Kristina, Céline, and Sina aren’t fazed by either the television cameras or the critical questions posed by the panel. The teams and topics in the Hesse state competition for “Jugend forscht,” which is being held in the Merck gymnasium, are extremely varied. There’s a lot of excitement at this meeting of the best young scientific minds in the state — and a lot of interesting devices and gadgets. A magnetic levitation train whirs by above its track; there’s a special fan a few stands down, a microscope experiment a little further away, and a flood simulation at the end. Young researchers talk to each other, conduct experiments, and present their work and its results.
For two days in March 2011, a gymnasium normally used for sporting events was transformed into a venue that offered the lively atmosphere of an inventors’ fair. It was exactly the right place for the three aforementioned high school students from Kassel to present their “Solar Pond — hot on the bottom, cold on the top” project to the panel of judges for the “Jugend forscht” competition.
A solar pond is a unit that collects and stores heat from sunlight and later makes the resulting energy available to users. At first glance, the principle behind it resembles that of a conventional solar collector. The difference is that the solar pond does away with the expensive equipment normally needed for the water cycle, since the pond is a collector and storage device all in one. The pond’s lower level consists of a highly concentrated saline solution that is heat-insulated from the atmosphere by an upper layer with a lower salt concentration. Here, the difference in density prevents the convection currents that normally occur because of temperature differences in water.
“This is version 3.0,” jokes 17-year-old Céline Gieße. She then points to a green rain collector barrel covered with sensors — the centerpiece of the “Solar Pond.” The first two versions of the unit were prototypes that didn’t seal off water very well and therefore quickly flooded the students’ school lab. This barrel, however, is not only leak-proof; it also works, as was demonstrated in experiments conducted throughout the winter, according to Kristina Sprenger and Sina Hammann, both 18. The trio conducted experiments every day during their winter vacation. The results of their research were displayed as graphs on their stand at the competition.
Kristina, Céline and Sina with their "Solar Pond"
Research for the future
“It’s impressive to see just how much young people can accomplish when they’re interested in a certain subject,” says Christiane Gräf, director of the “Jugend forscht” competition in Hesse. Enthusiasm and scientific curiosity are the fuel that fired the many diverse experiments and projects at the Merck gymnasium. This was true not only of the “Solar Pond” project in Hesse but also of a biodiesel study, a model for recovering the braking energy of heavy-duty cranes, a study of the behavior of wild horses — and every other project, for that matter. A total of 29 projects were considered for the 2011 “Jugend forscht” competition in Hesse.
“Jugend forscht,” which was established in 1965 by the journalist Henri Nannen, strongly promotes the natural sciences and technology. The “Students Experiment” competition is open to young people between the ages of nine and 14. Older teenagers and young adults aged between 15 and 21 can then participate in the “Jugend forscht” competition. University students may only take part if they have been studying for one full semester or less.
Gräf is proud of the dense network of funding and support in Hesse. “After all, intensive support and lively discussions move every project forward,” he says. “You can even see that in the progress the participants make when they advance from the regional to the state competition, despite that fact that the two are separated by only four working weeks.” The evaluation of the projects by the jury doesn’t involve an examination that tests knowledge. It’s more like a scientific discussion that unfolds as the teams explain and present their work.
Sustainable promotion of up-and-coming scientists
German Federal President Christian Wulff presents the awards to the winners of the 2011 national competition: Joshua Kühner, 20, Till Hülsmann, 21, and Jonatan Molinski, 19, from Hesse developed a laser-based cryptography method for use in fiber-optic cables. Their encryption process enables fast, tap-proof data transmission
© Jugend forscht
Merck has been supporting this competition for young scientists — the largest in Europe — for many years. The pharmaceutical and chemical company managed a regional competition for the first time in 1982; the Hesse state contest has been taking place regularly in Darmstadt since 1996. Merck also staged the federal competitions in 1989 and 2002.
In this manner, the company is also taking on responsibility for the further development of the industrial sector in which it is active. “We’re one of the few pharmaceutical and chemical companies in Germany that also conducts research — and the young scientists of today could turn out to be our employees of tomorrow,” says the longtime Merck representative for “Jugend forscht,” Barbara Hoffmann, who passed the baton to Daniela Lewin in 2011. This is sustainable work for the future at its best.
Promoting up-and-coming scientists is a job that never ends. That’s because along with organizing the state competition, Merck’s involvement with “Jugend forscht” also includes supporting individual research projects by providing materials and offering internships as special prizes. Nevertheless, the two-day event in the Merck gymnasium is without a doubt the high point on the calendar. “We organize the entire competition in accordance with the rules of the foundation — and that includes everything from supporting the researchers to designing the concept for the awards ceremony,” Hoffmann explains. The organizational work begins several months before the date of the competition itself.