Innovative teaching - the Ecole des Mines watchword.

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Alternative ways of teaching, and finding ways to improve teaching methods are the ongoing concerns at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes. Involved at an early stage in the hands-on science project la "Main à la Pâte", the school is always moving forwards with innovative teaching methods, particularly in 'learning by doing' and the use of new technologies. So much so that over the years its expertise in this area has become widely recognised.

How can training be made more effective, more attractive, and more needs-based ? From primary school to higher education, everyone is asking the same question. Having been forgotten for a time, teaching methods are back in the limelight, especially since the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). In this period of educational change, the Ecole des Mines de Nantes is one step ahead. "For almost twenty years, the school has been working on innovative teaching methods points out Anne Beauval, Head of the EMN. Even now, we are continually introducing new initiatives, with our students being the first to benefit. And without giving in to trends." Constantly improving student learning and getting students involved in real-life situations : this sums up the the school's educational "philosophy"  .

It all started in 1996. That year, Georges Charpak, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, turned to a number of schools, including the Ecole des Mines to launch the hands-on science program la "Main à la Pâte". The objective : to get primary school children interested and involved in science through doing experiments. In this way, young school children were able to learn about the laws of electricity by lighting a lamp using a battery or building a circuit.... Older students learnt about why seasons occur, what the sun does, and how the planets move around the sun. "A whole range of intelligences should be involved, rather than limiting children to one particular way of learning, explained Carl Rauch, lecturer at the Ecole des Mines and head of the CRPE (Resource Centre for Experimental Practices). This develops the questioning aptitude of children during experiments and ways of problem-solving. The approach  develops their curiosity and leads to lasting knowledge."

This approach is gradually spreading, first appearing in Loire-Atlantique, then all over the country. Today there are fifteen pilot centres  for the hands-on science program la "Main à la Pâte" involving hundreds of teachers. There are now hands-on programs designed for pre-school classes as well as for middle school classes  - capturing the interest of students who might otherwise have 'switched off' from science. A number of European projects such as Pollen and Fibonacci have resulted from European interest in this approach.

Mines Nantes has a dual role. Firstly, running training courses for primary school teachers. The courses run over three years and are specifically designed for the teachers, with seminars, support in the classroom, and distance tutoring. Secondly  conducting field experiments. Every year several engineering students from Mines Nantes go into schools on a weekly basis, as assistants in science classes. "They provide scientific support, and help develop learning strategies, added Carl Rauch. But they are in no way a substitute for the teacher." A powerful experience which helps them gain maturity.


Throughout the training, project -based learning


At the same time, Mines Nantes has adopted the 'learning by doing' approach (LBD). This approach was first developed in a number of American universities, then actually put into practice at Caltech Pasadena. It works by immersing students very early on, in their future profession. The day they start at Mines Nantes, they are given a tool box - a way of highlighting their transition from coursework to professional skills.

Mines Nantes has continued to develop the LBD program, which then became the "Investigation and integration project". This is the first project space where students can come together : in groups of four they have to develop electronic circuits, and improve how a model lift works. This means that they have to apply what they know from maths, physics, electronics, and computer science...  At the end of the first semester they have to design and build a robot, which goes on to take part in a robot race.

The same approach is adopted throughout the training program: every semester there is a project, to be carried out either individually or as part of a team : The 'Prime' project, short-term company projects, the EOS (Energy optimization system) scientific and technical project, and the third year elective subject project...

The final year project, over six months, is a kind of synthesis of all the previous projects. "These projects form the back-bone of the training program. Each one involves certain areas of knowledge, and the application of that knowledge according to a particular teaching objective, explained  Lionel Luquin, Director of studies. There is also project management training for the students: this enables them to combine both theory and practice . It is not enough just to set up projects : there must be an overall framework, divided up into sequences, with regular feedback, task description, methodology..."

Over the years, the school has developed considerable expertise in project-based learning and skills acquisition - an area in which many schools are still fumbling in the dark. This expertise is now being recognised by recruiters: "They have noticed that our graduates know how to be part of a project, and that they are rapidly capable of taking on responsibilities ", observed Lionel Luquin.


A support centre for teachers


To further improve its teaching activities, the school has a special resource for teachers, the CAPE (Support centre for teaching). It began as a  unit dedicated to "new technologies" (TICE), with CAPE in an advisory role, as support, and answering their questions... For example : how can students be assessed when they are doing group work ? "What we wanted to do was to help teachers improve their professional practice", explained Christian Colin, Head of the centre. CAPE also runs training sessions (starting work, how to use your voice in a lecture hall...) and it has even received national recognition, by becoming a "support centre for teaching".

The same approach is applied to language learning. Teaching is centred around activity work, and directly linked to student profiles. "we try to prepare students to be operational in English, both in a pofessional context, in companies, as well as in a wider social context, explained Stephanie Evans, head of the language department. There always has to be a clearly stated objective." Language training includes a wide range of different activites. There are games, such as the "egg race", scientific films, simulations (such as setting up a start-up) as well as making video CVs, in preparation for interviews as part of international recruitment.

With the same approach in mind, in 2007, the language department (with help from CAPE), produced an interactive program for learning Chinese, called "Parlez-vous chinois ?" It became a best-seller. Available first on the internet, followed by iPhone and iPad and now iTunes-U, it has been downloaded 40,000 times in over fifty countries. It has received a number of awards including the 'label des labels européens 2012' for the greatest achievement in the last ten years in the higher education category. Another "in-house" production is "Presentation plus" which is  about  how to make scientific presentations, explain projects, talk at meetings.... part of daily life for an engineer in industry. The department is now working with CAPE again, and putting the finishing touches to another teaching tool called "Desperate Interns", designed to help students find an internship (in English and French)


Logically, the Ecole des Mines de Nantes cannot stand on the sidelines of  the increasing number of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). It is working on a training course centred on health and safety at work, with the INRS (National Institute for  research and safety) and Carsat (1) of the  Pays de la Loire region. The Institut Mines-Télécom is already adopting this approach, planning to offer twelve MOOCs over the coming years. The Institut Mines-télécom in fact belongs to a group of study sites designated by the  ministery of Higher Education to work on the subject. However, the school is moving forwards carefully as far as MOOCs are concerned, keeping to its approach of conducting an increasing number of experiments, in order to refine its performance. And in that way, to combine  scientific and teaching excellence.

(1) Health insurance and pension fund


The Prime project


During the second semester of training, the Prime project (Integrated Project generic methods) is a perfect demonstration of the school's approch to innovative teaching. In 2005, while on a visit to the université de Sherbrooke, in Québec, the teachers observed the way the students' knowledge was closely linked to technical projects. A maths lesson, for example, could lead into a rocket building activity. The school decided to use this approach.

However, instead of one project for all the students, or individual projects which would be difficult to organise, it opted for a solution half-way between the two : six different projects to choose from, for groups of 5 or 6 students, under the guidance of teachers from a variety of disciplines (physics, thermal engineering, computer science...). In one of the “Prime” projects the students have to build a model of the steam generator in a nuclear power plant, in another they work on the treatment of volatile organic compounds... "That way the students see the projects through, from start to finish, building a prototype, under teacher supervision, explained Pol-Bernard Gossiaux, professor of particle physics and in charge of the “Prime” projects. The students proceed by trial and error, and they are  assessed at the end. Each member of the team assumes the role of team manager for a different aspect of the project, thus making them take responsibility And all of this takes place at a very human level. It's a good formula.”

The next stage is to renew the projects. This involves identifying what each one can contribute, to reinforce individual student follow up, to ensure external communication... In short, making the teaching methods even better.


Key stages / milestones in inovative teaching at  Mines Nantes

1996 : The Ecole des Mines de Nantes is one of 5 schools selected by Georges Charpak to launch the la "Main à la Pâte" program

1996 : Introduction of 'Learning by doing' (LBD) at the school, under the guidance of the director, Robert Germinet and Georges Charpak.

2000 : Think tank on TICE (using IT in teaching)

2002 : Setting up of a resource centre for innovation in teaching technology (Crite).

2002 : Birth of a " virtual"  Ecole des Mines, grouping together the network of schools.

2003 : Setting up of the Astep group (Primary school science and methods), which organised a number of conferences on the subject.

2007 : Start of Prime projects (Integrated Project generic methods).

2008 : The school launched the first IT training course available on  podcast.

2008 : Start of the CAPE (Centre d'appui aux pratiques d'enseignement). Dedicated to innovative teaching and teachers' professional development, taking over from the Crite.

2009 : Launch of the "Parlez-vous chinois ?" application.

2013 : The Institut Mines-Télécom assigned to a field study for  the  France Université Numérique project . The school works on a MOOC  for "Health and safety at work".

2013 : Launch of PairForm, a social network dedicated to on line training with a view to starting a startup combining online teaching and social networks. (Find out more in the Trajectoire section)


Talents des Mines, the school magazine has produced several numbers on the subject :






- Parlez-vous chinois ?

. sur web

. sur iPhone/iPad

. sur iTunes U

- Presentation+

- Recherche de stage/emploi

- PairForm : Web disponible sur AppStore et Google Play (mot clé PairForm).

- site Web du cape