GENIUS Children’s University: What makes cars fit for the future

The last time I sat in a lecture hall was over two years ago. I remember a series of math lectures that were dry as dust and crowned by a complicated final exam. Today I’m going to attend a lecture once again. But this time I expect it to be a lot more fun and very relaxed, because it will be interesting. It will be held at the Genius Children’s University at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT).

The Children’s University at the KIT aims to get young people enthusiastic about science and technology. It’s part of “Genius — Daimler’s young knowledge community.” The child-oriented talks at the Children’s University enable kids between eight and twelve to get a sense of what a university is all about — without any pressure to perform. Daimler’s head developer Ola Källenius will be playing the role of a university lecturer for the second time as he takes the children along into the exciting world of the automobile. Today’s Genius Children’s University is focusing on the theme “Seeing – Thinking – Talking. What makes cars fit for the future.”

The Audimax lecture hall as an activity hall

Before the lecture begins, we walk through a well-filled hall between theme-oriented stands that get visitors to try things out and get active, and we ask the children to name their favorite places in Karlsruhe. We make a list of the kids’ favorite places.

This list will reappear later on during the lecture. For the children, slipping into the role of a student is something very special. They’re curious to see what will happen next. They’re also interested in our camera team, and more than one child asks us, “What are you doing there?” and “Are we going to be on TV?”

Ola Källenius arrives, and shortly after that the kids, almost 350 of them, enter the lecture hall. They’re allowed to bring along their parents, but the lecture is aimed only for the children. The parents have to stay outside the lecture hall, but they can watch a live video broadcast of the lecture in a separate hall.

I’m impressed by the fact that the children are not stampeding into the lecture hall. On the contrary, they’re looking closely at everything around them. Yes, I remember that being in such a huge lecture hall for the first time is indeed impressive.

Parents have to stay outside

Before the actual lecture begins, the young students learn something that delights them. Ralph Pawlowski, the organizer of the Children’s University at the KIT, shows them how German students show that they’ve enjoyed a lecture. The kids are familiar with applause, but it’s news to them that you can also show you like something by knocking on your wooden desk. But they adopt this habit immediately — and respond with a round of frenetic drumming.

Ola Källenius introduces himself and welcomes his assistants for today’s event: Leoni Pretzel and Tabea Drees, who are engineers at Daimler and Genius ambassadors at the Mercedes-Benz plants in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim and Sindelfingen respectively.

Before the lecture, Tabea told me that she used to study here at the KIT and that she wrote her final exam in this very lecture hall. And today she’s standing here as a Daimler engineer and getting young future students enthusiastic about automobiles and technology!

How do cars communicate?

Ola Källenius shows the kids that modern cars can “talk” to each other . The kids already know from their own daily experience that navigation systems share information so that drivers can avoid traffic jams. What they don’t yet know is that voice recognition systems can also enable people to communicate with their cars.

And that brings us to the results of the survey we conducted before the lecture. A cloud of words presents the children’s favorite places. The one mentioned most often is the Karlsruhe Zoo, and that’s why its name is shown in the biggest letters. It’s a vivid example of how swarm intelligence works. When people communicate, they can name many more beautiful places than an individual could.

Ola Källenius would like to steer a virtual car to his favorite place in Karlsruhe by means of voice recognition. “Hey, Mercedes!” he calls out. “Take me to my favorite place in Karlsruhe!” The smart navigation system answers — but it has misunderstood Källenius’ request. The children are asked to help out. “The Europabad swimming pool!” they chorus, and the virtual car finally drives to the right destination. But before it does, it makes a recommendation: “There are so many children here. Should I send a bus instead?”

Autonomous driving is child’s play

The children’s assistant Anderl and the lecturer’s assistant Leoni present a Lego Mindstorm car in order to show how autonomous driving works. With a remote control, Anderl tries to keep the Lego car on the track — not an easy task. By contrast, if the car is allowed to drive along the track autonomously, it stays in its lane much better, and it even recognizes obstacles.

Once again, the car’s “senses” are coming into play. The children learn that cars use sensors to detect their surroundings — and “see” them, in effect. The data that have been collected are then processed in an onboard computer. In other words, the car can “think” too.

Anderl is grinning from ear to ear, because everything has worked exactly the way he practiced it before the lecture. “I was pretty excited,” he confides to me. At the last Children’s University he was sitting in the audience among the other children.

Alternative drive technologies

Tabea explains what the red and green LEDs on the gigantic model of an electric motor are for. An electromagnet drives the motor by means of reversing electrical polarity. The children are asked to help the motor run faster. On their seats are small red and green cards symbolizing the minus and plus poles. Half of the children in the lecture hall have red cards, and the other half have green cards. The two groups hold up their cards alternately. At a signal, the kids switch the poles, and they do this faster and faster until the engine is running so fast that they can no longer keep up with it. The lecture hall turns into a colorful chaos of red and green spots of color.

Leoni asks the children if they can imagine a lemon producing electrical current. A determined “No!” resounds through the hall. When Leoni nonetheless presents them with the “lemon battery,” the kids are amazed. She connects lemons with nails and coins and thus actually makes a lightbulb glow — just like the glowing eyes of the astonished children.

Once again, I’m fascinated by their curiosity and their natural drive to explain the world through knowledge. The lemon battery is a highlight for the kids. “I would never have expected it to work. That was really cool,” exclaims one of the schoolchildren after the lecture.

Ending with a bang

The finale of the lecture calls forth another chorus of “Ohs” and “Ahs.” To illustrate “just in time” production, a drone flies into the lecture hall to bring a message on a scroll to Ola Källenius. He receives the message and reads it aloud: A parting gift is waiting outside the hall for the children. At the door, we then present each of the parting children with a Genius bag containing an explorer magazine and a set of instructions for the lemon battery experiment.

After saying goodbye, the drone takes a group photo from above of the cheering children. The lecture hall empties out, and we remain with the good feeling that we’ve really reached the kids. “I’ve never seen a real drone before!” I hear one of the girls saying excitedly to her friend.

That’s what the Genius program is all about: sparking the children’s curiosity and getting children and teenagers enthusiastic about science without putting any pressure on them to perform. That’s what learning should always be about — gathering knowledge because of sheer interest. I’m proud that I had the opportunity to participate. At Genius, I’ve been able to experience and help create a lot of things. The Genius Children’s University was one of the highlights of my internship, and at the same time it was the perfect conclusion.

Martina Schlott has completed her studies to be a secondary-school teacher of mathematics and English. She is currently writing her thesis for a Master of Education degree. For the past six months she has been supporting the Genius team as an intern.