50 years “Youth Researches” From aerospace to artificial intelligence

At “Jugend forscht”, pupils study alternative energies, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence;
At “Jugend forscht”, pupils study alternative energies, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence; | Photo (detail): © Stiftung Jugend forscht e.V.

“Youth Researches” has existed since 1965. It has developed into a network of successful professionals and scientists.

German companies and associations often complain that they lack new blood: biochemists, engineers and computer scientists. In order to inspire children and young people to study the so-called STEM subjects – mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences and technology – the Youth Researches Foundation annually organizes more than 110 scientific competitions. For half a century now the brightest minds at German schools have vied with each other in the Youth Researches competition – 11,500 young researchers alone in 2015.

Youth Researches has been immensely successful in Germany when it comes to recruiting young talent in science: nine of ten successful contestants go on to study a subject in the natural sciences, technology, mathematics or medicine, the Foundation has ascertained. More than a third of the participants meanwhile are girls and young women. The participants do research on mobility, 3D printers, robots, storage media and Sudoku: topics that interest them and touch their everyday lives.

What many do not know: behind Youth Researches is a private initiative that started rather small, long before the recruitment campaigns in which the Ministry of education and industry associations today seek budding engineers and scientists. Henri Nannen, the former chief editor of the weekly Stern, launched the Youth Researches in 1965. The two years older competition “Youth Makes Music” served as its namesake.

Response to the “Sputnik shock”

The so-called “Sputnik shock” was decisive for the content of the competition: in 1957 the Soviet Union sent the satellite Sputnik into space and thus demonstrated its equality with the Western powers in the field of aerospace technology. Aerospace was then the most important discipline in the technological trial of strength between the United States and the Soviet Union. Which is one reason why Nannen travelled with the winners of the first edition of Youth Researches to the launch site of the American space agency NASA at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It was in the United States that Nannen found the model for his competition: there since 1950 had existed the International Science and Engineering Fair – like Youth Researches, a competition on a voluntary basis and largely independent of government influence. This competition is still today the largest of its kind in the world. That there were and are higher numbers of participants in other countries has to do with the respective organizational forms. In many Eastern European countries, for example, participation in similar competitions was mandatory during the Cold War and accordingly resulted in a very great number of participants. In Germany participation is voluntary and the competition is supported by more than 5,000 teachers and project supervisors.

Energy projects instead of space research

Youth Researches is now no longer dominated by aerospace. The focus is on projects for the use of sustainable energy sources, the use of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Contestants compete in a total of seven fields, ranging from the traditional natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics to mathematics and computer science, earth and space science, technology and the broad category of the “work world”.

The character of the competition has also changed. If in the early years there were only 250 participants, now there are annually more than 10,000. The youngest are ten, the oldest 21, years of age. The German President is patron of the competition; the Federal Chancellor awards the special prize, and the federal government contributes a part to the budget of the supporting association Youth Researches Foundation.

The remaining funding is undertaken by sponsors from the business world. They also act as hosts of the regional and the national competitions. In the anniversary year of 2015, selection of the national winners took place at the chemical group BASF in Ludwigshafen. Among those who received awards were a high school student from Kaiserslautern, who studied the learning behavior of donkeys and mules, and a project from Überlingen on Lake Constance, which developed a method for converting solar energy into natural gas.

Network for future professionals

Some former Youth Researches winners have meanwhile achieved a certain fame in Germany: the physics professor Gisela Anton from Erlangen, the Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann and Andreas Schleicher, who developed the Pisa test for the OECD, with which student performance can compared on an international scale.

Especially in the fields of mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences and engineering, the competition has become probably the most important network in Germany for attracting future professionals and scientists.