KinderuniWien intruduces children between the age of 7 to 12 to the university system in specific and the educational system in general. By interacting with real scientists and researchers who are active on a rigorous academic level, the children get an idea of learning, teaching and research at university levels and the relevance of a university for their own daily life

Objectives of the Intervention

The objective of KinderuniWien is to introduce children between the age of 7 to 12 to the university system in specific and the educational system in general. By interacting with real scientists and researchers who are active on a rigorous academic level, the children get an idea of learning, teaching and research at university levels and the relevance of a university for their own daily life. In this process children explore their curiosity and are encouraged to think critically and exercise other skills that are needed in an academic environment. The KinderuniWien offers children a learning experience in an academic environment that fits their way of living and expands their frame of reference in terms of educational pathways. KinderuniWien reaches approximately 10.000 children on an annual basis.

KinderuniWien hasn’t set quantitative targets but focuses on the objective to make the university an institution that’s more open and responsive to the public. In this sense the main target is to create a setting and atmosphere that fosters encounters between researchers and children and encourage them to explore each other’s questions, way of living and interests. This open setting and atmosphere is important, because it affects the decision making of parents in terms of whether or not they see university as a possibility for their children.

The programs and aims of KinderuniWien are part of a bigger strategy to promote social inclusion in higher education. The University of Vienna has included the Children’s University as part of their diversity strategy to increase future students with a migrant background. This is also a response to the demands of the government to foster more sustainable relationships with families of future students. In this sense KinderuniWien is an instrument to reach diverse students and support them in the process of informed decision making in regards to educational pathways.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The initial idea for a children’s university was completely different and based on the needs of students and academic staff with caretaking obligations. Students and academics with children faced closed services during summer, so a team within the University of Vienna came up with the idea of inviting them to bring their kids to university, to enable the parents to have a couple of hours for themselves. The initial idea was that children would be shown around to learn more about what their parents usually do at the university. So initially the program was intended as a caretaking service, but very soon Vienna University Children’s Office realized that the program would have much more potential if being available for a broad public as well - and so it evolved into a science engagement activity, which led to establishing KinderuniWien. They reached out to other units and services provided by the municipality and ended up with a program for 1000 children in the first year.

One of the key drivers behind the initiative is a unit under the authority of the municipality that’s responsible for a massive program during the summer holidays for children and families that includes cultural, sports and learning activities. This program has been running for over 35 years and is coordinated by the organization WienXtra. This organization is experienced in out of school activities and has been very supportive in promoting the activities of KinderuniWien and helping them to reach children from diverse and notably non-academic backgrounds. Other key drivers have been local networks and cooperation established with cultural organizations, sports and leisure organisations refugee organizations, community centres, neighbourhood organizations and social welfare networks.

Another key driver has been the nomination for an ‘idea challenge’ (“Spin the Globe”) launched by a major international tech enterprise in Austria, which the KinderuniWien project could come off as the winner. This led to a massive media response and having the support of the media helped the organization to reach a wider range of different communities. Turkish newspapers in Vienna for instance published the information about KinderuniWien in Turkish. Amongst other interventions, this contributed to a shift in the public opinion on the Children’s University as an initiative that’s limited to the elite to a program that’s open to everyone.

KinderuniWien isn’t based on any particular theoretical framework. They started with a flexible and open mind set, learned along the way and still are open to different concepts. KinderuniWien sees knowledge and experience in the area of science communication and involvement as an important foundation to their work. In particular, international networking and exchange of experience had boosted the further development of the program, the reliability and visibility of the program - both towards other experts and practitioners in the field and the general public, as well as inwards of the universities and other parties that are involved in the program and their invitational learning.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

KinderuniWien focuses on children between the age of 7 to 12. There’s an even proportion in terms of the participation of boys and girls. In the past few years there has been a shift in terms of socio-economic backgrounds, with an increase in children from low-income families. KinderuniWien also offers a special program for children with disabilities and provide for instance sign language translation in parts of the program. They make sure they involve researchers and lecturers with disabilities who serve as role models so children can see it doesn’t affect their chances of pursuing an academic career.

In addition to the KinderuniWien summer programme, which takes place at seven major universities all across Vienna, a science tour program (“KinderUni on Tour “) reaches out to public areas where children and young people usually spend their leisure time – with a particular focus on less prestigious neighbourhoods. In consequence, over 95% of the children who participate in KinderUni on Tour have a migrant background. The majority of the children belong to communities originally from Turkey and Poland, or the former Yugoslavian countries: Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. A large part also has a refugee background and is originally from Russian speaking countries like Georgia, Chechenia or Armenia and currently Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These groups are at high risk in terms of limited access to education, dropping out of school, not being paid equally, not having access to labour market and not speaking the language properly. In Austria there’s a selective school system and educational pathways are decided at the age of 9. Once you choose one path it’s hard to switch, therefore it’s important to reach children at a young age.

In terms of implementation KinderuniWien has a unique position in the educational landscape in Vienna and operates as an independent small organization with its own team, funding, infrastructure and networks in the name of 7 universities in Vienna. They involve over 600 researchers who provide workshops and lectures for the children. On the level of the university as an institution, KinderuniWien has proven to be capable of contributing to organizational development and organizational change and to the shaping of the image and atmosphere of a university that’s open and accessible to everyone.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

One of the success factors of KinderuniWien is rooted in the fact that the political climate in Vienna has always been supportive in the promotion of equal opportunities in education with a concise agenda of the value of education, access to education and social inclusion. At the same time, substantial changes occurred in the political landscape and the relevant environment of KinderuniWien: First results of the PISA studies were published which appeared to be quite disillusioning for the education systems in German speaking countries, an ongoing debate about the value of education, access to higher education and about the introduction of student fees in Austria - as well as a controversial change towards a conservative dominated government - have boosted a public debate about education in general. Within this context, KinderuniWien was obviously acknowledged as a welcome example of “otherness” and innovative input to the discussion of reforms in formal and informal education environments.

Important stakeholders are universities, who are looking for projects that deal with social inclusion, because it’s an important requirement made by the government. The Children’s University is an act of community engagement and therefore contributes to the Third Mission of universities. It took KinderuniWien however 10 years before the universities got actively involved in the program and to realize the impact the Children’s University made. Other stakeholders are the children and their families who see and interact with an organization that is paid by society, by their taxes. For a lot of families it’s not clear that the university is open and accessible for everyone and that their children are able to attend university. As taxpaying citizens, they have an influence on the university and a right to see, to know and learn about the outcome of the research that is done.

The researchers and lecturers who are involved in the program are also stakeholders, because it encourages them to think about their research topic in a different way. They have to break it down to a very basic level and focus on the main idea of their research work and its relevance to the experiences and lives of the children. It also demands a new way of teaching and contributes to their didactical skills. In addition it allows them to interact with children from communities who experiences may differ from their own daily life. So the potential lies in the opportunity to learn from the children, their reality, their questions and demands and their thinking in relation to the academic research that is done.

The most important success factor is the involvement and mindset of the team of Vienna University Children’s Office as the umbrella organisation that arranges KinderuniWien. Everyone is constantly aware of how they can actively contribute to an open attitude and atmosphere. It is continuously embedded in the communication about the program and with the children.

All these efforts of making Children’s University a more open and accessible place in universities have caused a shift in the demographic composition of the children participating and has even led to occasional conflicts between parents due to ethnic, language, socio-economic and cultural differences for instance. It encouraged KinderuniWien to develop activities for the parents of the children during the program to facilitate mutual understanding and dialogue. For instance, one of the activities is the exercise of “living books”, which allows parents to tell their life stories as living books. In this sense the program also contributes to dialogue and mutual understanding in a multicultural society. Another success factor has also been the support of the media in providing positive media coverage, which has helped to get information about the children’s university to the public.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

At the KinderuniWien children attend workshops, lectures and seminars in the university buildings. During a period of two weeks the children experience what it’s like to be a “real” adult student. They also get their own ID card and stamps in their passports. They enter the classrooms and laboratories and interact with real researchers and scientists who share their work. The academics choose their own topics and translate it to the context and experiences of the children.

The summer program provides 500 seminars and lectures and allows the children to select 10 of them to enroll in. The most popular topics are physics and chemistry, which is interesting considering the decline in STEM fields. This also indicates that interest in STEM fields is present at a young age but is lost later on in the educational pipeline. Even though there’s a good balance in participation between boys and girls, KinderuniWien does take on an active approach to engage girls in STEM related studies. Other popular topics are medical science and psychology. At the end of the program there’s a graduation ceremony that celebrates the success and involvement of the children as students.

KinderuniWien reaches around 4500 children with the summer program of two weeks. Besides the summer program, KinderuniWien also invites children throughout the year to attend classes at the university and reach another 2000 children. KinderuniWien also carries out an outreach program, KinderUni on Tour, in and around Vienna and reaches another 2000 children. The tour focuses mainly on disadvantaged areas and small villages in rural areas in the Eastern provinces of Austria.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

KinderuniWien is a fixed element in a diverse landscape of educational opportunities and engagement relating to education, informal education and non- formal engagement in various environments. Because the organization has been active for so many years and has carried its message and mission with consistency and determination, the parents, children and researchers keep asking for continuation. They have come to realize they all benefit from the program and stay involved. This has also led to an increasing commitment by universities.

In terms of replication, there are Children’s Universities at almost every university city in Austria, which may also have a reason in the fact that there is a nationwide funding scheme the government has set up to facilitate children’s universities. Other Children’s Universities are smaller and focus on their regional context.

Resources used in the initiative

KinderuniWien started without proper funds in 2003. In the first years they requested the government to support them financially. In consequence, the government set up a funding scheme for Children’s Universities and provided 30% of funding to encourage new ideas for gaining resources. One of the criteria in this funding scheme relates to social inclusion and demands an active approach to engage children of migrant backgrounds. All children’s universities have to meet this demand, which work to the advantage of KinderuniWien.

Currently KinderuniWien receives 30% funding from the Ministry of Science, 10% from the municipality and the remaining funds from companies in sponsorship. One foundation also sponsors KinderUni on Tour. In regards to sponsorship by companies, some base their support on the opportunity to interact with potential clients; others base their support on the idea of corporate social responsibility. The biggest resource is the time spent by the researchers involved in the program, this is allowed and facilitated by the involved universities.

Besides researchers, the program also involves 150-200 students who volunteer. The amount of time they spend on the program depends on the way their university has included the project within their organization and curriculum. The universities have autonomy in this, so the way in which students contribute may differ per university. The common factor however the students are given time and credits to prepare input for the program an actively contribute to the composition of the program.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

The evaluation is of KinderuniWien is decentralized, some of partners do their evaluation related to their field of science. The most relevant data are related to the social origin and place of residence by home address and the gender ratio. It shows the distribution of interests and selection of topics, which have changed over the years. There is a lot of quantitative data gathered by questionnaires. In addition students also do observations in particular lectures or workshops and their feedback is gathered in briefings with lecturers. Finally children are also asked for their feedback, for instance by asking them to write a letter to their grandma about what they’ve learned during the program.

The most relevant learning however doesn’t come from quantitative data, but from informal observations by the team. Everyone has a role during the delivery of the summer program, not related to their regular roles, which enables them to take a different perspective. They listen to what they are hearing directly from the parents or what the parents are sharing with each other in an informal setting. This relates to their expectations and challenges relating to participation in the program. It requires reading between the lines and intentional observations rather than submitting formal interviews or questionnaires.

In 2005 KinderuniWien did a massive survey and noted an implicit basis in terms of socio-economic backgrounds. It turned out the registration procedures didn’t take into account the lack of resources and time during the week in low-income families, which prevented them from registering their children in time for the program. This led to a renewed registration procedure, which introduced a registration day or weekend and didn’t require internet access to register. This increased the accessibility of the Children’s University. An important lesson for the organization has been the realization that it’s not enough to be free and open to everyone, if families from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t feel invited or welcome. It took the organization a while to understand this issue and realized in order to truly be open and inclusive, you need to make extra efforts to reach certain groups: “Gratis ist nicht genug” – It’s not enough to be free of charge.