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Great knowledge for small people

The world is full of questions and is sometimes difficult to understand for children. In the lectures delivered at Tübingen’s Children's University, scientists explain science and mathematics, history or business management in a simple way and in relation to everyday life.

It is a warm summer afternoon and every last seat in the Kupferbau auditorium of Tübingen University has been filled - 15 minutes before the beginning of the lecture. You can hear a lot of giggling and see students saving chairs for their best friends. But today the lecture hall buzzes not with regular students but with children between the age of eight and fourteen. No adults are present. The children are waiting eagerly for the professor to appear at the lectern.

Knowledge made easy

This is the Children’s University in Tübingen. For seven years, professors of all disciplines have been lecturing to children on a broad range of scientific aspects: Why does the heart beat? Why can we not always trust our eyes? The experts from Tübingen explain everyday phenomena in an easy to understand way. Ulla Steuernagel and Ulrich Janßen had the idea to establish a children’s university in 2002. Together with the head of the University’s public relations office, Michael Seifert, the two Schwäbisches Tagblatt journalists worked on a concept to disseminate the seemingly exclusive knowledge of academics to children. The initiators wanted to reach children from all types of schools and offer extracurricular events for the children to learn and enjoy. Real professors were given the task to explain why volcanoes spit fire, why one laughs at jokes or why dinosaurs have become extinct. In the meantime, the former children’s university experiment has become popular in many other European countries. Nearly all universities have children’s universities in their summer programme. From Vienna to Rostock, Berlin to Basel – more than 70 university cities have adopted the Tübingen Children’s University model. In 2005, the concept received the Descartes Prize, one of the highest awards of the European Union for scientific projects.
School pupils at the Tübingen Children´s University.
The Tübingen Children’s University model has now been adopted by more than 70 European university cities. (Photo: David Haas/University of Tübingen)

Sustainable learning

Children want to discover the world but are unable to sit still for a long time. That is why a children’s university lecture has to be prepared according to children’s requirements. In the last summer term, the organisers asked Karl Forchhammer whether he could talk about bacteria. The professor of microbiology and organismic interactions at the Faculty of Biology at Tübingen University did not have to think long before he came up with excellent everyday phenomena. “The children do not ask why bacteria are there. They cannot see them,” said Forchhammer adding that “however, children want to know why milk gets sour or why cheese becomes mouldy”. In 45 minutes, the professor talked about the processes and phenomena caused by bacteria and which everybody knows from everyday life. The children’s curiosity was aroused and they wanted to know more. Why do bacteria grow more slowly when grown in a colder environment? And what happens when they are frozen? Forchhammer was truly impressed by the children’s enthusiasm.

Knowledge with a message

Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard speaking about "why humans must not be cloned" (Photo: David Haas/ Univesity of Tübingen)
The children were fascinated by the professor’s explanations. They were amazed by the colourful pictures of changing bacteria. They giggled when the professor projected bizarre bacterial shapes onto the wall. The Children’s University wants more than to simply communicate knowledge. “The children can classify the processes a lot better and will, for example, understand why hygiene is so important,” said Forchhammer. The lecturers are allowed to use technical scientific terms. Children love technical vocabulary. Photosynthesis, cell division or induction are terms the children carry home like trophies and they explain to their parents what they have learned at university.

The majority of children learn about the Children’s University from their parents. Nevertheless, they are here completely voluntarily. This is one of the major priorities of the organisers who don’t want children to attend who have been sent by overeager parents. The children’s curiosity and interest have utmost priority. This is the only way that knowledge can be communicated in a sustainable way to the young students.

Solving puzzles of the world

The initiators want the Children’s University to be as authentic as possible. Its inventors, Ulla Steuernagel and Ulrich Janßen, make sure that everything is just like at a normal university: all children receive a student’s card, a participation certificate and at the end of the lecture, the children knock on the desk, just like adult students thanking their lecturers at the end of the presentation. The children receive a stamp for all lectures they attend. And just like in normal student life, at the end of the lecture period, the children will award their favourite professor a Children’s University Teaching Award.
a photo of children in a lecture hall. (Photo: David Haas/ University of Tübingen)
The Children’s University hopes to encourage children to think from a very early age and also to bring their curiosity to life. (Photo: David Haas/ University of Tübingen)
The children enjoy getting answers on seemingly trivial questions. What makes cars skid? Why are soap bubbles round? Why do plants grow? Scientists and children have the same goal. Both groups want to discover the secrets and puzzles of the world. The lectures cater for the children’s curiosity and experience, explain knowledge-oriented as well as application-oriented research. Children and universities benefit equally from the concept. Apart from teaching children, the universities can also present themselves as open institutions and provide insights into their scientific work.

This year’s Children’s University ended with a researcher day where Karl Forchhammer opened the doors of his laboratories. The children were truly excited. In Forchhammer’s laboratory, they were able to prepare microscopic slides with the help of scientists and look at them under the microscope attached to a computer that enabled Forchhammer and the children to analyse the results. The children were able to research and discover microorganisms in yoghurt or saliva. Forchhammer’s workshop was fully booked weeks before the start of the Children’s University. The children enjoyed their experiences and many of them are determined to go to the university regularly.

tt - 25 July 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
The Children’s University
Why can doctors cure? Why do we have a small man in the ear? Why must humans not be cloned? The inventors of the Children’s University, Ulrich Janßen and Ulla Steuernagel, have collected the answers to these and many other questions in numerous books for each semester at the Tübingen Children’s University. The books have received numerous prizes, including the “Science book of the year 2003” prize of “Bild der Wissenschaft”. The books have also been shortlisted for the German Book Prize. The books have already been translated into 15 languages. The next Children’s University opens its doors in the 2008/2009 winter semester.

Recommended reading:
Ulrich Janßen, Ulla Steuernagel. Die Kinder-Uni, all published by dtv.
Ulrich Janßen, Klaus Werner. Hat der Weltraum eine Tür? Die Kinder-Uni erkärt die Geheimnisse des Universums, 2007, DVA.
Ulla Steuernagel: Tohuwabohu. Die Kinder-Uni erklärt Ordnung und Chaos, 2007, DVA.

Further information:
Ulla Steuernagel and Ulrich Janßen
Daimlerstraße 13
72074 Tübingen
E-mail: post@die-kinder-uni.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/great-knowledge-for-small-people