Usually professors and students do research at universities. But sometimes even little kids try their luck as researchers. This spring term, the University of Trier opened its doors for school children.
School's much more boring
All throughout the semester, the university offered classes where kids can experience university life for a day. At the so-called "Kinder Uni", the kids can actually see what it's like to do research.
"First, we take samples, for example, from a lake or from the rain," said 11-year-old Fabienne, sounding almost like a professional scientist. "And then we put some drops of a special fluid in the water. And then we shake the water with the special fluid. And when it turns from pink to blue, then you have a result."
Fabienne usually spends her days at elementary school. Actually, this was her first time in a laboratory. She is one in a group of 16 school kids who came to the University of Trier for a couple of hours to find out what hydrology - the science of water - is all about.
Breaking down barriers
The idea behind classes such as this is to break down barriers between the kids and the university. The focus is to give them an idea of what it is like to be a student or a professor at a real college. But for Reinhard Bierl, who works in the university's hydrology department and has offered this class for the young students, this is also an opportunity to attract young people to his field.
Conducting tests in a laboratory
“You have to bear in mind that not enough academic newcomers are coming through – especially in the natural sciences," he said. "So, you kind of have to arouse interest at an early age. In a way, you can also see this class as an attempt to sensitize kids for scientific experiments and for working in this field."
Paul, 12, sat in another laboratory and examined water samples under a microscope. This is a lot cooler than going to school, he said.
"It’s interesting to see what science can do," he said. "Here, we can do experiments and everything is explained very well. We are in the middle of things here. In school, we pretty much have the same subjects. But we don’t do as much as we do here. In school, you always have to write down stuff, it’s all theory and you don’t really see anything."
The young researchers, aged 8 to 12, all seemed very eager to learn. Just like real hydrologists, they shook water samples, measured certain values in the water, and wrote down test results. With 16 kids in a small laboratory, things got a bit hectic.
Toning down the academic talk
Sometimes, hydrology can get a little complicated for 10-year-olds and the kids had a lot of questions. Bierl patiently answered all of the questions.
Usually he works with adult students, however. He said that the kids’ questions are more up-front and direct than those of his students.
"Sometimes they are more basic, meaning from a very different and very simple angle," he said. "And sometimes I think to myself 'Well, yes, that is a way of looking at things as well.'" And then I have to think of the right way to answer it.
Unlike most professors, who use a lot of fancy and complicated words to explain something, Bierl used a very down-to-earth language when he talked about the experiments. The kids understood what he was talking about. But speaking without academic jargon is hard for him, he said.
"When we work in the laboratory, we have to make sure the kids understand everything," he said. "You have to think before you say something. I have to put everything in a way that kids know what I am saying, and that can be very difficult."
Andrea Grever is the mother of one of the young researchers and she really likes the idea of such a college class for school kids. This a great opportunity for the kids to get in touch with life at a university, she said.
"I think it’s great, because I don’t have the possibilities to offer something like this to my child," she said.