EUROPE: New network of children's universities

More than 100 universities across Europe organise science events for children that offer them their first introduction to what scientific researchers do. But these are mostly one-off occasions whereas now a network of 'children's universities' is being established to create a stable and continual platform for promoting interest in science among the young of the continent.

The European Commission is backing the formation of the European Children's University Network, or EUCUNET, with a grant of EUR550,000 (US$857,000) over the next two years. The money has been allocated through the commission's science in society theme, part of its Seventh Framework Programme.

According to its website*, the network's objective is to create a database of activities that are currently or have already been undertaken in Europe in the area of children's universities, a commission release said. From this, an interactive web portal will open and international symposia held to stimulate "the transfer of know-how and the exchange of existing expertise".

"The concept of children's universities represents the most radical opening towards the general public that universities can undertake," says a statement on the website. "The basic intention is to counteract a falling interest in science and research among the young, and help overcome stereotype notions as well as widen participation across diverse sectors of Europe's populations."

The first children's university was founded in the University of Tübingen in Germany. As a result of its efforts, the children's university was awarded the Descartes Prize for Science Communication. Since then, other children's universities have been set up in Basel, Bratislava, Strasbourg and Vienna.

The University of Vienna established the Vienna Children's University in 2003 and each summer, the gates of four of the city's universities open to 3,500 children between the ages of seven and 12 for two weeks. Children are able to participate in some of the 350 lectures and workshops as well as have personal contact with researchers.

The children's office at the University of Vienna says the youngsters who take part "experience the university with all that comes with it: the record of studies, student ID, lunch at the cafeteria, and finally the degree ceremony".

"Diversity is one of the main goals of Vienna Children's University," the office says on its website. "Diversity shows in the range of disciplines offered (all fields of study are represented), but also in the methodic and pedagogical formats, from lectures to workshops, excursions and tutorials. Specific targeting of children who have little access to university is also part of diversity."

The new network of children's universities will offer 'mentoring partnerships' so established university organisers of science events for children can help those wanting to start their own activities. Standards and guidelines for planning and organising such events, as well as the basics for sustainable impact analysis procedures, will be developed.

A virtual portal to present scientific stories for children is being developed that will include the childhood memories, backgrounds and photos of the researchers involved. The portal will be presented in six European languages spoken by 10 million children between the ages of nine and 12 years: German, English, Maltese, Polish, Slovakian and Swedish.

"Children will be encouraged to follow their scientific interests on their own and question things - in a scientific way," the network site says. "The target group are particularly those children who have not had any contact with the world of universities so far. Through the website, children will be able to communicate with researchers in chat rooms, as well as exchange experiences and ideas with each other and to network."

* EUCUNET is coordinated by Kinderbüro Universität Wien:

** The first International Conference on Children's Universities will be held on February 13-14 2009 in Tübingen, Germany