14. September 2022

Labs, radio and co. to get young people excited about science

How research institutions reach STEM talent

Actively supporting the next STEM generation: Ina Helms (r.), the speaker, and Jennifer Bierbaum of the communications team at HZB © WISTA Management GmbH
Knowledge-hungry at the school laboratory … © WISTA Management GmbH
… and at the Long Night of the Sciences at Helmholtz Centre Berlin © Morokhova

Doing it yourself. Being amazed. Seeking knowledge. This is the triad aimed at sparking enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, among Berlin’s youth. To do so, Adlershof’s research institutes use a variety of channels – from radio and workshops for schools to events like the Long Night of the Sciences.

Berlin is a city full of possibilities, not just for avid partygoers. The capital also has a lot to offer bright minds who want to broaden their scientific horizons. By offering experiments under professional supervision, a school laboratory at Leibniz-Institute for Crystal Growth (IKZ) is inviting young people between nine and thirteen to get a first introduction to crystallography and its scientific and economic relevance. These experiment events are particularly popular with the students of advanced courses in physics and chemistry.

A visit to the institute, which operates at the international top level when it comes to growing these latticed structures, is not the only possibility for young STEM researchers to quench their thirst for knowledge. Not far from IKZ, the Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy (HZB) in Max-Born-Strasse invites school classes to project days on a regular basis. Or, more precisely, they are invited to “look into the matter”. As early as 5th form, they can dive into the world of light and colours, build spectroscopes, dissect and mix light – and understand how human eyes work. Courses on solar energy and materials research are also open to primary school classes. It enables them to experience first-hand the triad of doing things yourself, being amazed, and wanting to understand that so often is at the beginning of a career in research. The “look into the matter” is also open to older people – the HZB team then adjusts the level of difficulty for them. The courses are also available to teachers as an advanced training offering.

The HZB programmes on Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen Campus, which also gives school classes insights into BESSY II, a synchrotron radiation source, are in great demand. Normally, a maximum of two dates can be booked per school and half-year. Additionally, there are other popular formats for families and children, such as “Physics for Breakfast”, and the regular events at the Long Night of the Sciences. Due to the pandemic, however, everything came to a standstill. “We were looking for possibilities to maintain a connection to young people,” says Jennifer Bierbaum from HZB’s communications department. This time, radio waves, not light waves, were the solution. Together with TEDDY, a Berlin-based radio channel, the HZB team developed “Experimentierkasten”, or experiment box: a target group-specific programme for children and their parents to encourage them to experiment at home. What may seem surprising at first – many science experiments are based on the visual – worked very well, according to Bierbaum. “We have now run four joint campaigns with the TEDDY radio team since 2020,” she says. In addition to the carefully prepared programmes, the partners recorded videos and developed a website. The response has been staggering. The website registered almost ten thousand clicks for every campaign and the majority of visitors stayed online to have the preparation and execution of the experiments explained to them by video. According to radio team’s statistics, ten million contacts were made to listeners during the four campaigns – including the teasers that were sent out, repeats, and contacts to people not specifically interested in the experiment box.

HZB developed the experiments as part of their own but also with other Helmholtz school laboratories as well as their in-house researchers. They then prepared them for the programme and the website together with the radio team. "It was important to us to highlight the connection to our own research in each case,” says Bierbaum. Topics included thin films, vacuums, and light waves. These are all topics that play an important role at HZB and especially at BESSY II.

It remains to be seen whether the spirit of experimentation awoken by the radio programme, or the school laboratory will find its way back to Helmholtz Centre Berlin in the shape of young researchers. However, Jennifer Birnbaum can think of one example right off the bat: “One of our current apprentices became aware of HZB at the Girls Day event.” This serves as proof that young STEM enthusiasts are open to the possibilities that Berlin has to offer.

Peter Trechow for Adlershof Journal