It is early in the morning one Saturday. The heavy door to the baroque palace’s Ostflügel only occasionally swings open, letting in a few bleary-eyed students who cross the lobby to the library. But suddenly, things come to life: Little feet patter up the stairs, children whisper furtively and laugh. A long line forms outside the big lecture hall, SN 163. Kids at university? It might seem a strange sight at first, but the Kids’ University has been going strong at Mannheim for over ten years. Today is the first of three children’s lectures for the 2023 spring semester. One of the participants is 12-year-old Bennett, who FORUM got to accompany on his first time at the Kids’ University. He looks around curiously. He is familiar with the baroque Schloss from the outside, of course, as he lives in Mannheim, but he has never been inside before. So that Bennett and the hundred or so other kids get to feel like real students during the Kids’ University lectures, they are first of all given student ID cards. Bennett proudly brandishes his card and points to the first stamp. He will get another one for each lecture he attends this spring.
Then it is finally time to head into the lecture hall. “It looks a bit like the physics lab in my school, but much bigger,” says Bennett, amazed. “For some reason I always imagined lecture halls looking different. Maybe circular, like the Bundestag!” The room gradually fills, the children eagerly fold down their writing desks, and a few of them unpack a notepad and pencil case. “It’ll be starting soon,” whispers Bennett when Professor Frederik Armknecht (Chair of Practical Computer Science IV) steps up to the whiteboard down below and plugs in his laptop. Bennett is very excited about today’s topic, “Top Secret—This Has to Stay between Us!” which will be all about secret codes. Professor Armknecht begins the lecture by greeting the kids with a hearty “Are you all OK?” He then moves straight on to the next question: “Who knows what ‘top secret’ means?” Several hands immediately shoot up in the air. The kids are not at all shy about answering the question. When the professor starts showing his slides, the excitement ratchets up again, because the framing story for the lecture is based around the video game Minecraft. Now the kids get really enthusiastic, because this is a topic they are all bona fide experts in. “I even have the matching top,” whispers Bennett with a grin and points to the Minecraft logo on his chest. Using the example of Minecraft characters, Professor Armknecht explains the purpose of encrypted messages and how encryption works. Together with the children, he tries out different encryption methods. A few get to go to the front and write something on the laptop, which is projected onto the screen in real time. The goal, the professor explains, is for the hero Steve to write a message to a villager that the evil enderman cannot decipher. Bennett is among those to eagerly raise their hands and suggest an alternative alphabetic key. “I would try F instead of Y,” he says in a steady voice, addressing the whole room.
“This is now the second time I’ve done the Kids’ University and I’ve been pleasantly surprised all over again at how confident and enthusiastic the kids are about taking part,” Armknecht says after the lecture. He wrote the lecture for the Kids’ University in 2017. It was inspired by his two sons. “The Kids’ University is aimed at kids aged 8 to 12. At that time my own kids were exactly that age and real Minecraft fans. I wanted them to get a taster of what I do for a living. And so they helped me develop the framing story for the lecture. Later on, they got to watch the finished product.” When he was asked to deliver another lecture six years later, it did not take him long to make up his mind. “I think the Kids’ University is a great idea. It makes university accessible to people who’d otherwise have no direct contact with it.” That was exactly what Professor Eva Martha Eckkrammer (then Vice President for Research, Equal Opportunity, and Early-Stage Researchers), the university’s Communications Department, and Studium Generale were hoping to achieve when they launched the Kids’ University in fall 2012. The lectures are intended to be relevant to kids’ lives and interests and to make learning about scientific and academic topics fun. Other goals are to get the children excited about the “cosmos” of university at an early age, to assuage any fears they might have, and to make studying at university feel like a realistic prospect.
Is Minecraft still popular? That was the first question Armknecht asked his now grown-up sons after accepting the invite to lecture at the Kids’ University in 2023. The chorus of excited murmurs that run through the room each time the enderman appears in one of the professor’s animated videos makes abundantly clear that the game is as popular as ever. “I understand the kids’ love of video games. Math was always my favorite subject and my dad was a big fan of technology and gadgets. We got a gaming console very early on, and I was given my first PC at the age of 12. My friends and I taught ourselves how to program,” recalls Armknecht. His own childhood love of math and computing later developed into a career that straddles the divide between the two subjects. Armknecht did his doctorate on cryptography, a subject he still finds fascinating. “Having a secret or trying to uncover one—that’s something everyone’s interested in, right?”
Oh yes indeed, to judge from Bennett’s beaming eyes after the lecture. The topic seems to have captivated the kids. Bennett says it was fun. Many of the encryption methods were new to him and he learned a lot. For instance, he found out that “E” is the most common letter in German texts. Other kids seem to have had a similarly positive experience, as the Kids’ University lectures have been running successfully for years and are always quickly booked out. Armknecht also had great fun once again. Chuckling, he mentions another thing that makes the Kids’ University a little different: “At the end of a lecture, regular students briefly applaud or knock on their writing tablets. But of course the kids don’t know that. Instead, they do the same thing they do at school—they jump up and rush out for recess!”
Text: Jule Leger/