A young researcher who invents a new weather balloon and turns an entire industry on its head? Two other bright minds who develop a hoverboard based on an ingenious magnetic arrangement, inspired by the floating skateboard in the film “Back to the Future”, but that really works in real life? These inventions are among the highlights in the technology section of the “Jugend forscht” youth competition – highly decorated with first prizes in the national competition as well as in the world’s largest STEM student competition “Regeneron International Science and Engineering” (weather balloon, 2022) and in the “European Union Contest for Young Scientists” (skateboard, 2019).
“Youth researches” with innovative projects
More than five decades after its launch, Germany’s best-known competition for young talents is still a treasure trove packed with innovative projects. Sometimes you can find projects in it that seem slightly bizarre at first glance. The alarm clock bed with integrated voice control, for example, which gets morning grouches out of bed in several levels of escalation – first with soft music, later with vibrating pillows and by automatically rolling up the bedspread. Or the robot hairdresser, which uses a vacuum cleaner hose to pull the hair up perpendicular to the scalp so that it can be cut down to the desired length. Pure inventiveness and fascination with technology shine through in both of these designs. Other projects apparently follow the motivation to find solutions for specific contemporary problems. For instance a filter system with several screens for wastewater pipes, which could prevent microfibers from synthetic textiles from washing machines from getting into the wastewater. Another project relies on the use of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to protect the charging network for electric cars from disruptions and against hacker attacks.
For young researchers, the competition is a real career booster
Indeed, “Jugend forscht” is a veritable talent factory for young scientists in the disciplines of chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, earth and space sciences, the world of work, and technology. The field of technology is particularly in demand among young researchers. Of the 95,000 or so applications received to date since 2005, almost one-fifth were in this category of the competition. The partners and sponsors include the Helmholtz Association and the German Research Foundation (DFG), which has awarded the European Prize to three national winners since 2010 and assists the winners in preparing for the “European Union Contest for Young Scientists”. In practice, participants in “Jugend forscht” benefit from targeted support in school and training, and later from opportunities such as research internships, trade fair appearances, and study trips. The “Jugend forscht” network and contacts that the young people make during the competition are helpful for their careers. Winning an award in the final is, to some extent, a giant stepping stone to any further career.
Winning the national award as an apprentice with a liquid level sensor
However, especially in the field of technology, not all career paths lead to an academic career at a university. An astonishing number of graduates start their own companies sooner or later. There are national champions who throw their studies overboard to advance their projects according to their own ideas of freedom and entrepreneurship. Other award winners find their way to self-employment in skilled trades via a traditional apprenticeship. DEKRA also sees enormous potential in young people who are passionate about technology. “For us as an employer, it is enormously important that young people take an interest in technology at an early age. Technical know-how is required, especially in our expert services, and due to the ever-increasing shortage of skilled workers, we have a great interest in getting schoolchildren interested in courses of study such as mechatronics, mechanical engineering, automotive engineering, and information technology,” says Sina Gallmeier, HR Marketing and Recruiting Specialist at DEKRA Automobil GmbH.
Thomas Nesch, the 2008 national technology winner, boasts a special success story. He took part in the competition as a mechatronics apprentice at an automotive manufacturer – with the development of a sensor that can be used to detect the loss of liquids from paint robot hoses. The system, for which a patent has been filed, was later used in the production of vehicles. For Thomas Nesch, the competition was the stepping stone to a degree in engineering at the University of Cambridge, followed by a career as an innovation manager.
With coordinated drone flights to the European youth competition
The professional future of Tim Arnold (16) and Felix von Ludowig (17), however, is still written in the stars. The two Bavarian kids won the 58th national competition in the field of technology in May 2023 and also received the German Research Foundation’s European Prize. Now the young researchers are focusing on the “European Union Contest for Young Scientists”, which will take place in Brussels in mid-September. With their project for coordinated drone flights, they should have a good chance of placing well. Essentially, the project involves carrying out search missions with camera drones, which can be used to locate people or objects in difficult terrain, for instance. At the heart of the project is a simple and intuitive app for smartphones that can be used to plan and control drone missions. To prepare a mission, the user enters the flight route into the system. During the flight, the software checks whether the remote-controlled aircraft are following their planned routes and evaluates the images from the cameras. Supposedly, cooperation between multiple drones is also possible with the app.
And what makes a successful young researcher today? Basically the same as 40 years ago, when “Jugend forscht” still focused on computer technology and EDP. It takes curiosity, a good understanding of scientific contexts, but also creativity and the will to stay on the ball even when things prove difficult. Ultimately, these are precisely the virtues that characterize every good researcher and engineer.