Not to teach, but to arouse interest!

Young Max Planck scientist coordinates a science course in a primary school

March 18, 2020

16 children, four dates, four experiments with eight groups: all twice. Jennifer Smuda is a dedicated young scientist who taught third and fourth grade pupils of a Tübingen primary school the fun, but also the seriousness of science in a playful way.

Like many kindergartens and schools, the primary school Wanne in Tübingen is struggling with the lack of teachers. While they can well cover the normal lessons, the school would like to offer a range of additional free of charge courses, such as afterschool activities. However, free capacities for these courses largely fall by the wayside. Therefore, the school management regularly cooperates with the University of Tübingen and various associations. School principal Monika Reiff also contacted the Max Planck Institutes in Tübingen and asked for support. "We can offer our pupils nothing more authentic than learning from experts directly," says Monika Reiff.

Jennifer Smuda is one of these experts: She is a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. She presented her science course at the school in autumn 2019 and experienced a huge rush. Instead of the planned ten experiments with a total of 15 students, the concept had to be adapted to meet the high demand. In total, over 30 children, divided into two groups, were able to carry out various experiments.

Full of joy, the pupils flocked to the course room every Friday: "Enthusiastically, they told me about the programme of the day," Monika Reiff described. After a short introduction on the topic of the day, the children worked on the experiments in groups of two: They grew crystals, learned about solid carbon dioxide, built a hot wire themselves and experienced a brain up close, with the previous consent of their parents of course. "We were allowed to touch a real human brain with gloves and face mask," said a nine-year-old girl full of awe. "The volcano with carbon dioxide was especially cool. It really smoked," enthused an eight-year-old boy. Just like real scientists, they wrote a report afterwards. "It was much more strenuous than expected," laughs Jennifer Smuda, "But it was also so enriching."

The noise, the hustle, the bustling around and the fact that everything had to be said several times – all this was new for the 29-year-old, who had only worked with young adults up to that point. "We adjusted quite well to each other, though. It's so much fun and I always looked forward to Fridays," she adds. She also learned a lot. "I first had to realise what age group I was dealing with here," she remembers laughing, "I wrote a three-page experiment manual for the first lesson. Then I was told that children in primary school would never read it. So, I tried to summarize on one page using pictures."

The support from the school was great, reports Smuda. The support from her colleagues at the institute and her superiors was also fantastic. "They offered to help me with the preparations," she says.

She would probably never become a teacher. But she can only recommend such a course to everyone. No matter how noisy or exhausting such an hour may be, the enthusiasm and radiance of the children at the end of each workshop was more than worth it every single time.

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