in other washing cycles. The one-week live event at the beginning of the semester facilitated the activities between students that, with a partially renewed and enriched e-learning platform demonstrated a stronger cohesion and more frequent opportunities of collaborations, potentially triggered by the conditions and the isolation set by the COVID pandemic. This year the platform was, in fact, enriched by updated communication tools that students also had the chance to use during their standard classes (i.e. Microsoft Teams) as well as additional online tools that complemented the ones already made available during the first year of activities. In detail, students organized their work on shared whiteboards with Miro, planned and assigned tasks with Trello and use instant messaging systems (e.g. WhatsApp group chats or similar). The restrictions still in place at the end of the semester did not allow the student to participate to the final event planned at the Electrolux Innovation Factory in Porcia, but the event took place online in front of the top management of the company, where the best team received a special mention as winner of the design challenge.
This year, for the edition 2020/21 of the ELPID course, the consortium still had to deliver lectures and allow students to collaborate in the PBL setting under the constrained setting due to the COVID pandemic. This means that the students from the four countries did not have the chance to kick off the class with a one-week long live meeting in Wien, to replicate the extremely positive experience introduced in 2020 in Lecco. With the same structure of integrated tools constituting the e-learning platform used in the previous year, the students started collaborating since the very first days remotely, with additional opportunities for socialization. The students started building the team spirit playing together and challenging the others with an online escape room, running a virtual visit of the city of Wien and sharing the time of the happy hour with a virtual toast from their home on Gather.Town. As for the previous year, the teams participated a design challenge proposed by Siemens Mobility Austria. They had to redesign the interior elements of an urban metro train, focusing on a specific geographical area they had the freedom to choose. As it happened in 2019 and 2020, also this year the company involved in the challenge provided a strong support to students for the whole duration of the semester, with frequent design review meetings that enabled the international teams of students to familiarize with a professional context. Eventually, last June 9th, all the students gathered for the virtual final workshop with the company, to present their concepts and the related simulations and receive the final company evaluation, which decided the team winning the design challenge.
After three years of experience, the consortium fully addressed the initial targets they planned to achieve at the end of the project: the platform, presented as in integrated set of tools and educational materials tailored for Project Based Learning in innovative product development contexts, becomes available to the scientific and educational community on the ELPID website. However, the most important result achieved is the extremely high satisfaction of all the students that participated in the activities. All of them mention this as an extremely valuable opportunity to know different people, different cultures, practice English and get their hands dirty in a real industrial environment with top companies in their respective industrial sectors and, above all, find new friends across Europe!