Children’s universities Playing student for a day

Children’s universities get youngsters enthusiastic about science and knowledge
Photo (detail): © Kinderbüro Universität Wien/APA-Fotoservice/Schedl

Education can be fun – as children’s universities illustrate. Professors give lectures, answer the questions posed by their young audience, and may also learn something new themselves. 

Even Miranda Jakiša could not come up with an answer to the question at first: “When do vampires celebrate their birthdays?” And yet she knows about vampires better than anyone, being a professor of Slavic literature. She has also given a number of lectures for children. “It was an extremely interesting question, however”, remarks Jakiša: do vampires celebrate their human birthday, or the day on which they became a vampire? During the lecture she gave to children at Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität, a discussion then ensued about how vampires can be “undead”, and how this relates to their lives. Professor Jakiša is delighted: “The children ask questions which allow one to discover something genuinely new oneself.”
Universities like this for very young students have been run in Germany for nearly 15 years. Children can attend the lectures as soon as they reach the age of seven. They then hear a professor talking about a particular topic: Why do volcanoes spew fire? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why do we love vampires? Or why is school stupid?
Often these are questions that children themselves have asked. Professors then attempt to give answers to the seemingly simple questions, using their expert knowledge. At the same time they have to use straightforward language so that all the children will understand the answer. Children’s universities aim to make children curious about the world of science and knowledge. And professors are supposed to learn how to explain complex topics in readily understandable terms. In other words, both can learn a lot from one another.

Sparking an interest in education

The first children’s university in Germany was staged in Tübingen in 2002, when Ulla Steuernagel and Ulrich Janssen, both of them journalists at a local Tübingen newspaper, had the idea of bringing academics and children together. To this day, the pair still run the children’s universities in Tübingen. They have written three books about their work, and have received an award for their idea from Germany’s federal president. Asked how she came up with the idea, Ulla Steuernagel replies: “It was in the air.” A short time previously, a major study of education had been published – the PISA study – and Germany had scored poorly. “Everyone at the time was searching for ways in which to get children more interested in education again”, explains Steuernagel.
And how are lectures supposed to help? After all, it is not easy for children to spend an entire hour listening to a difficult lecture. “We took a very conscious decision to use this old-fashioned lecture format”, says Steuernagel, “because it impresses children”. In Tübingen, the children are allowed into the university’s lecture theatres, they are given a student ID, and they listen to a professor giving a lecture. “Children love playing student”, comments Steuernagel, “and this also makes the whole experience feel very different to normal school”. Children’s universities do not want to be at all like school, which is also why there are neither marks nor exams.
Since 2002, the idea of children’s universities has spread all around the world. Nowadays similar events are also held in Japan, Romania, Turkey and Brazil. The European Children’s Universities Network now has members in 29 countries. According to surveys carried out by, roughly 15,000 academics and 500,000 children take part in children’s universities each year. “There is no one single type of children’s university”, stresses Karoline Iber from the Vienna University Children’s Office, who helps to organise the children’s universities network. She explains that similar projects emerged in other countries at the same time as the children’s university in Tübingen – and often follow an entirely different approach. In Vienna for instance, the Vienna Children’s University is run once a year – one of the largest children’s universities there is. Children there not only listen to lectures but also attend workshops and seminars, working together with academics. Roughly 4,000 children take part every summer.

On islands and glaciers

More and more children’s universities are being held in nature. On the North German island of Föhr for example, children study the lives of humans and animals on an island. In Austria, researchers visit a glacier, taking children from neighbouring villages along with them. This allows the children to learn something about the nature and environment in which they live. A mobile children’s university in Russia visits schools in remote regions of the country. In addition, an online children’s university was set up for them: children can watch videos and solve problems on the website of the Russian branches of the Goethe-Institut. They learn something about the work done by academics while at the same time practising their German.
“These days, the job of children’s universities is to make universities more open”, says Karoline Iber. For one thing, this teaches academics to explain things in simple terms. And for another, the idea is that children from families in which nobody has ever gone to university before should be made curious about doing a degree. This seems to be working at the University of Vienna: now young people are beginning a course of study here who heard their first lectures at a children’s university.