Text and images: Cornelia Freund
"What does a civil engineer actually do?" Johanna Weigand, a bachelor's student in civil engineering at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), asks the second-graders at Munich's primary school at Dieselstraße. About "something with the internet" and "building cars", the children approach the activity they are looking for: planning and constructing skyscrapers, tunnels or bridges. For some girls and boys, this is their dream job as children. It might remain so, if only they knew that after spectacular sand castles and piled-up building blocks, in the distant future it will also be possible to design structures made of steel, cement or wood. Indeed, one of the main reasons for the shortage of engineers in Germany is that tech issues are not adequately taught, especially at primary school age.
This is where "Ran an die Ingenieurwissenschaften" comes in. Prof. Gerhard Müller, Chair of Construction Mechanics, initiated the project in 2011 to arouse enthusiasm for technology in children of primary school age - which may later result in a degree in engineering. Here's the principle: civil and environmental engineering students act as mediators of natural principles as part of the course, as their youthfulness and enthusiasm make them excellent role models for children. "I thought it was a great idea to be able to teach children about physical phenomena and at the same time pass on my interest in the environment," says environmental engineering student Nina Athen, emphasising her commitment, which makes children's eyes wide.
The participants of the module acquire important key competences - from preparing a portfolio of child-friendly experiments to didactic presentations in small groups. This pays off for their personal development as well as for their studies: Students receive one credit point for the preparations and for their three "Technology Communication in Primary Schools" workshops.
Before the mysteries are deciphered as natural phenomena, there is a lot to do for the project workers. A large part of the organisation in the run-up is currently taken over by the two student assistants Moritz Stocker and Moritz Sesselmann. This includes contacting schools and arranging the appointments, coordinating between teachers and TUM and assigning students, and preparing the materials for the experiments. "I already went through the project the previous year and now experience as an interface how important good coordination between schools and students is," is how Moritz Stocker describes his task.
The students have visited around 20 schools in the Munich area. "To counteract common stereotypes and specifically address female students, we work with mixed-gender groups in schools. The prospective female engineers are of course particularly exemplary role models," explains lecturer Felix Schneider, who coordinates the teaching and learning format. "We are also placing a stronger focus on schools with a high proportion of children from educationally disadvantaged families. We want to motivate them with a playful approach to take an interest in the STEM subjects of mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. The girls and boys observe phenomena, ask questions and interpret the observed results. Science thrives on experiments. They should not be missing from school lessons either. This way, children can discover and experience scientific phenomena for themselves."
It is getting tight. Within a rectangle drawn on the floor, first two, then four, then seven children move around in a very small space. And holding hands at the same time - that requires, among other things, concentration, a sense of balance and the ability to cooperate. The students soon resolve the meaning of the first experiment: "The more of you move as particles in the rectangle, the greater the density of the substance," says environmental engineering student Sonja Richter, explaining the particle model. With this preparatory exercise, small groups moved on to the topic of water, which is intended for the second classes. Starting with the element of air for first year pupils, the students also methodically prepare experiments for magnetism, force and friction for their school visits.
"Why don't ships weighing tons sink? Let's see what kind of things float on the water," says Johanna Weigand, a civil engineering student, as she leads the students in their tinkering with plasticine. The ball? It sinks. The plate? Sinks, too. Then the ah effect. "The dough in the shape of a bowl pushes enough liquid aside to stay on the surface of the water. That's exactly what ships do, which are huge, deep bowls that displace water," says Johanna, explaining the mystery. Whether it's understanding surface tension using paper clips or testing different densities of liquids using vegetable oil or syrup: the experiments broaden the children's horizons. They create understanding for nature and train logical thinking.
Class teacher Ines Bölling confirms that the experiments are not only fun, but also useful: "The project with the TUM is wonderfully suited to promoting subject and social skills in science lessons, for example, training eye-hand coordination in the experiments with water or searching for a solution together." The curious explorers actively expand their knowledge together with their classmates.
At the end of the two-hour school lesson, the participants congratulate each other with a gummy bear on the knowledge gained: play, fun, excitement and self-efficacy were had by all - and last but not least, the desire remains to want to know more about the connections in nature and technology. No matter whether in the classroom or in the lecture hall.
Links and Contacts
Project "Ran an die Ingenieurwissenschaften"
Lecturer: Prof. Gerhard Müller, Felix Schneider
Contact for interested schools: Moritz Stocker, Moritz Sesselmann, firstname.lastname@example.org