Nine-year-old prodigy applies to Zurich uni

A nine-year-old gifted student is making news in German-speaking Switzerland for his bid to register for courses at Zurich university ETH, the federal institute of technology.

Nine-year-old prodigy applies to Zurich uni
Photo: ETH Zurich

Last month, the boy, identified as Max, got top marks in a high school graduation exam for mathematics, the daily Nordwestschweiz reported recently.

The prodigy, who lives in the canton of Lucerne, attends a high school in the canton of Schwyz with colleagues six years older than him, the ATS news agency reported.

But a bid by his father, a retired university professsor from Germany, to enrol him in math courses at ETH was rejected by the university, the news agency said.

“It’s not because of his age but because he does not have a high school diploma and has not passed an entrance exam,” ETH spokesman Roman Klingler told ATS.

“There does not exist either the possibility of choosing only certain courses and passing exams solely on this basis.”

However, ETH has agreed to allow the boy to audit certain courses at the university.

It has also offered to give advice to the gifted student and invited him to participate in an “Olympic Games” for mathematics, as well as a special week at ETH reserved for high school students.

Klingler said Max’s bid to study at the university was “out of the ordinary”.

While applications are received from gifted students there has never been one as young as nine before, he told ATS.

At Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), spokesman Daniel Chuard said a 12-year-old began studies at the university after graduating from high school.

He enrolled after passing his high school matriculation exams, Chuard said, according to ATS.

Students under the age of 16 remain a rarity at EPFL.

But the Lausanne university agreed with the family to a special framework of learning for the youngster.

“From the latest reports all is going well,” Chuard is quoted as saying by ATS.

However, he acknowledged that these sorts of cases raise the question of the acceptable limit for the healthy development of a child.

“We want our students to be capable of participating in the social life that we organize on the campus.”

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EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?

Given there is no Covid-19 vaccine at the present time, contact tracing is believed to be an effective, though complex, strategy for breaking transmission chains and controlling the spread of disease. How will it work in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?
Research at EPFL will help establish a tracing system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

How does the tracking work?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

Trying to find chains of contamination could be a long process.

What are some of the challenges of contact tracing?

In Switzerland, as in many other countries, the challenge is to establish an effective tracking system, while respecting data protection.

Since mobile phones would be used, various technical and legal questions could arise, particularly on the collection and use of data.

In Switzerland, to process this information in the context of the pandemic, either the consent of the individual or an anonymisation of the data is required.

READ MORE: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data 

What tools will Switzerland be using for post-confinement contact tracing?

One possibility would be the tracking by GPS of mobile phones, as already implemented in a partnership between the federal government and Swisscom. This method allowed the authorities to monitor the public to see if they complied with the restrictions related to going out and traveling during the Easter holidays. 

But the government is now supporting a brand new project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its sister institution, Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETHZ).

Both are working on the so-called D3-PT project, a free downloadable application for mobile phones, which will run on Google’s Android operating system and on Apple’s iOS.

Its goal, according to Edouard Bugnion, professor of computer science at EPFL, is to “break the chain of virus transmission” by identifying new cases and isolating them. If a person is found positive for coronavirus, all the people he has encountered in the previous days will be alerted, so that they can go into quarantine and be tested. 

No exact details or launch date have been released yet, but the Federal Council thinks the D3-PT tracing would work well in Switzerland.

Will this system guarantee privacy?

Until very recently, the two institutions participated in the European research project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, bringing together 130 organisations from eight countries.

But EPFL and ETHZ distanced themselves from this project after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.