The Jugend forscht competition (literally: "Youth researches") has been around for more than 50 years. It takes place at regional, state and federal level. The junior division “Students experimenting” is aimed at students up to the age of 14. The participants compete in the disciplines of World of Work, Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Space Science, Mathematics / Computer Science, Physics and Technology. This year's round of the competition has a total of 12,150 participants, of which almost 40 percent are female. From 16 to 19 May, the 190 best students present their work at individual stands at the federal competition in Chemnitz and face the questions of the jury. They usually compete in groups of two or three.
Part of the competition is the submission of a written work, in which the teams present their research topic. The 16 papers from the field of physics are currently lying on the desk of Dr. Marc Scheffler. He is a senior lecturer at the 1st Physics Department at the University of Stuttgart and has been a juror at the federal competition since 2014. Since last year he has been the spokesperson for the federal jury and is also a member of the Jugend forscht Foundation's board of trustees. “The written papers are structured like a small bachelor's thesis, the participants have usually been working on a self-posed question for half a year, or a whole year,” explains Scheffler. He checks whether everything is correct and sometimes consults colleagues who are experts in the respective subject areas.
Jury reviews presentations
As part of a four-member jury, Marc Scheffler also visits each stand and reviews it. Participants will have five minutes to present their topic, then they will have to answer the jury's questions for 20 minutes. Sometimes it is difficult for the jurors to find out how much the participants did themselves, or where mostly parents, teachers, supervising companies or other institutions were involved. However, as soon as the students answer the questions, one gets an idea of how profoundly the topic has been understood, says Scheffler. This is confirmed by chemist Dr. Klaus Dirnberger from the Institute of Polymer Chemistry. Since 2017, he has been a juror at the Baden-Wuerttemberg state competition of Jugend forscht. At the same time, both emphasize the importance of the commitment of teachers, supervisors and parents to motivate students to participate in the competition, and to support them. Particularly important are the student research centers, which have been increasing in number for about ten years. They came from the idea of creating a forum for students interested in STEM, comparable to sports clubs or music schools for young people who are interested accordingly.
Quality of entries is very good
The presentations are becoming ever more professional and the quality of the entries is very good, confirm Scheffler and Dirnberger. “In some cases, the works even result in a patent application. Especially in the fields of technology and world of work, you’re often amazed at what is delivered there. There are really smart people in it!“ Dirnberger is impressed.
University supports participants in a number of ways
As a university representative in the jury, Dr. Klaus Dirnberger has already supervised the regional competitions of “Students experimenting“, too. The juries are composed of representatives from schools, universities and industry. At the University of Stuttgart, there are about ten jurors who volunteer at the various levels of the Jugend forscht competition, including doctoral students, academic staff and professors. In addition, the university provides support when participating students ask if they may use equipment for experiments or would like to interview experts. Jugend forscht will also be represented with a stand at the Science Day. Here, students will be presenting their competition entries.
The university also uses the Baden-Wuerttemberg state competition to present itself. The accompanying program includes a guided tour of the chemistry and physics faculties. “After all, this is the target group we would like to have as students. We do a laboratory tour, explain our research topics and show our large-scale equipment — the students are enthusiastic,” says Dirnberger. The Faculty of Chemistry even awards a special prize in the form of a three-day internship. This takes place at various institutes of the Faculty of Chemistry, depending on the research topic. During the internship, the young people will have the opportunity to present their research topic to the respective working group.
Attractive prizes and meeting like-minded people
“We not only award prizes, but also give feedback to the participating teams about what went well and where to improve. The winning team will also get tips, so they can prepare for the federal competition even better,” explains Dirnberger, who enjoys working for Jugend forscht.
In addition to top places, there are also numerous special prizes from companies and institutions, and at the federal competition also from the Chancellor. A highly coveted prize is the opportunity to attend the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, explains Scheffler. But to the participants, the competition is not just about winning prizes. They are happy to meet like-minded people, and they get to know the sponsoring companies and researchers. For them, it's a great experience. 25 years ago Marc Scheffler, too, was a winner at the federal competition of Jugend forscht. But that was not the only reason why he became a juror: “It's inspiring to be part of the competition and to motivate young people. You see surprising things, especially when you look at how the students prove something with very few means, or the way they present something. We can give them the confidence to keep going and stay with science.”
In 1965, both the “Sputnik Shock“ and the critical discussion of education issues motivated Henri Nannen, the then editor-in-chief of the weekly news magazine “Stern“, to launch a socially broad-based initiative to promote qualified young researchers in the Federal Republic of Germany. The model came from the US, where there were the “Science Fairs”. Many companies and institutions take on sponsorships for Jugend forscht. The Federal President is the patron. Large companies organize the competitions and endow prizes.