In Lörrach, in the southwestern tip of Germany, young researchers can be found going about their work at a school research center called phaenovum. The center, which offers instruction on scientific and technical topics to children and adolescents from Germany, France and Switzerland, is enough to raise the pulse of researchers of any age. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Embedded Design and Networking is responsible for organizing activities relating to information technology and robotics. The center offers students with a variety of school backgrounds the opportunity to dabble with their creativity and explore robotics and IT – without the pressure of the classroom or curriculum.
To get their minds around the fundamentals of robotics, students use LEGO robot kits called Mindstorms and a humanoid robot called NAO. In a series of extracurricular courses, they gain hands-on experience of programming in Java, Python and C/C++. Topics that particularly pique the interest of the young programmers are explored in more detail in weekend workshops. Top of the charts at the moment is embedded programming using the popular platforms Raspberry Pi and Arduino. The students also enjoy programming modifications to the popular computer game Minecraft.
“The programming skills the students pick up here can be intensified on school projects or presented at school contests like the youth research ‘Jugend forscht’ initiative,” explains Lars Möllendorf, a project engineer at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Embedded Design and Networking, and director of the department of information technology/robotics at phaenovum. Another alternative for the young ones is to join the teams taking part in robotics competitions with LEGO Mindstorms or NAO – as they did with success in November 2014 when a phaenovum team came third in the Obstacle Robot Race category at Quanta, the international science competition in India.
Students do not just acquire much sought-after IT and robotics skills, however. At the same time they can also rub shoulders with potential future employers. A number of companies in Lörrach and the area back the program, arranging outings, showing students the world of work and offering internships. This is the way up-and-coming talent will be fostered in the future and both parties benefit.
The program for promoting the next generation began in 2003 when Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Sikora, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Embedded Design and Networking, partnered with Innocel Innovations- Center Lörrach GmbH, an economic development enterprise belonging to the city of Lörrach. Together, they launched a project called IT Seminar to provide extracurricular courses on robotics. The weekly courses revolved around work with the LEGO Mindstorms kits. The phaenovum school research center was set up in the Lörrach border triangle in 2007 at which point the IT Seminar project was expanded to include information technology and robotics. From the start, the student activities have been sponsored by a variety of well-known firms in the region, as well as foundations and public funds.