May 2, 2016 Düsseldorf / Germany
Like a real researcher
What is it really like to be a researcher? For the past five years, children have been able to find out first-hand through Henkel’s Forscherwelt (Researchers’ World). In the specially developed children’s program, curiosity and fun are encouraged. The goal – to get children excited about scientific research.
In the laboratory, things go bubble and fizz. Colorful liquids simmer in flasks above a Bunsen burner, when suddenly – pop! – something explodes. An old man in a lab coat yanks at his gray hair in frustration. This is often what children describe when asked how they picture a research scientist. “One of the most common questions is: ‘When is something going to explode around here?’” says Dr. Ute Krupp, Sustainability Manager at Henkel and Head of the Forscherwelt initiative. “Of course, explosions are exciting and thrilling. But if performing random experiments were the true job of a research scientist – and if every researcher were an older male tinkering around alone in a lab – then children’s interest in the natural sciences and research would dissipate as quickly as the smoke following an explosion.”
Children want to explore and try things out
Children are curious – they want to understand the world around them. They are always looking for answers by trying things out, asking questions and observing their surroundings. That, in essence, is research. To spark a long-term interest in science in children, Henkel wants to provide them with an authentic research experience through Forscherwelt. The program is present in Germany, Argentina, Russia, Ireland and Turkey, and figures speak to program’s success: Around 9,700 children have already taken part in the initiative worldwide, discovering scientific secrets while completing more than 33,000 experiments involving gluing, washing, cleaning, cosmetics and sustainability.
Creativity, fun and DIY
In Düsseldorf – Forscherwelt’s birthplace – children have been able to channel their inner researcher since 2011 in a dedicated child-friendly space. As part of nine-part lesson series, elementary school children regularly come to the small lab over a period of several weeks. During school holidays, the children of Henkel employees also get the chance to “act like a scientist” for a whole week at a time.
The Forscherwelt is more than just a conventional school science lab: It’s space for experiences. On the “mountain of knowledge,” the young researchers can stretch their legs between experiments and talk about what they’ve experienced. Creativity, fun and DIY are permitted here – something which the next-generation scientists often can hardly believe. “Am I really allowed to pour that in there myself?” they frequently ask Krupp. “The children often double-check, because they aren’t used to being allowed to work so autonomously,” she says. In this space, they suddenly get to do their own mixing, stirring, heating and even make ketchup stains on their t-shirt. In other words, they get to do real research.
Like a real scientist
The connection to real research at Henkel makes the children feel like they’re in the middle of the action. Chemistry professor Dr. Katrin Sommer was delighted to have the opportunity to develop and implement Forscherwelt’s didactic concept together with Henkel five years ago. The most important thing to her is that children associate science with an exciting and authentic experience. “If we don’t manage to create a trigger through a positive experience with scientific research by the time children are about 10 years old, then we’ve missed a significant opportunity to create a lasting interest,” she explains.
The Forscherwelt is growing
Since 2014, Forscherwelt has been rolled out to Russia, Argentina, Turkey and Ireland. Specially trained teachers and employees there go into classrooms and get the children engaged, keeping in line with the slogan, “Act like a scientist.” In Russia, Forscherwelt classes take place at the “Experimentanium,” a science museum for children in Moscow.
Of course, even the experts involved cannot be sure that the Forscherwelt in Düsseldorf or elsewhere will actually motivate more young people to pursue a career in scientific research. “Some children get to the end of the session and say that they found it too hard,” Krupp reports. “However, many of them also become curious about a profession that they didn’t know existed, and with these children, we are building a positive foundation that reinforces their existing interest in the natural sciences.”
Even if nothing explodes, and things aren’t always simmering, bubbling or fizzing, the time spent in the Forscherwelt is an experience that can have a lasting impact on the children.