Opening up the world of science

Aalto University Junior provides free study visits for groups from primary and secondary schools. Aalto students earn work experience credits by running the workshops.
Punaiseen pipoon sonnustautunut pitkätukkainen koululainen katsoo tarkasti pienen oranssin purkin sisään ikään kuin kaukoputkeen.
Photos from various Aalto University Junior workshops by Kalle Kataila.

The laboratory at Aalto University Junior buzzes with excitement as a group of fifth-graders build the cars of the future. Building a scale model of a hydrogen-powered car teaches the kids about solutions to the environmental impacts of transportation – not to mention hydrogen combustion and the operating principle of a fuel cell.

The excited group is led by their teacher, Marianne Wolff. A bus brought them from Westendinpuisto Primary School to the Aalto Junior premises at the School of Chemical Engineering on the Otaniemi campus. Wolff has been an active user of Aalto Junior’s services for years.

‘Learning-by-doing is by far the best kind of activity for primary school children. Children find it inspiring when they’re occasionally taught by someone other than their own teacher,’ says Wolff.

The kids work in a real lab under the guidance of Aalto students. The teaching – which is free for school groups – focuses on STEAM+ subjects: science, technology, engineering, arts, maths, or economics and business. 

The highlights Wolff recalls best from her numerous visits to Aalto Junior include running acid-base tests, assembling ‘gizmos’, attending a lecture on the water cycle, and electrical workshops. Optional primary school art studies can also easily be combined with Aalto Junior activities.

There are activities for all age groups, from primary to secondary school students. Aalto Junior also arranges researcher visits to schools, lectures for secondary school students, camps and other events. Teachers can select and book workshops themselves, but activities get snatched up quickly once they’re published on the programme’s website. 

Koululainen on noussut polvensa varaan työpöydälle, jossa on monenlaisia pieniä teknisiä osia, muun muassa pienoismalliajoneuvoon sopivia pyöriä. Taustalla aikuinen katselee koululaisten keskittynyttä työskentelyä.

Remote study visits

The Aalto Junior programme can also be delivered remotely, with virtual workshops that can be attended from anywhere in Finland. ‘At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, Junior Lab was a lifesaver,’ says Wolff. ‘Although we have tools for teaching mechanics and electricity at school as well, it’s not the same as the activities at Junior Lab. Pupils are genuinely excited when they get to attend classes run by Aalto students.’

During the pandemic, Aalto Junior instructors developed activities that could be done at home or school with supplies that could be found in a grocery store. The fun experiments included making a rain cloud in a jar, weaving cloth from recycled materials, building an electric motor from a battery and copper wire, and studying the colours of light with a spectroscope made from paper towels.

Kuvassa selin kameraan astelee raidalliseen mekkoon pukeutunut koululainen sisään suuresta ovesta punasävyiseen huoneeseen. Oven vieressä on suuri banderolli, jossa on kuva mustiin aurinkolasin näköisiin laseihin pukeutunut, ylöspäin katseleva nuorukainen.

Students as teachers

Meri Hiipakka studies acoustics and audio technology at Aalto and has been involved in Aalto Junior since her first semester in 2019. She works up to 20 hours a week as an Aalto Junior instructor. ‘I mostly teach in technology-oriented areas like coding, but many of our workshops are interdisciplinary and are often run by students from completely disparate fields,’ she says.

Student instructors have a say in the content of the workshops. For example, a music coding workshop that Hiipakka suggested is currently being established.

Hiipakka says that she’s learned a lot not only from the workshop participants but also from the other instructors, such as art students running art courses. But the most rewarding thing for her is seeing the joy of success when the children discover something new. ‘Pupils may first roll their eyes and say, “I can't do that”. But when they get to try it themselves, they often see that they can.’

The greatest challenge in running workshops is that each group is different. Because the instructors don’t meet the participants in advance, they need to have good situational awareness and be able to handle surprising situations.

Kaksi suojalaseihin, valkoisiin laboratoriotakkeihin ja sinisiin suojakäsineisiin pukeutunutta yläkoululaista tarkastelee mittalasissa olevaa näytettä.

A glimpse into studying at Aalto 

Visiting the Aalto University Junior workshops gives schoolchildren their first glimpse into the university world, and they also get to hear what Aalto students think about their studies.

Wolff thinks it’s vital for pupils to have positive experiences with different disciplines from primary school onwards. ‘It’s very educational that children get to see early on that certain fields, such as natural sciences or technology, are not gender specific.’

Aalto Junior can also offer much-needed moments of success to pupils with special needs. ‘Success at school may not be a given for them, but in Junior classes they get to shine.’

When the lights of the miniature cars of the future turn on and the hydrogen vehicles get going, the surprise and joy of the workshop participants is genuine. ‘After a visit to Otaniemi, pupils always ask me when they will next get to attend,’ says Wolff.

Text: Juuso Mäntykivi 
Photos: Kalle Kataila

This article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 32, April 2023.

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