Empowering Tomorrow’s Makers and Innovators

Have you ever heard of the Student Project House? It is an initiative created by ETH Zürich in order to empower and inspire their students with a maker and innovator mindset. This project became so successful and important for ETH, that it will expand to a five-story building in the center of Zurich next year. When I heard of it, I was immediately intrigued. Why is this organization so successful? What does a maker and innovator mindset mean and how does the Student Project House help their students to think in that way?

To get more information, I interviewed Justyna Wojewoda-Chakraborty, the head of Customer-Experience and Marketing for the Student Project House. Her engagement and enthusiasm for the project are contagious and worthy of sharing! 

The purpose of the initiative is the same as that of the university: let students learn and provide all tools and guidance necessary to do so. Since 2016, a unique space that inspires ETH Zurich students to realize their own ideas and develop tomorrow’s solutions has been created. Success is not defined by profit here; as long as the students have learned something from their project, it is seen as successful. Therefore, if a project fails, there will be zero consequences or judgement for the student. The long term goal is to teach the students a mindset early on in their education. A mindset which they will develop and use, not only during their studies, but more importantly for the rest of their lives: the maker- and innovator mindset!

“The students are inspired to develop this mindset based on 6 pillars. We believe that they will bring this with them to make the world a better place. Therefore, there are no limits, the projects can be in any relevant field, from  food and well-being to AI and robots. Anything is possible!

The initiative is currently only accessible to ETH students. Nevertheless, I find their approach and way of thinking very interesting and see potential for all of us to use this in our personal and professional lives:

1- You can do it
Developing courage, confidence and having a positive mindset where you are not holding yourself back from the very beginning is crucial. Just start, take baby-steps and see where you will get. Also, once things get harder, it is up to you to keep on going and push yourself through. Don’t let anything or anyone stop you from pursuing your idea.

2- Better together
We often want to do things ourselves, without the help of others. However, the Student Project House initiative has shown that once people started to work together, they brought their projects way further. By confronting yourself with someone who asks you questions or pushes you in the right direction, you will overcome hurdles impossible to conquer alone, next to learning about team work in interdisciplinary and diverse teams.

© Image from Student Project House campaign

Chris’ story shows the students’ learnings very well:
Building the aquatic robot was the easy part. Communicating with one another, when it is 5am, you are at the pool testing and things are not working: this is where everyone grew personally. It was the first independent project for many of us and everyone confirms that interpersonal skills are the biggest learning. In our process we built the robot during the day and tested it in the pool at night. We only had access to the pool from 10 o’clock in the evening until 3 o’clock in the morning. It was hard. Things were not working as intended. We grew so much as a team though. In our last test, the night before submitting  the robot for the competition, the seal broke and the robot filled up with water. I can just imagine that -if it had been one of our first tests- we would have shouted and pointed fingers at one another. Instead, we all jumped to get blow dryers and focused on repairing it.

3- Enjoy creating
Innovating might be hard and takes time, but above all it is rewarding, enhances creativity, opens your mind, energizes and is filled with inspiring talks with your peers. Hands-on learning, building prototypes and exploring new tools are thus essential to increase innovation. This positive aspect of creating and innovation is one of the focus points, as positive minds attract positive outcomes.

4- Fail forward
Failing is not easily accepted in our culture, but you simply can’t innovate without it. If you do, then probably you are not truly tapping into the full potential of your project. Therefore, we try to help our students to dare to fail, accept, learn from their mistakes and move on as we believe this is a vital insight for the rest of their lives.

© Image from Student Project House campaign

5- Diverse views
While working on their projects, the students are surrounded by their peers and experts from completely different fields. Experts ask more in-depth and long-term questions to bring a project to a higher level. Outsiders, on the other hand, often ask the most simple questions or point out basic things, which you would have never considered as an obstacle before. Both views are essential in order to bring your product to the general public. Also, being curious and getting involved in other people’s innovations, sparks creativity and generates touchpoints with new areas and ways of thinking.

6- Test and adapt
The students are encouraged to regularly test their projects or products with fellow students, experts, and of course potential customers. The mindset to test, revise and adapt quickly is taken from the agile way of working and is a common way of thinking within innovation. This helps students to not lose time and energy into something that possibly should be adapted. “Often, this is something that happens early in the project, when students have to do market research about their ‘raw idea’. We see adjustments being done already before they even start their project officially.”

In these unprecedented times of lockdowns, working from home and fewer social interactions, we have more time and mental space to be innovative. Use your spare time in the same way as the SPH approaches its innovations; without risk but having fun whilst experimenting, failing, improving, learning, and figuring out what works for you and what does not.

Developing the maker and innovator mindset is integrated into everything the Student Project House does. What else do they provide the ETH students? The main offers are network opportunities and something called the Makerspace; an area that includes all possible technical tools to help the students realize their projects, from 3D printers to sewing machines and steel cutters.

Our passionate team and diverse range of workshops support students to cultivate the maker and innovator mindset, while our coworking- and makerspace allows them to connect across disciplines, experiment, prototype and gain real, hands-on experience”.

Some of the projects that started small have now turned out to be great companies. If you want to sponsor or see more about the projects check out the Student Project House website!

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026; https://www.iict.uzh.ch/).