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PRO HACKIN’ project: Innovating teaching through blended learning and product hackathon

In November 2021 the PRO HACKIN' project (PROduct HACKathons for INnovative product development), funded by the European Union under the Erasmus + program, started its actvities. PRO HACKIN’ aims at developing a methodology to enable the introduction of product hackathon in educational initiatives aimed at training industrial engineers, especially mechanical engineers, both in academia and in business contexts. The project involves universities from 4 countries: Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria. It is coordinated by the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and it also involves the Department of Mechanical Engineering of Politecnico di Milano as a partner, together with the University of Zagreb and the Technical University of Vienna.

The partners developed the first version of the methodology during the first semester of the AY 21/22. It combines elements highlighted by the literature on engineering design education and the experience on the field that the consortium partners earned during the previous educational initiatives they carried out in collaboration, such as the development of E-Learning tools (e.g. the ELPID project).

During the second semester of the AY 21/22, on the other hand, the partners of the consortium put into practice what the PRO HACKIN’ methodology prescribes. They defined an articulated program over the duration of the entire semester, with three hackathons, each relating to a phase of the product development cycle. At the same time, they also defined the theme for carrying out a project activity with the collaboration of Siemens Mobility Austria. The industrial partner outlined the boundaries of a design challenge on which the students participating in the initiative would have to face, in order to develop practicable and useful solutions in various application contexts. Specifically, the topic concerned the development of solutions to improve the user experience inside a wagon for city passenger transportation (a metro coach).

Each participating university selected 10 promising students and engaged them on the design challenge. The 40 selected students were organized into 5 teams made up of 8 members each, 2 members for each of the participating nations. Through the Project-Based Learning pedagogical approach and the creation of design teams, the participants had to face more challenges within the challenge. The students, in fact, had to speak in English with their foreign counterparts to can carry out the activities of the project (i.e. participating in the hackathons and preparing the same with dedicated meetings). Moreover, they also had to get to know each other, thus trying to leverage each tem member’s best skills during co-design activities.

The first two hackathons took place remotely, with students collaborating with their foreign counterparts through communication platforms and other tools for remote collaboration in order to generate and develop ideas and solutions. In these activities, each team was supported by an academic coach who stimulated the groups at the beginning of the activities; assisted them in defining tasks and deadlines; reviewed the reports at the end of each phase, before the project reviews carried out with Siemens Mobility Austria’s experts.

The first hackathon spanned two days, with a daily commitment of the last 4 hours in the afternoon. In this phase, the students began to plan the development of the solution by understanding the boundaries of the problem at hand. They studied different scenarios concerning different geographical areas and then decided which cities to focus their efforts on, defining the profiles of typical passengers. It is interesting to note that most of the working groups wanted to focus on metro trains operating in countries distant from their geographical context, focusing their analysis on countries such as India and Southeast Asia.

The second hackathon was structured like the first one, in two days. However, here students started generating ideas to meet the needs of their typical users, managing their workflow with methodological tools for concept mapping and to manage the complexity of an articulated system like a metro train. The students were asked to develop, for each group, three solution concepts to be implemented in a carriage with predefined volumes to improve the user experience.

As after the first hackathon, also in this case the students met academic coaches and Siemens’ business experts for a project review meeting. These meetings are meant to achieve a double goal. On the one hand, they train the students for soft skills of communication and technical contents presentation. On the other hand, they helped students to receive feedback so that the five teams can focus on the implementation of the company’s preferred solutions through a virtual modeling activity, which took place during the third hackathon.

Unlike the others, the third and last hackathon allowed the students to interact live, because it took place in person at the Technische Universität Wien (TU Wien). During the trip abroad, the 10 students of Politecnico di Milano, accompanied by prof. Niccolò Becattini, met with their fellows from the other universities. During the period abroad, they also had the opportunity to visit the manufacturing plant of Siemens Mobility Austria under the guidance of company's experts, who presented the different sections of the production line.

On the following day, at TU Wien’s engineering and product development department, the students participated in a 12-hour collaborative design session. This hackathon took place in a classroom equipped with PCs, where the project teams were able to use a multi-user collaborative CAD system distributed on the cloud. The results of this 3D modeling activity were integrated into a metro coach model, which was subsequently presented to the Siemens Mobility experts during the third design review. The students fine-tuned their ideas before the final presentation, whereas Siemens Mobility Austria awarded the design challenge winning team, which proposed an innovative combination of air purification system with entertainment panels.

The most valuable outcome, however, was the possibility for the students involved to collaborate with one of the most important industrial players in the sector, in an international context that allowed them to develop and consolidate their soft skills, which they can hardly train during a traditional university course. Through the implementation of the methodology, it was possible to highlight its most effective elements and highlight potential corrective actions for the critical issues. The methodology will, then, be updated and its effectiveness will be assessed through the second implementation, which will see students meet in attendance at the University of Zagreb in the next academic year.