Science | 03.09.2007
Kids Spellbound by University Science Lectures
Thousands of children in Germany have been flocking to university science lectures during their summer holidays, and it's not because they're budding Einsteins.
The Children's University, which originated in 2002 at the University of Tübingen, is designed to get young people interested in science.
The idea has spread like wildfire and now more than 75 institutions across Germany, as well as others in Europe, have implemented their own lecture series for kids. Karlsruhe University -- one of only three elite universities in Germany -- has been holding a Children's University every summer for the past five years.
"It's a good way to introduce children of that age to science and research," explained organizer Margarete Lehne over the din of 300 children who were anxiously waiting for the start of a science lecture.
"They're naturally very curious and so we want encourage them to use this natural curiosity to find out how things work."
As a gong sounded at the front of the lecture theater, the children gradually hushed to listen to Professor Norbert Willenbacher, the head of Karlsruhe University's mechanics department. Willenbacher's area of speciality is "rheology" -- the deformation and flow of matter under the influence of applied stress. It's a complicated subject to teach to young children.
"You have to avoid using scientific terms, and you have to talk a language which kids can understand," Willenbacher said. Luckily, he has four children at home to keep him in line when it comes to explaining science.
"They're always telling me: 'Be short, be precise, and don't make it too complicated.' That's what I hear all the time when I talk to them about my work and my research," Willenbacher said with a smile.
Willenbacher packs many experiments into his 45-minute talk. He shows that liquids can have different viscosity by dropping eggs into beakers of water and oil and getting children to measure the rate of fall. He gets kids to bang on sauce bottles to explain that even though tomato sauce is a fluid, it only acts like one if force is applied.
Best of all, dozens of children get to run across a bath filled with rice starch mixed to a pudding-like consistency. When the children run fast, they stay on the surface. When they go slowly, they sink into the oozing mass. This demonstrates that plastic solids can have the properties of liquids under a heavy load.
Willenbacher said it was lots of extra work to make his lecture kid-friendly, but it was worth it.
"I think it's really part of scientists' job," he said. "I am dedicated to science and I have fun with science, and I want to show this to the children."
More than 5,000 children between the ages of five and 12 regularly come to the Children's University in Karlsruhe, attending lectures on subjects ranging from electrical engineering to biology, meteorology, and architecture.
Eleven-year old Theresa has been to all of the lectures offered at there this summer. She thought Willenbacher's lecture was "fantastic."
"The best thing about it was the experiments because they were fun," she said. "At school you always have to be careful, and information is just fed to you -- they just tell you stuff. But here they also did experiments."
According to the organizers, the only real complaints about the Children's University come from the adults who are miffed about having to wait outside. No parents are allowed in the lecture room -- It's strictly a kids-only event!