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At Switzerland's CERN, Students Enjoy Unique Learning Experience

When Andrew Topinka and his teammates in the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) honors program decided to tackle the issue of reducing food waste in developed countries, the group brainstormed a number of ideas before settling on a final one—a sensor that notifies a person that meat will soon spoil.

When it was time to build a prototype of the sensor, the group didn’t head to the nearest electronic store for parts.

Instead, Topinka and 18 other IBE students traveled to the internationally renowned European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as the final portion of their IBE Grand Challenge Based Innovation course. The group, which spent two weeks in Geneva engaging with top scientists, was invited to work at CERN’s IdeaSquare innovation lab to refine their business and product solutions to global problems including access to clean water, electrification of rural health clinics, food safety and recycling.

“The fact that we were the first undergrads and first from the U.S. to work in the lab really motivated us to make the most of this incredible opportunity,” said Topinka, a finance student who is minoring in engineering and philosophy. “The biggest value add of being at CERN was our access to the organization’s leading minds. We learned so much from them—about collaboration, process and problem solving.”

Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering major Tom Krajnak (blue shirt) collaborates with fellow IBE students.CERN is the birthplace of many of the world’s top innovations of the past 60 years, including the creation of the World Wide Web, the building of antimatter and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. While at CERN, the students engaged regularly with Dr. Markus Nordberg, head of Resources Development at CERN and one of four individuals who managed the program responsible for identifying the Higgs boson.

“I was impressed with the level of collaboration and the knowledge these students brought with them into the lab,” Nordberg said. “Despite an aggressive two-week project deadline, they worked hard, asked smart questions and presented compelling solutions to various challenges facing nations around the world.”

That they were studying, prototyping and presenting in such a prestigious environment wasn’t lost on the students.

“Being at CERN helped me to see the root cause of problems and to leverage what is available to create a solution that can make our society a better place,” said engineering student Amy Chiu. “Innovation is something that can occur at any time, and being able to identify potential problems allows the mind to remain open to development. Being in an environment that constantly encouraged me to think beyond conventional means allowed me to finally understand what innovation means.”

Created as Ohio State’s first interdisciplinary honors program, the four-year IBE program is designed to develop the ability to communicate across business and technical domains and enact an inter-disciplinary approach to problem solving.

“I’ve been reaping the benefits of the IBE program since my freshman year,” Topinka said. “The trip to CERN really demonstrated how much business and engineering depend on each other. As we were developing our solution, we realized that changing one aspect of our prototype required changing our entire business model, and vice versa.”

Michael Leiblein, academic director of the IBE Business program and Ohio State's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Jim Sonnett, a former vice president at Battelle and lecturer at Fisher co-taught the course in Columbus and accompanied the students to Switzerland. Both saw firsthand the impact of the experience on the students.

“The opportunity for our students to apply the business and engineering tools they’ve been exposed to while interacting with such a highly talented group of managers and scientists was invaluable,” Leiblein said. “I believe we all came away from the experience with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at one of the very best organizations in the world. I was incredibly proud of the way our IBE students collaborated to develop viable solutions to critical global challenges in an economically sustainable manner.

“We are grateful to our partners at CERN for this wonderful opportunity and look forward to engaging with them again as we work to create the next generation of business and engineering leaders."

Sonnet added, "The students worked incredibly hard, and with great success, to develop and present business concepts and prototypes for the 2016 and 2040 markets.”

Story courtesy of Joe Arnold, Fisher College of Business