A conversation with Marthe Dehli and Shreyasi Kar on the influence of students to the CERN community
Marthe and Shreyasi work at the Aalto Design Factory, an institution IdeaSquare looked up to from the very beginning. They have both seen IdeaSquare grow from scratch —Marthe since the 2014 Port Hackathon, when she was working at the KT Group, and Shreyasi through her many visits as a coordinator of the ATTRACT student project— and believe that it's a place where students "not only take things from, but also give". As they're looking forward to the continuation of ATTRACT's Phase 2, they tell us their experiences in what they describe as a "magic place where ideas thrive".
Q. Do you see many similarities between IdeaSquare and the Aalto Design Factory?
Shreyasi: There are similarities, but also differences, mainly because IdeaSquare is not a University but a research facility and that makes the place more special. Also, IdeaSquare doesn’t have any resident students —as Aalto University has—, so the nature of offerings from the teaching perspective is very different. On top of this, at IdeaSquare teaching revolves mainly around workshops, and that makes the facility unique because it brings immense opportunities for potential collaborations. There is also a strong cross-pollination from all their different programmes, and this is a bit harder to facilitate in a traditional University setup.
How do you think IdeaSquare students and the CERN community benefit from one another?
Marthe: I think it's not only students being inspired by CERN engineers and physicists, but also the other way around. You know, sometimes people at CERN also need some fresh air from outside. Because, after working for so long in such a big and political organization, they might have gotten a bit conservative, maybe even a little narrow-minded. So, I believe it’s great that a facility such as IdeaSquare exists because it brings young, multidisciplinary students looking at things in a different way… I am pretty sure this kind of interactions are a beneficial, two-way street for CERN.
So IdeaSquare is the place where to question the CERN’s traditional way of doing things?
M. Exactly. It's probably the least "square" place and in all of Geneva, ha, ha!
How does it do that?
S. Well, IdeaSquare opens the world of CERN to students who wouldn't have typically had access to it. That goes especially for multidisciplinary students —design business students, engineering background students— who suddenly get a chance to experience the world of physics thanks to IdeaSquare's student programmes. This multi-background approach is key to insufflate new research viewpoints into the CERN community.
M. This also applies to me, for example, because I have a Bachelor's Degree in Comparative Religion. And despite coming from a non-physics background, IdeaSquare was always the place where I would go to get a "yes". Nothing was too crazy, nothing was too out of line. I would be getting "noes" from all over the place, and then I would cross the road, show my pass to the guards, and then there was an instant "yes" —and a free cup of coffee!
Shreyasi, at IdeaSquare you mostly work with ATTRACT students. How has the experience been so far?
S. Amazing. You know, what I see is that students crave more and more for real-world experiences, and there's nothing more real-world than working alongside scientists. It's not about doing school make-believe projects —it's actual work with real-world impact. And that's extremely powerful and motivational. At the end of ATTRACT Phase 1, we decided to collect some feedback from the students and that was exactly what they said: over 90% of them believed that working on a real-life challenge with societal applications was what really pumped up their motivation.
Any example of what comes out from the interactions between ATTRACT scientists and the Aalto students?
S. I do have a powerful one. One day, we were working at IdeaSquare with students from the Sustainable Development Track. Some project leaders from ATTRACT came in that day to explain their Smart Walls and Pipes project, and something really interesting happened. They were explaining their technology and said that they thought that the most reasonable application was airplanes and commercial airlines. Suddenly, all of the students countered: "That's absolutely not sustainable and we don't think you should apply your technology into that!". It was breathtaking to see students showing such a radical stance before the Senior Scientists! At the end, the lead scientists positively welcomed their ideas, so I think it's really good that IdeaSquare has managed to create a setting where students feel so empowered and confident. We definitely need more spaces where one can challenge the existing norms just like this.
Nice. Do you know if any of these student projects within ATTRACT have had any continuation whatsoever?
S. They have. And we are looking forward to ensuring this continuation in ATTRACT's Phase 2. We would like that all the Design Factory Global Network (DFGN) students who are currently working on projects had the possibility to associate and collaborate with other students from the remaining 32 design factories. We would love that, at the end of their projects, they came together at IdeaSquare to develop it. This way, there would always be a massive transfer of knowledge from one year to the other. That's something which we're hoping to see more often in the future.
If you had a magic wand that you could use on IdeaSquare, what would you use it on?
M. I know it sounds idealistic, but if money were really no issue, I would love to see all the design factories, collaborating to tackle the world's major struggles. World peace, world hunger, finding a cure for cancer… I'm sure that if we added IdeaSquare's energy in this equation, we would come up with brilliant solutions.
Marthe Dehli worked at Aalto University (Finland), where she was the Community Developer & Content Creator for the Design Factory Global Network (DFGN). She is now a Content Specialist with the Lindström Group. Before that, she worked for 3 years at the Entrepreneurship Development Officer at CERN, where she facilitated and encouraged entrepreneurial activities in the research community of more than 2,000 academics.
Shreyasi Kar works as a Design Innovation Specialist at Aalto Design factory (Finland). She has worked as a researcher at (Art)ScienceBLR, a collective and public laboratory based in the Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore and she is currently pursuing her masters in New Media Design and Production also at Aalto University. At IdeaSquare, she was the manager of the electronics prototyping facilities and she coordinates the student project in the context of ATTRACT.