High School Students Discover Digital Humanities

Jacopo and Kai during the DH study week © 2019 EPFL

Jacopo and Kai during the DH study week © 2019 EPFL

During one week this November, two high school students stepped into the shoes of researchers at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and discovered the universe of Digital Humanities, and what it means to do research at the intersection of computer science and humanities.

This study week initiative was organized by Swiss Youth in Science (SYiS; in German: Schweizer Jugend forscht) and gives students aged 16 to 20 years an opportunity to gain insight into scientific research in Digital Humanities, mentored by experts of one of their partner institutions, EPFL, the Universities of Basel, Lucerne and Zurich.

In its collaboration with SYiS, EPFL, through its Education Outreach Department, hosts every year study weeks on various topics such as biology and medicine, digital humanities and for the first time in 2020 chemistry and materials science with the objective to bring engineering, science and technology closer to the youth. For this edition, EPFL hosted Jacopo, a high school graduate from Lugano in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and Kai from a high school in Zurich, in the German speaking part of the country.

What are Digital Humanities (DH)?

“The particularity of DH at EPFL is its strong digital and technical background, such as engineering and computer science, which allows using the latest technologies to ask new questions and propose new answers in the field of humanities.”

Sofia Oliveira Ares, Research Engineer at the Digital Humanities Laboratory, EPFL

Jacopo and Kai, you spent a week at EPFL, discovering the Digital Humanities (DH) Program and the work of a researcher. Where did your journey start?

Jacopo: I participated in a national research contest organized by SYiS and I liked to discover science this way. Looking for other opportunities I came across the study week in Digital Humanities. Based on my preferred choice, I was assigned to the topic EPFL offered, which was to analyze the Montreux Jazz Festival through the lenses of music metadata and Swiss newspaper archives. I have an affinity to music – I play the guitar and piano. I did not know much about Digital Humanities, but I was excited to discover a new field of science – and EPFL, since I am in a gap year and trying to find out what I would like to study.

Kai: Similar to Jacopo, I knew SYiS from a previous very good experience. My teacher at school encouraged me to participate, which motivated me to apply to this study week. I actually did not considered EPFL, since I had not known w the institution. I focused on the choice of the study week topic and that is how I got to know EPFL. I was pleasantly surprised by this discovery; so far, it has been a great experience.

What experiences have you made this week here at EPFL?

Kai: I learned basic concepts of coding then how to apply them to a social or humanities related topic. It is impressive, what you can do with programming such as to decode or transcribe old texts using algorithms. I always was intrigued by the effect science and technology have on humanity and I think this has given me an insight.

Jacopo:I agree, I mean it is brilliant – how do you read something that’s centuries old by using an algorithm?

The different backgrounds and skillsets that researchers bring to the table impressed me. At school, we are taught what to do, whilst here we see a real problem-solving approach. We have seen some of the amazing master projects at the labs. Their work seems so unreachable for us, when in reality obtaining the master could be five years away for me. It has inspired me; if I did something like that, I would be proud of myself.

The Digital Humanities study week at EPFL, in one sentence for you?

Jacopo: La Digital Humanities study week è qualcosa da provare per poter immergersi in questo contesto academico. Qui all’EPFL ci ha permesso di disporre di tutte le esperienze e il sapere dei dottorandi e ricercatori che si prendono il tempo di spiegarti tutto.

[The Digital Humanities week is surely something to try that allows you to dive into an academic context. Here at EPFL, it has allowed us to access all the experiences and knowledge of the PhDs and researchers who took the time to explain us everything.]

Kai: Ein sehr interessantes Programm um aus dem Gymi-Alltag rauszukommen und zu sehen, wie Forschung betrieben wird. Als Gymnasiast kann man sich nichts Konkretes unter Forschung vorstellen.

[A very interesting program to get out of the high school daily routine and see how research is done. As a high school student you can't imagine anything concrete under research.]

What are you taking back home?

Jacopo: I got to see how it is to work in a very specialized field. We start as generalists learning the basics – then through higher education we specialize. Being side by side with the engineers and PhDs we saw the peak of this ‘educational iceberg’. To see all the dedication the researchers have opened my eyes to what one could be capable of doing with such studies.

Kai: It’s cool to see a program that merges humanities and data science. My focus area at school is in science (biology and chemistry). We don’t have focus areas that allow you to dive into social sciences such as history or philosophy, so I enjoyed discovering the intersection of those two fields during this week.

The Project: The “Montreux Jazz Festival Through the Lenses of Music Metadata and Swiss Newspaper Archives”

Through different 'discovery labs', the aim was to explore and use a few techniques and methods widely used in DH. The students discovered some of the main steps of digital archive automatic extraction, from the usage of databases to the exploration of newspaper archives.

They were introduced to optical recognition systems to automatically extract text information of a scanned newspaper, or how to query a database or build a search interface. They defined a question they wanted to explore using their new skills and the provided archives to answer it.

Prof. Daniel Gatica-Perez, Sofia Oliveira Ares, Maud Ehrmann and Johannes Hentschel, EPFL DH researchers mentored Kai and Jacopo during the DH study week.

This is the start of a chapter that will allow these two young students to discover - for instance through the SYiS study week or the education programs that we offer - the width and depth of science and engineering. Whether at the intersection between computer science and humanities such as in Digital Humanities, whether in engineering, basic sciences or architecture: Their doors stand wide open, their spirit filled with motivation and curiosity which is the best starting point to start their journey of lifelong learning.

Author: Education Outreach Department

Images to download

Prof. Gatica-Perez (EPFL) opens the DH presentation series © 2019 EPFL
Prof. Gatica-Perez (EPFL) opens the DH presentation series © 2019 EPFL
Kai and Jacopo working in the lab © 2019 EPFL
Kai and Jacopo working in the lab © 2019 EPFL
Jacopo and Kai preparing their presentation © 2019 EPFL
Jacopo and Kai preparing their presentation © 2019 EPFL
Kai and Jacopo presenting their findings and experiences © 2019 EPFL
Kai and Jacopo presenting their findings and experiences © 2019 EPFL

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