CARE-LAB: Boosting International Collaboration While Doing Good

ITMO University’s European representative office in Brussels, in collaboration with UMons, UPC, Université de Montpellier, KULeuven, and University of Bath, recently co-produced the virtual workshop Facing COVID: CARE-LAB which brought together students from several European countries to design residences for the elderly and build new competencies in the process.


Travel bans and the resulting suspension of most international mobility projects have taken their toll on student life. Nevertheless, virtual exchanges have all the ingredients necessary to spice up the online student experience. There is no secret recipe, but allowing international teams to create a concrete project — the pièce de résistance — and approach other cultures and worldviews will definitely add flavor to remote learning. Add a pinch of interdisciplinarity, sprinkle some countries (Belgium, France, Spain, UK, Russia), spice it up with a hot topic and you will get Facing COVID: CARE-LAB, a well-seasoned workshop where students can cook up plans for suitable and inspiring residences for the elderly.

Participants of the workshop
Participants of the workshop

Usually, ITMO’s European office in Brussels deals with Erasmus+ physical mobility projects, partnering with universities all over Europe. But for the first time, ITMO’s European liaison officers co-organized a 100% virtual exchange aimed at boosting students' language and intercultural competences, among other skills.

Held on November 9−13, the workshop brought together 16 architecture students from the University of Mons (Belgium) and 12 ITMO students of lighting design to explore various aspects of design and create housing projects for senior citizens. The event featured a stellar instructor lineup. Chaïma Seddiki — an architect, urban planner, and lecturer at the Architectural Design Unit, FAU, UMons — talked about the importance of emotion in architecture. ITMO lecturer Daria Chirimisina explained how to create lighting designs while factoring in the most common eyesight problems among the elderly. Professor Miguel Usandizaga Calparsoro (the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), Spain) raised the students' awareness of the dangers of phobia and the need for inclusion, care, and empathy in architecture. Fany Cérèse, an architect and lecturer at the Department of Gerontology, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montpellier, gave a presentation on the topic Architecture, Health and the Sense of Home for the Elderly. She pointed out that architects are trained to design houses rather than homes — showing the importance of environmental psychology in architecture.

ITMO's EU Liaison Officer Julie Hellenbosch at the university's representative office in Brussels
ITMO's EU Liaison Officer Julie Hellenbosch at the university's representative office in Brussels

Kevin Charras, an environmental psychologist at Rennes University Hospital (France), focused on designing spaces to help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease reduce confusion.

With the help of key colleagues from KULeuven (Belgium) and UPC, our Belgo-Russian teams created a mind map based on these inputs, chose a project (user profile, country, setting), conducted a SWOT analysis, and designed plans for inclusive, inspirational, and adapted homes for the elderly.

Still from a presentation shown during the workshop
Still from a presentation shown during the workshop

Although problems of understanding occurred, the students' linguistic and intercultural skills grew thanks to this experience, thanks in large part to the help of language teachers from UPC and the University of Bath, as well as the huge investment of UMons Language Project Coordinator Julie Walaszczyk.

Coralie Boi, a student from UMons, noted that CARE-LAB helped her overcome the language barrier and become more familiar with the interdisciplinary approach.

"I'm definitely more comfortable with English. Just after this one-week workshop, I can see the difference. It was also interesting to see how my Russian partners thought about light. We were never taught that," she says.

ITMO student Tatiana Bragina found the workshop to be helpful in honing her language skills:

"The workshop was really good practice for understanding different accents, different types of English. It’s practice for meeting new people, people with different backgrounds," she comments.

It also changed her approach to lighting design:

"I will be more sensitive and attentive towards older groups," says Tatiana.

Carolina Dalmau Ribas, an architecture student at UPC, commented that the workshop shed new light on her own discipline:

"Usually, we’re only thinking about the structure, the construction and everything and we never think: once the person is actually there, how will the person feel?"

Still from a presentation shown during the workshop
Still from a presentation shown during the workshop

In that sense, Fany Cérèse's lecture was an eye-opener:

"Fany's presentation shocked me in a personal way. […] It changed my way of viewing architecture and the studies. Now I’m thinking of studying what we did in the workshop", said one of the participants.

For Giovanni Maria Bianchi, an engineering student at KULeuven who acted as a coach, "the lectures were amazing" and enabled him to redefine inclusivity — which will help him with another interdisciplinary research project on inclusive environments. His role as a coach encouraged self-reflection:

"Usually I’m the one who’s being criticized! I tried to copy what my teacher does with us. It taught me a lot about myself. I was trying to rephrase their words when students didn’t understand each other and remind them of the teachers' feedback. It was super fun, I loved it!"

When asked what advice they would give to future participants, Coralie replied:

"Don't be afraid, loosen up and try!"

Meanwhile, Carolina suggests keeping the week free in order to take all the benefits from a memorable adventure:

"It's a great experience and you don’t even have to travel!"

Another similar project is on the table for 2021 and we hope that, like all good wines, CARE-LAB will age beautifully!

Written by Julie Hellenbosch

ITMO European Representative Office, Brussels