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Institute takes science to the people

The Zurich Institute of Technology's roadshow is crisscrossing Switzerland. ETHZ

Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology is celebrating its 150th anniversary by taking its science on the road and presenting it to a wider public.

This content was published on March 24, 2005 - 21:54

The roadshow is aimed not only at highlighting the institute’s research and its academic programmes, but also at attracting new talent.

Since late January, a semi-trailer has been crisscrossing Switzerland, showing off the country’s best-rated university to the population. At each stop, conferences and presentations are held for students and the general public.

"We need to attract the best students," said Meinrad Eberle, who is overseeing the anniversary celebrations. "So we are travelling around the country to convince youngsters Zurich is the place to be."

To achieve this, the roadshow has to convince prospective students that institute has more going for it than other Swiss universities. Eberle admits there is a competition for hearts and minds.

"There is a trend towards softer disciplines," he told swissinfo. "We feel though there is a need for scientific education, and we have to explain that our graduates have better job prospects than others."

Despite the institute’s dominant academic position, it’s still an uphill battle. Students aren’t always attracted to more traditional disciplines, such as physics.

Career prospects

Simon Baumgartner, who is working his way to a doctorate in particle physics, was looking after a stand at Bern’s Neufeld high school recently. He said it was not an easy job getting people interested.

"Physics is not a sexy career prospect now," he added.

Attracting interest seems to be less of a struggle for mathematicians.

"Surprisingly, a lot of people have stopped off at our stand," said Jela Skerlak, a student at the institute. "There have also been plenty of women asking questions."

Skerlak admits that it isn’t necessarily maths that gets most people’s juices flowing, but rather the concrete applications on show. She said a few individuals were interested enough though to ask questions about the demands of university life.

"People want to know what the courses are and if it’s possible to work on the side while studying," she told swissinfo.

The interest levels also vary according to age. Younger students are generally interested in seeing experiments, while those about to complete their higher school certificates want to know more about courses.

Visitors to the exhibition are a mix of students, institute alumni and concerned parents. "The parents come with their children to get an idea of what studies in Zurich entail," said Lasse Wallquist, a student in environmental sciences.

The institute would like to attract more female students as a result of the road show. Eberle says though that it is not a solution in itself to solve the problem of low numbers of women in science.

"To attract more girls, we would have to start convincing them in an ideal world at primary school already," he admits. "Speaking to them at high school is probably too late."

Status

The roadshow, and to a larger extent the anniversary celebrations, are also about marketing the institute’s brand name and maintaining its status.

"When you are number one, you have to fight to keep that position," said Eberle. "If you think being at the top of the ladder is enough to sell yourself, you soon slip down the rankings and somebody else will take your place."

The former professor of combustion technology reckons that the public also has to be convinced that money spent on science is money well spent.

"Taxpayers ask, rightly so, to what extent research adds value to our society," he added. "We want to convince people what we do is right and earn their confidence."

Eberle says that with its anniversary celebrations, the institute wants to position itself, define its place in society and improve its corporate identity. He admits though that much of this is restricted to Switzerland.

Despite the institute’s international reputation, he believes more has to be done to improve marketing abroad, something former students can help achieve.

"We have to pay more attention to our ties with our alumni, as American universities do," he said. "Unfortunately, Swiss and European universities don’t have a tradition of doing this."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding this year.
Events in Zurich and the rest of country offer local people the opportunity to get to know the institute and meet its staff and students.
As part of this programme, the Science Truck is visiting regional grammar schools, presenting academic programmes and research.

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