How to fail productively

One task, numerous ideas, paths and challenges: In the Physics4mation programme,
One task, numerous ideas, paths and challenges: In the Physics4mation programme, apprentices from different professions spend months working on a joint project. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Kilian Kessler)

In a pilot project, apprentices from four different professions in the Department of Physics had to work together to build an interactive exhibition object. They learnt a lot about team building, interdisciplinary work and how to fail productively. "Physics4mation" is now an integral part of the apprenticeship programme.

"It’s great to be able to do something different from what you’re used to!" says trainee physics lab technician Samira. Together with eight other students from the physics department, she was looking forward to the pilot project Physics4mation.

Their task: to build an interactive exhibit for the careers fair as a team within three months. The challenge: Each team member comes from a different apprenticeship - polymechanic, physics lab technician, electronics technician and design engineer.

Lots of ideas, little time

"We quickly came up with lots of ideas," says Samuele, a physics lab technician in training. His team built a ball maze with time measurement capability. "We spent too long thinking about what exactly we wanted to do," says Tobias, a trainee electronics technician. As a result, the maze team lost valuable time.

The second team opted for an interactive marble run, also with a timer. "We had various ideas for the modules," explains electronics apprentice Ramon. His work colleague Micha continues: "We discussed the modules and decided which ones we wanted to build."

Who takes the lead?

The marble run team learnt the hard way just how important it is to continuously exchange ideas and keep each other informed: the plans had to be changed retrospectively because the team had not communicated which measurements the CNC milling machine could process. This cost time and meant that parts had to be optimised right up to the end.

The apprentices were to work on the project half a day a week for three months. Some were able to invest more time and others less as they were busy with exams, for example. As both teams struggled with time management, the deadline was extended by one month, which was still not enough. "Even with six months, we probably wouldn’t have finished," says prospective mechanical engineer Paul. They were simply too ambitious.

Christian Richter, full-time vocational trainer for polymechanics EFZ and responsible for the pilot project, emphasises that with Physics4mation successful learning success is more important than a successful project. Interdisciplinary work, network building and teamwork are also crucial components of the project.

The result matters

The fact that the teams managed to bring the projects to a stage where they only needed a little fine-tuning afterwards fills all’apprentices with pride: "It was a good project because the end product works. And it’s really cool," was the verdict of polymechanic apprentice Jeremy.

The project enabled him to learn from his team members, says Samuele. And Micha adds that they not only benefited from each other’s expertise, but also made new friends.

When talking to the apprentices, it is clear that they learnt a lot during the course of the project - including what challenges need to be overcome in order to achieve the ultimate goal. The fact that not everything always worked smoothly is, at least in retrospect, one of the most important experiences for the apprentices.

The successful pilot project will now be carried out annually as interdisciplinary project work in vocational training in the Department of Physics.