Start with the users

21.03.2017 | News

By:  Nicol Klenk, Florian Meyer

An app for building managers – or data glasses that help you learn physics concepts? During the first "SPH Innovation Challenge", ETH students spent a week working on their own project ideas. Set up as a pilot station in autumn 2016, the Student Project House on the Hönggerberg campus provided the necessary space and resources.

multidisciplinary team  
Exchanges in multidisciplinary teams allow various problems to be discussed and new solutions found. (Image: Florian Meyer / ETH Zurich)

The ability to develop your own ideas and implement them in multidisciplinary project teams is becoming increasingly important, not only in business but in an academic context too. ETH Rector Sarah Springman makes that very clear in the latest edition of Globe. One approach that is well suited to the development of new product ideas is design thinking, which is based heavily on teamwork and develops solutions from the user’s point of view.

Visualisation tools  
Visualisation tools play an important role in idea development. (Image: Spark Labs / ETH Zurich)

"In design thinking, it’s not the technical solution that’s most important, but the learning process and the team collaboration that leads to the right solution for the right problem," says Alan Cabello, Innovation Manager and member of the Spark Lab team. This team specialises in design thinking and was founded by Cabello and Stefano Brusoni, ETH Professor of Technology and Innovation Management.

Cabello and the Spark Lab team helped design and run the Innovation Challenge programme, which took place for the first time during the past week at the Student Project House (SPH) on the Hönggerberg campus. Twenty-five students spent a week working in six multidisciplinary groups. Each group prepared a project idea that was then reviewed several times and developed into a prototype, taking the user requirements into account. Cabello was on hand to coach the students.

A journey through the world of key concepts

Learning concepts by walking through a virtual room – that’s the idea of André Reggio, a physics student who participated in the Innovation Challenge. The basic concepts in physics are far removed from intuitive everyday understanding, because they acquire meaning only within the context of mathematical theory. To understand them, students must be capable of very abstract thinking.

Reggio wants to make this learning process easier by using a virtual concept map. During the challenge, one team considered how such a concept map could be built in 3D and transferred into a virtual space. Their vision: for future students to be able to put on a pair of data glasses and access this virtual room, where they would find the basic concepts clearly arranged and explained.

André Reggio  
A room for concepts: André Reggio would like to develop data glasses to help students learn basic physics concepts by walking through a virtual room. (Image: Florian Meyer / ETH Zurich)

To show how they would arrange these concepts in 3D, the group built a simple model in the SPH, connecting pieces of paper in different colours with cords and hanging them around the room. The paper symbolises the concepts, and the cords their relationships to each other. "Where do you see the theory?" Reggio asks the other students. They spontaneously point upwards. "And where do you see the practice?" They intuitively point to the floor. Anyone who puts on the data glasses will therefore see the theoretical concepts higher up, and the practical concepts below. The spatial arrangement of the concepts also makes it possible for students to see how they relate to one another; for example, which are more important and which are linked to other concepts. Now, André Reggio is building a team to move the project forward.

User knowledge for building management

Another group worked on an app to support exchanges between building managers and users. The idea is that the building will operate more smoothly if the building managers know what irritates the people who use it.

The idea was thought up by Thomas Stesco, who is studying for a Master’s in Integrated Building Systems, a programme which focuses on the energy- and resource-efficient construction and management of buildings. Alexandra Maximova, a computer science student, was also part of the group. "The great thing about the Student Project House is that we can find all the necessary materials and tools here to develop our idea further and build a prototype," says Maximova. The team used the design-thinking method to clarify the problem.

Alexandra Maximova
(Image: Florian Meyer / ETH Zürich)
"The great thing is that we can find all the necessary materials and tools here to develop our idea further and build a prototype," Alexandra Maximova

"The Student Project House provides students with the space and the means to try out their own ideas," says Maria Hakanson, head of the SPH pilot project. The space offers everything from traditional tools, soldering equipment and milling machines to acrylic bending machines and 3D printers. Lego and modelling clay are also provided, to allow students to physically shape their ideas. Hakanson would like to make this learning process available to many more students, and to repeat the Innovation Challenge once a semester going forward.

To finish the week, the teams presented their project ideas at a plenary session on last Tuesday evening and thus received more feedback on their work. The other project ideas included a practical pipetting aid, a "science cloud" for questions and answers about scientific topics, and an app for reserving free parking spaces and optimising traffic flow in cities.

It remains to be seen which projects will generate new products.

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Wed Jul 26 19:11:20 CEST 2017
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