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Bavarian Brains!

Chemistry and geography teacher Steffi Meincke welcomed me to Munich for the final leg of my travels courtesy of the WCMT. Otto-von-Taube-Gymnasium was not originally on my list of schools to visit, however, meeting Steffi at the St Paul’s International student science conference was proof of how networks and events can lead to unexpected outcomes…more on swimming in the river Isar later!
The Otto-von-Taube-Gymnasium is the equivalent of a grammar school in the South West suburbs of Munich. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it is an outward looking and innovative school with an incredibly friendly student and staff body (I was impressed with the collection of yearly staff group photos in the administration corridor – all smiling!)

TUM Maths building - complete with parabolic slide!

TUM Maths building – complete with parabolic slide!

The reason for my visit is a very special and until this year, unique arrangement with the TUM (Technical university of Munich). Around ten years ago Munich’s world class university decided that it wanted to have an impact on secondary education to boost recruitment to STEM courses and possibly to set up its own high school. After a couple of years of discussion and various iterations of the project it settled, in 2009, on a scholarship program where students apply to become TUM scholars for their final two years of high school.

Becoming a TUM scholar is competitive and requires completion of an application form, interviews and teacher references, however the rewards are remarkable and there is certainly a good deal of jealousy amongst the remaining student body, not least because the TUM scholars miss school each Wednesday to undertake their research. The program lasts for around 18 months and finishes with enough time for students to catch up on revision before their final exams.

The collaboration has become very successful with a network of alumni where a number of previous participants are now becoming involved with mentoring students themselves. It has been particularly good for the school which has improved its standing in the community, while only 15 or so students can take part the prestige of the project draws students to apply to the school. The project has also been subject of a masters’ thesis (more later) and the administrators are very keen to track the outcomes of the participants.

TUM medical research labs.

TUM medical research labs.

It starts in 10th grade (equivalent year 11 UK) where the younger students attend a presentation and workshop delivered (without any input from staff!) by the outgoing crop of TUM scholars. This gives the younger students a taste of the available projects or disciplines which they may apply for. After the selection process throughout 10th grade the successful candidates begin their training at the start of 11th grade. For the first few months they attend a rotation of visits on their Wednesday TUM day to the various research groups in the different departments of the university that have agreed to host a scholar. In parallel they are given training in how to write letters of application and construct a cv. There are lessons on interview technique and they are expected to contact their group of choice and apply for a position as a research scholar. The bulk of the program is the research, the scholars are embedded in a research group and work for a supervisor at TUM, this could be a lab manager, PhD student, PI or equivalent and the scholars are expected to manage their workload and plan their activities, in many cases this means working during their holidays or late at night on their TUM day.

Oh…by the way, they do not get less school work, in fact their entire school week is squeezed into the remaining four days at school. There is no doubt that these scholars have to work hard – BUT the rewards are fantastic. They work as a PhD student throughout their time, this is not pretend or simulation but real projects either instigated by the lab or developed by the students themselves. They have the opportunity for a three week study visit to another country (e.g. the Mini factory in Oxford or the university of Utah!) and they present their findings at a gala research event at OvTG. Over the last few years the exchange with St Paul’s school has seen a number of the TUM scholars present their work at the International Student science conference. As I’ve seen so often on my travels the key outcome is the enjoyment of the work, doing real research and using state of the art equipment, something that they absolutely do not get to do in school. It is a game changer for some, the tracking of alumni is beginning to tell a story of real success in STEM careers.

By the way too…they are expected to present their work in English as well…! This is because the university is moving towards full teaching in English and recognises that English is the language of most International science conferences. I spoke at length to two of the scholars; Kaspar Winter and Nicholas Leister, both were fluent as far as I was concerned with just the occasional obscure physics term missing from their vocabulary. Very impressive indeed.

Dr Perkins sniffs out another microscope. This time for the purpose of imaging rat brains!

Dr Perkins sniffs out another microscope. This time for the purpose of imaging rat brains!

Kaspar’s project is unusual in that he is gathering data and generating simulations for traffic management in Munich city centre. This is essentially a data science project where data has been collected about drivers response to signalling and cyclists behaviour at intersections. Some intriguing findings have already been discovered, for example how cyclists will chose an optimum route between shared pedestrian and road sections depending on how the traffic signals change. Driver age is also an important variable that affects how they respond to cyclists at intersections! I’m looking forward to hearing if Kaspar solves Munich’s congestion issues with a clever sequence of lights, thus saving time, improving air quality through efficient driving and maybe stopping a few incidents of road rage!
Nicholas talked eloquently about his work preparing,conducting and analysing neutron scattering experiments at the TUM beamline. He is lucky enough to be handling alien objects! Meteorites from asteroids, Mars, the moon etc. are being studied by a technique that can detect trace elements to better than 1/10th of a part per billion!

 

It has been a real pleasure to visit both the school and the various university departments at TUM that are hosting the TUM scholars. The model is surely one that any university could try. Dr Jutta Moehringer, once a teacher and now TUM administrator for the program from the TUM school of education, says that the main challenge is finding willing supervisors, not for the money but the time required each Wednesday and beyond. The scholars are still high school pupils and therefore cannot be in the labs unsupervised and there are health and safety considerations (and in some cases ethical – live animal experiments are not permitted for example, although brain protein analysis is!) In terms of financial cost again it is time. The school teachers at OvTG administering the program have to be out of school to make site visits every Wednesday, they also have a reduced timetable. This is a cost to the school but ultimately OvTG can apply for further teacher time from the Bavarian government due to the nature of school funding. A small number of TUM undergraduates are given a stipend for mentoring the scholars, a win win for all parties!

Dr Moehringer and I had much the same conversation about the benefits of such a program as I have had during many of my visits. The advantage here is that they are generating data about outcomes that goes beyond anecdote and after nearly ten years of the program there is no sign of it running out of steam, quite the opposite in fact as this year a second Munich school from the other side of the city has joined, doubling the number of participants.

Truly embedded research experience, with high school students using state of the art equipment and techniques with full support from school and the university. As ever, inspirational!

A very very special thank you to Steffi Meincke, who was my tour guide at school, in the city and in the Bavarian countryside, including a (very cold) dip in the fast flowing river Isar. Thanks also to Uli Nuernberger for letting me take over his English class and discuss Brexit! I very much look forward to seeing the Otto-von-Taube students present at the 2018 International student science conference!

Ever the tourist...Munich beer garden

Ever the tourist…Munich beer garden and fantastic host, Steffi Meincke

 

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