New opening in education collaboration: Upper secondary school students to join thesis defence at Aalto University

The collaboration breaks down the boundaries between upper secondary and university education.
A week before Timo Pääkkönen's public defence of doctoral thesis he (in the middle) showed students around the laboratories and told about research work.

The students of Haukilahti and Pohjois-Tapiola upper secondary schools will attend a public defence of a doctoral thesis at Aalto University on 7 November. The collaboration offers upper secondary school students the opportunity to acquaint themselves with research work and the process of doctoral dissertation. It also encourages them to study in a goal-oriented fashion. Collaboration with higher education is one of the focal points in the development of upper secondary education in Espoo.

As part of a new education innovation concept, Haukilahti Upper Secondary School moved to Aalto University's Otaniemi campus in 2016 and Pohjois-Tapiola Upper Secondary School in 2017. In the School as a Service concept upper secondary schools work in close co-operation with the university and are able to utilise its various special facilities and services. The concept has been developed jointly by Aalto University and Espoo.

“Students have been able to choose dozens of university courses and participate in different events. The campus is an open, modern learning environment that offers a new way to teach and learn in line with the new upper secondary school curriculum,” says Pekka Piri, Principal of Haukilahti Upper Secondary School.

Tapani Vuorinen, Professor at the School of Chemical Engineering at Aalto, is happy that the collaboration with upper secondary schools breaks down the boundaries between upper secondary and university education and lowers the threshold to apply for university studies. The university, on the other hand, remains well informed of today’s upper secondary studies. At Vuorinen’s initiative, the students of Haukilahti and Pohjois-Tapiola upper secondary schools get to attend a public defence of a doctoral thesis for the first time in the Haukilahti Upper Secondary School auditorium. “It is one of the finest auditoriums in Otaniemi. We discussed the common use of the auditorium with Pekka Piri, and this is where the idea for the thesis defence originated,” Vuorinen continues.

Collaboration with higher education is one of the focal points in the development of upper secondary education in Espoo. The objective is that the upper secondary schools in Espoo are competitive, the collaboration with higher level education is close and the number of upper secondary school students participating in higher education during the upper secondary school increases.

A week before the event, the upper secondary school students had a chance to attend a pre-event where they were given information about further studies, doctoral research and the process of the public examination. The students were also taken on a tour of the research laboratories. Even if they did not completely understand the research topic, the young people thought the experience was “really cool”. The pre-event was attended by nearly 20 enthusiastic young people, who found out that one can get a doctoral hat through various career paths.

Principal Pekka Piri showed students a doctoral hat.  

From laboratory worker to doctor

“I went to vocational school to earn a qualification of a chemical laboratory worker when the employment prospects were excellent. When I graduated in 1993, the recession had gnawed at the labour market so that employment opportunities seemed poor,” says Timo Pääkkönen, who will defend his thesis on nanocellulose at the public examination attended by the upper secondary school students. “I started working as a laboratory technician in 1994 at Tapani Vuorinen’s laboratory in the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT, now Aalto), completing courses on the side and retaking the advanced syllabus of upper secondary school mathematics at evening classes”. Pääkkönen became interested in studying and after entrance exams in 2004, started his studies at HUT. The idea of writing a dissertation took shape gradually. “It is good that the thesis defence culture develops and connects better to the surrounding society,” Pääkkönen comments his upcoming public examination.

“Timo’s story motivates and encourages students to set challenging goals and helps them understand that the work career does not always go according to the original plan. However, this does not mean that everything falls down; you just have to make new plans,” Pekka Piri says. He considers the thesis defence a unique and fresh opening of collaboration between upper secondary and higher education. “I have been asked several times how you can take a doctoral degree, what it requires and what the public examination is like. It is great that we can now offer students a peek into the top of academia. Small seeds will be planted in the mind of every participant,” Piri continues.

Timo Pääkkönen’s opponent in the public examination will be Professor Akira Isogai from the University of Tokyo, who received an honorary doctorate at Aalto University last year. He is a pioneer in cellulose material research, receiving the distinguished Marcus Wallenberg award with his group in 2015 for the research on oxidised nanofibrillated cellulose.

Additional information:

Professor Tapani Vuorinen, tel. +358 50 516 0048, [email protected]
Principal Pekka Piri, Haukilahti Upper Secondary School, tel. +358 50 590 6327, [email protected]


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