Background - 06.11.2018 - 00:00 

Children's University 2018: Magic in the Audimax – and in history

The annual Children's University lectures take place in the autumn. The first lecture was fully booked. Caspar Hirschi enchanted more than 600 children.
Source: HSG Newsroom

7 November 2018. There is a storm outside. Red, brown and yellow leaves are flying through the air. In between, you can also make out the colourful jackets of children who are full of curiosity and are on their way to the Library Building of the University of St.Gallen. Autumn has arrived in St.Gallen, and along with it, the start of this year's Children's University.

One year's preparations
"Preparations for this year's Children's University started as early as last year," says Edith Steiner, who has been organising the Children's University for 14 years. Thus she already asked this year's faculty members in 2017 whether they would be able and willing to give a Children's University lecture one afternoon. "Some faculty members are a bit awed by the Children's University and by the work entailed in boiling down a topic to 45 minutes." Edith Steiner tries to allay this fear in personal conversations. Also, she shows faculty members the way in which a Children's University lecture is structured and how they can captivate children. Interaction is a help, for example, as are images and films. "The be-all and end-all, however, is the title of the lecture. This determines the number of enrolments," explains Steiner. Thus the title should be exciting and interesting, and contain simple words and no loanwords. "This also makes things easier for my colleague who designs the invitation card and thus the mannikins that match the titles."

Edith Steiner is supported by a student assistant every year. "She takes a lot or work off me. Every child is sent a letter of confirmation, including an HSGcard. Children who attend all four lectures are awarded a certificate. This, too, must be prepared." This support enables Steiner to deal with unexpected contingencies. This year, it is the attendance of children with visual and hearing impairment. "We contacted the Special Needs Advice Center to determine what technical aids the disadvantaged children would require." The aim was to ensure that they, too, would be able to attend the lecture. Nonetheless, Edith Steiner also has to disappoint children, parents and teachers. "This year is the first time that we’re fully booked in advance, on two afternoons." Even so, Steiner has a solution for these children as well: the lecture will be transmitted to the Aula.

Immersion in history with Harry Potter
The first afternoon was fully booked. The children were waiting patiently in front of the Audimax doors. Behind those doors, final discussions were taking place between Edith Steiner, Caspar Hirschi and the student assistant. Just before 3 p.m., the doors opened, and the "little students" charged into the University's largest lecture room. Seats were reserved for friends, preferably in the front row – after all, the children wanted to hear everything right down to the last detail. Within next to no time, the lecture room was chock-a-block with 600 children. The lecture was being transmitted to another room for the parents. The lights went out, the lecture started.

The Children's University was opened by Prof. Dr. Caspar Hirschi. He introduced himself to the children as an "expert for earlier times". And this is what the next 45 minutes were all about. In the lecture entitled "Magic machines – a history from robots to Harry Potter", Hirschi demonstrated that Harry Potter's magic world is made up of props from earlier times. Thus he showed images of a refectory of the University of Cambridge, which is very much like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. Steam engines like the Hogwarts Express also used to transport passengers in the United Kingdom, indeed still do so today. In addition, he revealed that many spells in Joanne Rowling's books can be traced back to Latin "because old books of magic were often also written in Latin". The children were diligently taking notes on their Children's University pads.

More than 2,000 participating children
The Children's University was launched in St.Gallen in 2002/2003. Edith Steiner does not only organise the Children's University, she is also jointly responsible for its existence at the HSG. "We heard from the University of Tübingen that they had introduced lectures for children. Since my then boss and I both had children who were in the third form primary school, we had the idea of organising lectures for children ourselves." In Prof. em. Dr. Franz Jaeger, they also immediately found a lecturer who wanted to help realise the idea. And so it came about that the University of St.Gallen launched Switzerland's first Children's University: on three afternoons, Jaeger explained to the children "where money came from".

The organisers counted approx. 300 children – spread over three afternoons. "It was a bit tough at the beginning: we didn't have so many addresses and occasionally visited schools in order to convince them of the idea of the Children's University," says Edith Steiner. The fact that the topic was divided up into three afternoons was also a reason why not more children attended the lectures. Therefore the concept was changed into today's format five years later: four different topics dealt with by four faculty members on four consecutive afternoons. "Thus a child can miss one afternoon and still doesn't miss anything." The idea behind it all remained the same: showing children what subjects they could learn at the HSG and providing them with an insight into a university at the same time. "And also reducing the inhibition threshold among children and adults: after all, a university is not only for high-flyers," emphasises Edith Steiner. With this new concept and with its own visual vocabulary, the number of participating children has increased from 300 to 2,000 by now.

Time flies
It is not only Edith Steiner who is supported by a student assistant. Caspar Hirschi, too, brought along reinforcements. Since his lecture took place in the afternoon before Halloween, he had two wizards in the lecture room who also lobbed microphones – camouflaged as "magic dice" – at the children as soon as Hirschi wanted to ask them questions. Thus he wanted to know, for instance, why people wanted to do magic in earlier times. "To invent things." "To know things that not everybody knows." Or "to heal sick people". The third to sixth formers' knowledge is already enormous. The children were right: the wizards of yore experimented with white and black magic like the wizardry students at Hogwarts, or they tried to overpower human nature. 400 years ago, however, the first of them realised that they were able to achieve more by the mastery of natural powers than by the invocation of supernatural ones. Hirschi showed the new magic machines with the help of films, such as electrically charged bodies which made gold fly, the "Mechanical Turk", a robot which even beat kings at chess, or the Wright brothers' first flight attempts. Time also flew during the 45 minutes of the Children's University, and Caspar Hirschi earned a round of applause from the many curious young students.

Caspar Hirschi also found the 45 minutes short, "among other things because the children were very concentrated and joined in." Individual children did not find the three-quarter hour enough since they still had too many questions. This means that Casper Hirschi was able to provide them with more detailed information after the lecture and in some cases sign his autograph on their Children's University pads. "In retrospect I can say it now: I was more nervous than before a 'normal' lecture," says Hirschi, so he spent more time on preparations and also did "dry runs". "My wife and my three children were already allowed to listen to the lecture in the run-up."

The first Children's University afternoon is over. The children are already on their way home. Three more lectures are still pending. And like with the first lecture, Edith Steiner hopes that in the next lecture, the children will again let themselves be enchanted.