Experiments in the kitchen and architectural models in the sandpit

’We are investigating the time-dependent height of garden cress,’ wr

’We are investigating the time-dependent height of garden cress,’ write the electrical engineering students. Among other things, the students practise dealing with measurement uncertainty.

What happens when COVID-19 means architecture students have to get by without a workshop, electrical engineers without high-voltage laboratories and environmental scientists without field trips.

Mid-May - this is a time when ETH students would normally be working flat out on projects: running experiments in the lab, constructing machines, systems and robots or designing buildings. Now the campus is deserted, the students at home. But that hasn’t stopped them designing and experimenting. How come? Here are five examples.

Measurements without high voltage

Third-year Bachelor’s students in electrical engineering and information technology can attend the Experimental Techniques lectures, where they learn to plan and carry out experiments and to interpret and document the measurements. This normally sees students working with power supplies, function generators, high-voltage probes and measuring instruments such as oscilloscopes. In the current situation, however, Professor Christian Franck and his team of lecturers have had to come up with alternatives.

They made video recordings of some of the experiments alone in the laboratory. Students can pose their questions directly as comments in the video while logging measurements and evaluating the data at home.

In addition, the lecturers invented the "stay-at-home lab", whereby students design their own experiments using measuring equipment found around the house, get their designs assessed by the lecturers, and then conduct the experiments. This has seen a few unusual ideas come to light: one group is determining the growth of garden cress over time using nothing but a glass, a tape measure and a sheet of paper. Another is determining the circumference of the earth by means of shadows cast at two locations in Germany and Switzerland, based on a historical experiment. And a third is determining the efficiency of two kettles.

The fact that some of the experiments have nothing to do with electrical engineering is irrelevant, says Henning Janssen, one of the lecturers in Professor Franck’s group. Measuring garden cress is just as useful for students to learn how to plan and document experiments in a comprehensible way. It’s also a good way to practise dealing with measurement uncertainties and interpreting results.

Architecture carved in soap

Design classes are at the core of architectural studies. Budding architects are given an open task and work in small groups to develop an idea, which they present and revise several times with sketches, pictures, plans and models. This is trickier when you’re stuck in your own room in a shared house - but not impossible.

All the design classes are still being held in this special Spring Semester in 2020. But at the final presentation, the students and experts alike will have to get by without models and movable walls.

Students in the class of architecture professor Tom Emerson are using the Tumblr microblogging platform to present their work on their ideas with weekly uploads of drawings, plans, collages and images of rudimentary models. They were tasked with designing a sports arena in Zurich’s Friesenberg district on the site of the Albisgüetli shooting range.

It’s up to the groups to decide how to give form to their building ideas. Handicrafts are welcome; indeed, in essence they are an essential skill for architects, Emerson writes in the course description. It’s about "the intelligence in which you can make anything into anything." At the end of April, when it was time for the interim review, the students had already shown that they didn’t need workshops and 3D printers to do that. Their Tumblr page presents not just a number of collages and sketches but also terrain models in sandpits, ones made of earth and even one made of papier-mâché.

One group proposed to dig out the concrete foundations of the shooting range’s targets and convert the whole facility into a climbing park ( project page ). They carved their model into a bar of soap - very much in keeping with the spirit of the health crisis.

A model of the terrain in Zurich Albisgüetli, built in a sandpit. (Photograph: Maude Haas und Elias Aebi) "M odel trying tunnels as entrances - fail ". A simple model of a kung-fu arena made of paper-maché (Photograph: Aline Hess und Anna Vonderwahl) The Kung Fu arena as visualization (Image: Anna Hess und Aline Vonderwahl) "We work with earth. This allows us to shape the track, redistribute the earth and also gives us an idea of the spatial appearance of our facility." (Photograph: Tizano Lanza und Luciano Sarti)

Shaping new ideas from cardboard

In the Innovation Leadership course run by ETH Professor Stefano Brusoni’s Technology and Innovation Management Group, around 20 students are working on new ideas for a company in the Swiss construction sector. At the course’s prototyping workshop they design specific solutions for strategic challenges. These prototypes can be computer programs, software tools or strategy plans. Under normal circumstances, the students work together in small groups to and use materials such as cardboard and glue to design simple physical models that embody their proposed solutions.

This year’s workshop took place exactly one week after the start of the lockdown at ETH. Without further ado, the lecturers Daniella Laureiro-Martinez, Anna Dereky and Zorica Zagorac-Uremovic adapted the workshop for the virtual environment. Students, lecturers and two representatives of a construction company met in a virtual room via the Zoom platform, broke out into small groups to develop ideas, built the first prototypes with egg cartons, pizza boxes, toothpicks, pieces of paper and Post-its, and presented them to the plenary session.

Alone in the field

For the roughly 140 Environmental Sciences students, the biodiversity field trips are among the highlights of their first-year studies. Together with experts, they venture beyond the lecture hall to identify species and to understand biological systematics based on a selection of the species they find. The focus is on forest and water birds, insects on the meadow and in the forest, small animals in streams and ponds, arachnids, sweet grasses, flowering plants, trees, shrubs and fungi.

This year the students are going off on their own to identify things like fungi, trees or animals in an area of their own choosing. Students record the species they find using their own smartphone and an app, then evaluate their findings in virtual data workshops. The records show that the locations students selected for their individual excursions stretch from southern Germany to Ticino.

Coronavirus measures instead of robots

In their second semester, Bachelor’s students of Mechanical Engineering focus on what are known as innovation projects. In small teams, they develop an idea for a technical system all the way from the initial concept to the produced and tested product. In a previous year, for example, they had to build a fire brigade rescue robot that could rescue toy figures from a toy house. At the end of the project, the different teams compete against each other and have to put their system to the test.

"It’s all about the teamwork," says ETH Professor Mirko Meboldt. Normally the students work shoulder to shoulder on site. This year, Meboldt was quick to start looking for an alternative task that the students could still work on in teams, even at a distance, using video conferencing.

The students are now developing solutions that will help them and people in their age group to avoid getting infected with the virus and ensure they don’t spread it further themselves. "We deliberately left the task wide open. It’s up to students to decide whether it takes the form of an educational video about recommended best practices, an app or a technical system. And as part of the task they have to publicise their solution via a social media campaign," Meboldt says.

On 19 and 20 May, it is time for the groups to present their solutions. Among them will be ideas on how to open doors without touching them or how to carry disinfectant in a practical wristband at all times. "In contrast to previous years, certain teaching objectives such as design and production have taken a back seat," Meboldt says, "but we’ve retained the spirit of competition with the social media campaign aspect. And we’ve even managed to strengthen another important teaching objective, namely taking the initiative to make decisions when the project specifications don’t cover everything."


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