Created during the height of the industrial boom
During the 1950s, France experienced unprecedented industrial growth, but at the same time was confronted with a lack of engineers and technicians. Indeed, compared with the United States, which was turning out 29,000 graduate engineers a year, numbers in France were low at only 4,500. In some circles, 1955 was to mark a pivotal year for the development of solutions to remedy the shortage of skilled labour.
Motivation was strong in Lyon, notably, to set up a major centre for scientific education and research. The leading economic minds of the day understood that a clear relationship existed between the proper training of managers and the future development of the region. It was at this time that two local figures, Rector Jean Capelle and philosopher Gaston Berger, developed a unique and innovative training model. These two humanists were responsible for the advent of a new concept in engineering education. They came up with a whole new type of school, or rather an institute: the National Institute of Applied Sciences (Institut National des Sciences Appliquées, INSA).
An engineering school of a new kind
As far as 'founding fathers' Jean Capelle and Gaston Berger were concerned, INSA Lyon engineers would be in a league of their own. While boasting excellent scientific and technical expertise, they would also be capable of understanding the issues at the heart of their companies, and would actively contribute to the evolution of their world. Not forgetting their capacity for creativity, a lever for innovation.
To train engineers of this calibre, Capelle and Berger developed an education programme structured around a variety of teachings. While the core teaching dealt with the hard sciences, there was much more to the programme than that. And therein lies the added value of the INSA engineer profile, namely in those secondary and compulsory subjects commonly known in INSA jargon as the Humanities. Specific courses were built around languages, music, plastic arts, theatre, dance and sport, thereby allowing the engineering students to follow a curriculum that combined activities of this nature in addition to their training in the sciences. To this day, the secret behind the INSA education model is the enhancing of our students' ability to think beyond the scientific rationality required by their engineering training.
Another specificity of INSA lay in its unique approach to recruiting future engineering students. Post-Baccalauréat applicants were admitted on the basis of their qualifications, thereby contributing to the democratisation of the education system. By proposing this mode of admission, INSA offered an alternative for students for whom several years of preparatory school constituted a risk and a prohibitive cost. Once admitted, the students would live on campus.
On 5th February 1957, the draft law creating the INSA was debated and voted by the French National Assembly. The school was established in Villeurbanne, a neighbouring commune of Lyon, between the Parc de la Tête d'Or and the Parc de la Feyssine. At that time, some 90 hectares of land were occupied by military installations, the Société Hippique de Lyon equestrian club, and the telecommunications relay stations of the PTT (the French postal services and telecommunications administration). These were all cleared to make way for this major project that was to mark the advent of a brand new concept in engineering education.
The future school was officially presented in Lyon on 15th February 1957. Rector Jean Capelle was appointed as president and the schedule started speeding up.
An expedited construction schedule
INSA Lyon was scheduled to open in September of the same year, with some 300 students expected. At this time, the Villeurbanne building site was no more than marshland dotted with the remains of vegetable gardens. Architect Jacques Perrin-Fayolle, winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome award, was responsible for the rapid construction of the buildings necessary to welcome this first year of students.
On 12th November 1957, the school was finally ready to open its doors. Although initially required by law to train both engineers and higher technicians, INSA Lyon quickly specialised in the training of highly-qualified engineers only.