When Children Think about Our World: The Digital Kinderuniversity

December 3, 2019

image © Mark Roemisch

How big is space? Do our eyes also grow as we get bigger? What would the world be like if our children were given the chance to rewrite the concept of fairness?  These and many other questions were explored by around 400 children in Boston on November 1, 2019 at the event “A WORLD OF LEARNING” by the Goethe-Institut’s Digital Kinderuniversity.

With support from scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, well-known German TV professor Christoph Biemann (Die Sendung mit der Maus) and German physicist and ESA astronaut Reinhold Ewald (via Skype), the youngsters were able to find answers to their questions in MIT’s laboratories. Organized by the Goethe-Institut Washington as a part of the Year of German-American Friendship, ten age-appropriate lectures and seminars educated students about specific aspects of human life. Topics included “Space and Space Travel” “Environment and Sustainability,” and “Philosophy.” In addition, there were some exciting experiments prepared for the kids by MIT scientists specially tailored to their small eyes and ears. “The best experience for me was talking to the astronauts about what it feels like to be up in space,” gushed ten-year-old Gladys after the event. “Astronauts are heroes, and one day I’ll be an astronaut too.”

What is the best way to raise philosophical questions with children? And how can the lessons be fascinating enough for students to voluntarily give up their break time? Philosopher Anna Laura Edelhoff found her own solution to these questions using a cake to explain the concept of “fairness” to the kids. Who gets the biggest pieces and why? During a lively discussion, which saw all 200 participants with their hands up, all wanting to have their say, a number of criteria were defined, like “needs,” “achievement,” “fairness,” and “ownership.” But is this really what fairness means? Ultimately, Laura came up with the solution: it was her birthday so she insisted that the cake belonged to her – that is to say, she was the owner of the cake and could divide it up as she saw fit. So now who should get the biggest slice?

Ten-year-old Liang liked the Bauhaus workshop best: “Building my own chair, especially one with such an unusual style – that was really exciting. I could even sit on it at the end,” something that cannot always be taken for granted with Bauhaus-style seats.

Rick was most enthusiastic about the robot he had built, which he named Sam. “He could actually move all on his own and do stuff that I told him to do.” The eight-year-old was very upset to learn that he was not allowed to take Sam – which he had developed under MIT supervision – home with him.

What is the Kinderuniversity?

Children have thousands of questions that may sound straightforward enough but can sometimes prove very tricky to answer. That’s why the Goethe-Institut created the Digital Kinderuniversity, a free online platform that is open to all children – no matter where they live or which school they attend. The German Digital Kinderuniversity was launched in the US in 2019. It provides information and education for children aged eight to twelve. It gives young scientists the chance to find out the answers to questions for themselves – about natural phenomena, for instance – while at the same time learning their first German words.  This fun online learning environment reflects the basic structure of a university: the faculties on offer, namely “Humankind,” “Nature,” and “Technology,” and the carefully selected video sequences reflect the world as experienced by young students.

What exactly is the difference between learning at school and learning at a university? To what extent are children able to absorb knowledge differently – in a way that involves laughter, joy, and experimentation? Thanks to his TV show Sendung mit der Maus, Christoph Biemann has decades of experience in this area: “Children are by nature inquisitive and have a huge thirst for knowledge. If you approach them in the right way, it is very easy to get them enthusiastic about things for life. The Kinderuniversity is an ideal tool for this because it combines fun and voluntary learning with natural childhood curiosity.”

The graduation ceremony at the end of the event proved just how right he was when 400 graduates proudly tossed their little caps into the air. All of the young scientists have already promised to come to the next Kinderuni, too.

So what was all that about fairness again? After the event, the father of young Nathan, who had enthusiastically joined in the discussion about the cake, made the following remarks to the Goethe-Institut: “I just wanted to let you know how impressed I was by the event. My son wanted to talk to me about fairness on the way home. It was a very long car journey!”


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