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„You have to arouse children’s curiosity extremely early“

An interview with Professor Dr. Heinz Trasch, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center Science, Technology & Economy

Professor Dr. Heinz Trasch talked to TRANSFER magazine about curiosity in children and how adults can support them. He also told us more about his experiences with the young founders contest “Jugend gründet” and how important such competitions are for the future work of young adults.

Hello, Professor Trasch – let’s think about the future, but also business and science. It lies in the hands of young people. The task of the older generation is to prepare them for it. Which techniques do you feel work best in this regard and where is there still room for improvement?

That’s quite a broad question but I’d like to answer it by going into detail. I’m absolutely convinced that you have to arouse children’s curiosity extremely early, because curiosity is one of the driving forces behind new insights. To do this, things and processes have to be questioned in a way that matches the age of the child and you have to root out explanations together. The best place for this is in the family and it should be closely supported by kindergartens, in primary schools and in secondary schools. It’s important to pay close attention to applying what has been learned and to how the different specialist disciplines work together. Knowledge should be seen as a raw material. It only becomes valuable if it’s used properly and applied in the right way. A good way to demonstrate this is to give individuals, or teams or working groups a task to work on as a supervised project. Teamwork in such projects bolsters personal qualities, fosters talent, and strengthens team-playing skills – which in many cases will be absolutely crucial later on in careers. For the tasks that have been set during the project to succeed, you need support from moderators, who don’t just help get things off the ground by outlining the project, but also work alongside as an integrated team member or supervisor, providing tips on how to solve the problem. The people who moderate in this way should be an enthusiastic member of the family, a teacher, or an instructor, because this will certainly have an impact on careers people choose later in life. If you ask me, there are not enough of these kinds of people doing this sort of work out of selflessness, so there’s a lot of room for improvement. One organization approaching this in a really effective way is the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Business Development at Pforzheim University, with its national online “Jugend grundet” contest. School leavers and apprentices get to develop a business concept they’re interested in with the support of a specialist teacher or instructor. They then have to implement the idea virtually like actual entrepreneurs in a team. It’s a simulated competition but they have to present their idea to a panel of judges and the aim is to inspire investors to back their idea. Because it’s organized as a competition, the teams that enter “Jugend grundet” also learn that not every business concept is a success. Some of the competitors have decided to set up a business after completing their training and this shows that the concept is headed in the right direction. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough methods like this – ways to prepare young people for a career. There’s another project being conducted at the moment to prepare students in the senior grades for work. It was initiated by a medium-sized company called Heinrich Schmid from Reutlingen. Students do vocational training during their last year of high school as part of a combined program. The practical part of their training takes place at the company. People on the project can do an apprenticeship exam in a manual trade six months after finishing high school. The project has been named Duales Gymnasium (“Dual High School”) and it just started this year at the Firstwald High School in Kusterdingen.

You’ve been a judge for the “Jugend gründet” contest since 2004. It’s an online contest for students and apprentices from the whole of Germany. What piqued your interest in the project at the time and why are you still so interested in it?

As I said, competitions like this are the best possible preparation for a career later on in life and sometimes even for setting up a business. I’ve been enthusiastic about the idea since it got off the ground. We’ve been sponsoring the first prize for the competition since my earlier jobs at Steinbeis. When they present to the judges and you talk to the teams face-to-face, you notice relatively quickly who will go into science or engineering later on, or maybe into business management after all. The teams start to adopt their own structure in the same way you find them in business. Most of the jobs they adopt lean towards the individual participants. It’s precisely this insight that underscores my feeling that the “Jugend grundet” team elected to go in the right direction. This is also reflected by the growing number of participants.

What do you think the competition is capable of in terms of preparing young people for a future career? What do they get out of it?

We know from the past that some of the people who enter the competition take an interesting idea and go on to set up their own small business after high school or university. From our discussions with past entrants we’ve discovered that it was a conscious step because they could build on the things they’d already experienced while taking part in “Jugend grundet”. A number of people mentioned that the road to setting up a business no longer seemed so difficult because they’d already practiced writing a business plan, and the conversations with the moderators and the judges had already taught them how to think a business through to completion – and, if necessary, transfer this to other areas. Even if the company didn’t work and had to be wound down, the young entrepreneurs didn’t see it as a personal failure, instead they re-examined their business concepts, made a few changes, or started out again with another idea. But not everyone who took part in the competition set up their own business. The vast majority gained their first work experience at all sorts of companies. The competition helped them when it came to selecting a profession. The decisions made by the participants to study something scientific, technical, or business-related was often influenced by the preparations they made for the virtual startup and the role-play in the team presentation.

As a member of the jury, you have direct contact to the team members. How do the young adults benefit from your business experience? And also, what have you learned from them?

All of the judges bring their own professional experience on board for this competition. This is partly to assess the business concept, the product, the service, or the presentations the teams make, but they also have to give each of the teams feedback, or praise, or even constructive criticism. The feedback rounds are a fixed part of the interim finals and the national final. It’s a mixed jury and the judges can share their personal impressions directly with the teams if they want to and highlight any other ways to apply the business concept. They also talk to them about their presentation skills. Every now and again, individual team members have to be singled out for a discussion about their self-confidence. So it’s not just the product or service presentations that are talked about, but also the way and manner in which they present. Usually this evolves into a fascinating discussion, which thrives off the questions the team members pose to the judges. The more time you spend as a judge in the intermediate stages and the finals, the better you get to know the individual members of the team and understand their abilities, which can also be hugely beneficial when it comes to giving feedback to the teams or discussions with any of the young individuals. Something that still surprises me time and again is how interesting the ideas are that the teams present during the competition.

You must have seen some fascinating projects as a member of the jury. Which ones left you with a lasting impression, and why?

I’ve been a member of the jury for the competition since 2004, so I’ve seen lots of interesting projects. They fall into a number of different categories and they often unveil ways to solve all the sorts of little or big problems you encounter every day. Areas that keep coming up in the projects and services include power generation, healthcare, security, nutrition, lifestyle products, but often also systems based on electronic technology – new apps, for solving or simplifying chores or simply making life more pleasant. Out of the many different ways to generate power, piezoelectricity often comes up as an energy source in healthcare and safety, and the target group is usually people affected by some sort of handicap. With nutrition, there are new products like insect meals, but then there are also services that help users with ordering or buying, or lifestyle products that help with a whole variety of leisure activities or hobbies. Actually I don’t want to go into individual products or services because I’m surprised again and again at how varied the projects are in the competition. The contest is expanding continuously from one year to the next. The teachers and trainers play a really important role, acting as initiators, sparring partners, or moderators. But I still believe the competition is more about the journey than the destination, so not the project itself. Spending time thinking about setting up a business is what it’s really about, even if a number of successful projects we had in the competition have already been registered as an industrial design or patent.