Innovative learning and finding solutions to problems in the real world, in an interdisciplinary team: This is the aim of ETH Week, an event designed to promote critical thinking and creativity. The subject of the 2015 pilot week was “The Story of Food” – a success story.

Innovative learning concept: One of the central questions of the ETH Week was: “How can I be better in a team than alone?” (Image: Alessandro Della Bella/ETH Zurich)

Like a television show, the reporter in a white coat explained that many people are at risk of a vitamin D deficiency – even the unsuspecting old lady who was also interviewed as a representative of those most affected. The solution to the problem: an information campaign that includes new measuring systems in public toilets and free tests in pharmacies. With the humorous presentation of “D Aware” the team of students at ETH Zurich received a huge round of applause and a prize for the most convincing project from an economic point of view during the ETH Week “The Story of Food”.

After a week spent working together intensively in September 2015, 12 groups with a total of almost 130 students enthusiastically presented their ideas to solve pressing nutrition-related issues. “They were able to use any available means for this, just no PowerPoint slides”, explains Christine Bratrich, Managing Director of ETH Sustainability at ETH Zurich. And she stresses, “It was not about presenting a perfect solution because you cannot improve the world in a week.” The aim was rather to work as a team to work on their own specific issue, carry out independent research, and take on responsibility. “The process was more important than the product”, the organiser of the first ETH Week sums up by saying.

The new learning format is part of an initiative which the ETH Executive Board has launched under the heading “Critical Thinking”, in order to better prepare students for their future tasks. Many graduates from ETH Zurich later go on to positions in management. “People who think outside the box and act responsibly are in demand”, says Christine Bratrich. “But this requires the ability to analyse, reflect and examine one’s motives.” In fact studies show that graduates are highly qualified in specialist areas, but there are gaps in interdisciplinary networking and in social and communication skills.

Tools for complex themes

“Our students are outstanding when it comes to reading a book in the morning and understanding its contents by evening”, says Christine Bratrich. “We are of course extremely proud of the top grades in the subjects. However, in terms of working independently on designs, or collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines, we should give the students greater leeway and more equipment.” Complex subjects such as climate change, energy supply and urban planning can then be looked at not merely from a scientific or engineering approach. “There are social, political and economic components that must also be taken into account.”

Critical and creative thinking, entrepreneurship and team spirit are also central themes that the Executive Board of ETH Zurich aims to strengthen through its “Critical Thinking” initiative. The interdisciplinary and intercultural collaboration between students is also aimed at promoting the mutual commitment towards ETH Zurich and generating closer ties with the university. One of the aims is to strengthen the “sense of togetherness” of a dynamic university, says Christine Bratrich. This also demonstrated the personal commitment of the Rector and President during the ETH Week, which student appreciated tremendously. Indeed, it is also important to the Executive Board to stress the business-related issues and the central questions of sustainability. “The Story of Food” offered plenty of opportunities for this.

Prof. Sarah Springman, Rector of ETH Zurich (right), conversing with Christine Bratrich, director of ETH Sustainability. (Image: Alessandro Della Bella/ETH Zurich)

The organisers divided the Bachelor’s and Master’s students from 15 departments and 27 counties into well-mixed groups. One team with eleven participants from ten different countries almost tripped at the first hurdle. When choosing a name for their group, the members first had to learn how to make collective decisions. Therefore the team finally settled on the name “Team Democracy”.

“How can I work better in a team than alone?” This is the key question, Christine Bratrich says. And actually the participants specified “successful teamwork” as the most valuable experience they gained during ETH Week. One person commented that in less than two days, eleven different people with different backgrounds grew into a group that enjoyed working together. “Adapting myself to this kind of multicultural and multidisciplinary environment and finding a consensus despite so many different opinions on certain topics”, this was the highlight for another participant.

One student wrote: “Even though you can draw specific conclusions yourself, it is sometimes good to hear what other people’s opinions are. You will most often find that a certain viewpoint has been neglected.” Christine Bratrich was especially delighted with the well-targeted, clear questions from two Bachelor students who quite fairly challenged a Master’s student with an “I know how the world works” attitude. The students indicated that they would now voice their opinion more often during “normal” teaching sessions because they have learned how important this is.

A widely supported vision

On a canteen building site at the ETH Campus on Hönggerberg, the leaders had each set up a room that offered space for talks and group work, where people were also able to eat or converse freely. “It was a cool room – also literally”, recalls Christine Bratrich. Because shortly before the start of the ETH Week the windows had been removed — a minor hitch in the otherwise seamless course of the event that took months to prepare. “There were many people who shared our vision”, says the organiser, “starting with the carpenter who created a lounge area using old pallets, from the ETH Rector who called by every day to the ETH President who supported the ETH Week from the outset and played football with the students.” The overall programme for the course included sports and evening events – which the students were happy to make the most of.

In talks, on excursions and in discussions, the experts shared their extensive knowledge on the subject of world nutrition with the participants. What the students decided to do with this knowledge was up to them. “There was no fixed set of question”, Christine Bratrich says explaining the key point of the innovative learning concept. “The groups had to assign their own task for themselves and then develop a solution.” The organisers simply specified four topic areas: Sustainable production, food waste and loss, healthy nutrition for people and the environment, and the import of fodder and foodstuffs into Switzerland.

“It was challenging to find a problem that interested every member of the group”, said one participant. And another noted, “Making a decision when everyone wants their own idea to be chosen is particularly difficult.” However, the teams ended up having fun developing “a common solution for a common problem”. Therefore it was not easy for the jury comprised of two representatives from business and science as well as two VSETH Board members (Association of Students at ETH) who did not take part in the ETH Week, to award prizes for the most convincing presentation of a task to be solved and the approach to its solution.

Beer brewed from breadcrumbs

The VSETH representatives finally selected a proposal for brewing beer from bread waste. The team took inspiration for the “Brobi” project from a Russian recipe and from one of the excursions that took them to the “Äss-Bar” – a shop that sells yesterday’s bread and bakeries at cheaper prices in order to reduce the amount of food waste. Another approach to solving this problem is “Dumpy” – a trailer attached to trams in Zurich into which commuters can throw their biodegradable waste in the morning on their way to work. The participants at ETH Week used an app to rate the inventors of Dumpy regarding their particularly creative presentation.

At the end of the first ETH Week, the overall impression of students, experts and organisers was consistently positive. “From the participant’s point of view it was a great experience”, one student commented. “The sharing, the development and the prototyping of ideas with so many different people was really exciting as this hardly happens in my normal studies.” Critical thinking meant that we had to leave our comfort zone, wrote one student: “It forces you to rethink what you have taken for granted, you look at the bigger picture and consider what are the feasible solutions.” The week was strenuous, they said, but it was worth it.

“It was great to see how the students discussed things so critically”, says Christine Bratrich, even though she admits that it is not really possible to learn the desired skills in one week. “Our aim is to at least provide an impetus – and it was certainly fun.” The dates of the next ETH Week have already been published: 11 to 16 September 2016.