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Big bang: Czech school kids get explosive taste of science

Rob Cameron, PragueJuly 28, 2015

Prague's Technical University has held its first Children's University. Some 100 budding scientists - aged 7 to 12 - spent a week at college, attending lectures and sampling student life. It was a blast!

Children's University Prague 2015
Image: Rob Cameron

"With kids, things have to go bang! There have to be lights shining and flashes of lightning," says science teacher, Vojtech Svoboda, a member of the Technical University's Faculty of Nuclear Sciences and Physical Engineering in Prague.

"Stuff has to catch fire. You've got to show them the liquid nitrogen. Otherwise you have no chance of keeping their attention," Svoboda says, while around 100 kids jostle and joke around as they filed out of the lecture hall.

Svoboda has just completed what he calls a "small scientific show" - a breathless, 80-minute presentation of some of the cooler aspects of scientific exploration.

The children gasped and applauded as he made flames dance to music with an antiquated physics apparatus called a Rubens' Tube.

The device illustrates the relationship between sound waves and sound pressure - flames leap and race along a length of pipe perforated along the top and connected to a source of flammable gas.

Children's University Prague 2015
Rubens' Tube: the flames dance to the music!Image: Rob Cameron

The flames jump and jig in time to the music as the pressure changes - rather like an early 1900s graphic equalizer.

Tough terms

But despite all the entertainment (he also made the room fill with dry ice with a pooof of liquid nitrogen), Vojtech Svoboda doesn't shy away from using some pretty advanced terminology to explain some of the chemical and physical processes.

"I certainly don't spare them any technical terms," he told DW.

"I think if a kid signs up to a summer course at the Technical University, then it's clear what to expect," he says. "Of course some of them are here just because their parents wanted a bit of peace and quiet for a week, but most of them are truly interested in what goes on here. So I'm not going to dumb it down just for the sake of the kids who find it boring."

"I liked the experiments, especially the one with the flames that danced to music. I definitely think I learnt something. I'm quite interested in studying science - maybe physics or chemistry," says Aneta Sekaninova, aged 12.

"I'm mostly into chemistry. I want to be a scientist when I grow up. I just find it interesting, nitrogen and stuff like that," says Alex Kral, also 12.

Children's University Prague 2015
The kids - aged 7 to 12 - transfixed during Vojtech Svoboda's lectureImage: Rob Cameron

"It was really fun. But I also learnt loads of stuff. I'd really like to study it… but I'm not that good at school really. But I'd like to learn," says Mirek Ptacek, aged 10.

Well, there's hope for him yet.

Student life

Around 100 young scientists - broken up into eight study groups according to age - attended the week of lectures and experiments at various faculties of the Technical University.

They built robots out of Lego, test drove an electric car, experimented with 3D printing and even went behind the scenes at Prague Airport.

They also sampled student life, eating in the Technical University student canteen and using the sports facilities.

And at the end of the week they and their proud parents gathered at Prague's Bethlehem Chapel for a graduation ceremony, earning the title "Young Bachelor of Science" and "Young Master of Science in Engineering."

"You know at university you can sit in a room and listen, or you can do something. And obviously they really prepared it in a very meaningful way," says Thomas Tietjen, one of the proud fathers - originally from Northern Germany but now living in Prague - at the ceremony.

Children's University Prague 2015
Vojtech Svoboda getting stuck into his apparatusImage: Rob Cameron

"I was pleasantly surprised that [my son] was not only interested, he was enthusiastic about it, and he knew of this and that, so… when you go to a school, you know the good teachers from the bad teachers. From the good teachers children come home and are enthusiastic. And here there were obviously a bunch of good teachers which was… yes, very good," Tietjen says.

"It was good - really good. I had a lot of fun," says his son, Henrik.

"I was really looking forward to going when I got up in the morning," says Henrik. "It was better than getting up to go to school. It was a bit hectic getting up so early - we had to be here at seven am - but despite that it was just amazing."

Seed of science

Organizers of the Children's University say the 100 or so places were filled within twelve hours of announcing this inaugural course. They say it was so successful that next year there will be more like 400 places.

For some parents it was clearly a refreshing change from the obligatory summer camp or few weeks at the country cottage. But more importantly, say the teachers, it was the chance to plant a seed of interest in science and technology at a very tender age.