»Experimenting brings students closer together. We even manage the whole thing without using many words.«

Marc Büssing, Gymnasium der Stadt Frechen

Boosting self-confidence – creating prospects

Physics teachers Paul Feltes and Marc Büssing from the Gymnasium Frechen high school waged an experiment themselves when they set up the “MINTogether” project (“MINT” is German for “STEM”) for young refugees. Once a week, they investigate the world of science and technology together with them. As part of the voluntary classes, the youngsters screw together assembly kits for solar-powered cars and wind turbines, thus providing them valuable technical knowledge for future careers in a playful manner. The joint experiments and building activities help to remove prejudices and break down language barriers.

You are promoting youngsters, who hardly speak any German, with a technology project of all things. How did you come up with that idea?

Marc Büssing: During regular classes, these young refugees often have serious difficulties. Many of them get frustrated and depressed because they can’t fully grasp the content. So we thought: they desperately need to feel a sense of achievement. That was how it all started. Experimenting brings students closer together. Language plays much less of a role. We even manage the whole thing without using many words.
Paul Feltes: After the summer break in 2015, a tent camp was suddenly located in our gym. Every day we would meet new people in the schoolyard who were refugees. It actually really affected me. So we thought: what can we do for these children? Then Siemens Stiftung submitted the proposal regarding the promotion of STEM projects. Everything moved very quickly from then on. With regard to the language barrier, none of the children spoke German to begin with. So, first of all we drew pictures of the tools and wrote what they were called underneath. Since then, we have started to understand each other very well.
Physiklehrer Paul Feltes, Gymnasium Frechen

Who comes to your classes then?

Paul Feltes: We always have between 10 to 15 young refugees aged between 12 and 16 with a wide variety of nationalities. We also have three or four German students who come to help out. They take turns though, to make sure they don’t miss too many of their regular classes.

Marc Büssing: We also see the project as a kind of scholarship for outstanding pupils, which is why the more talented German students take part.

And how do the classes actually work from a practical perspective?

Paul Feltes: The youngsters might make a solar-powered boat, for example, using assembly kits. Images and design sketches serve as a kind of orientation throughout the project. The technical requirements can be configured and increased differently as needed. Some students just want to build a wooden car driven by balloons, whereas others want to equip their model car with a solar cell and a rotor. All of the classes can be taken at different levels of technical difficulty, which has an excellent transfer effect.

Marc Büssing: Many of the projects are self-determining. Anyone who picks up two solar cells at the beginning, for example, must find out for themself how to wire them up.

So is your teaching method discovery-based learning?

Marc Büssing: Exactly! We encourage a very hands-on approach. Above all else, the class has to be exciting. It is important for the students to identify with what they are learning and making, so we allow them a lot of freedom to design creative models. The products that the students make should be what motivates them.

What would you like to achieve with the project?

Paul Feltes: Above all else, we want to provide the young refugees with a sense of achievement and boost their self-confidence. We want to help them to develop their language skills, provide them with some career guidance and assist in removing any prejudices – all of that will ultimately help refugees to become an integrated member of German society.

Marc Büssing: The promotion of STEM subjects amongst girls is also an important aspect. They feel a particular connection with our project.

Do the youngsters have any previous knowledge of science and technology?

Marc Büssing: They’re all very different. Some of the children come from academic households, whereas others have little previous education. Some of the students also have excellent technical and mechanical skills.

And what do the children think of the project?

Paul Feltes: Their eyes light up when they study the instructions for the assembly kits. When they have to turn a design sketch into a physical reality with wood, for example, they are really committed to it – it’s truly a joy to see. I watch them and really believe that I know how they’re feeling.

Marc Büssing: As teachers, we have felt like the children have really appreciated this right from the beginning, which is incredibly good for the soul. But we have also been seeing the students make progress. Some of them become super involved in the project and positively seem to liven up and are becoming real experts. I’m thinking in particular of one girl who was very introverted in the beginning. She was all alone when she came to us. Now we even see her helping others that are struggling.

Have you also sometimes found that you have reached certain limits?

Marc Büssing: Yes, we have tried to cover digital topics a few times. We wanted the students to program something with a visual programming language, but it was too abstract for them. Many of the young refugees have obviously not had any experience with devices such as smartphones or computers as a working medium.

Paul Feltes: At the beginning, I wanted to teach the children about parallel and series connection using a chain of lights, but I quickly gave up on that idea (laughs). So we handed them 40 cables and a handful of little lights and said: make them light up. And they did!

Science and technology education clearly has a lot of potential for furthering young refugees. Why is that?

Marc Büssing: Our project is somewhat of a lifeline for the students. In “MINTogether”, the refugee children are often in the majority and suddenly get the chance to shine. They help others to use the drill properly and they hammer and saw away. Here they can suddenly feel like they’re somebody.

Paul Feltes: I see the potential especially in the future. We are providing these youngsters with technical as well as language skills that will be useful for their careers. Further down the line, we would like to place them with regular companies that take on trainees. But we’re not at that stage just yet.

Siemens Stiftung would like to create a stronger connection between STEM education and the promotion of values. Do you also adopt that approach?

Experiments for advanced participants: the technical projects are all self-determining and can be extended at will.
© Siemens Stiftung, Photographer: Sebastian Isacu
Marc Büssing: Regular German students are also involved in our project alongside the young refugees. This is a great asset and a fantastic opportunity to bring both groups together and break down prejudices. These days, when the class is over and the students say goodbye, they hug each other. However, we also try to promote and communicate values to the students through the content of our projects. We have been focusing on renewable energy sources in order to raise the children’s awareness of the importance of using available resources responsibly.

That sounds ambitious. Has the project also helped you personally?

Marc Büssing: The fact that the group is so mixed is a major teaching challenge in itself. We have earned the respect and gratitude of the children in return though. For me personally, it’s great to see how the refugee children and the German students work together without any inhibitions. Hopefully they will take these positive experiences back home with them as well.

Paul Feltes: For us as high school teachers, working with refugee students who don’t speak German was a totally new situation. Jumping on board and immediately getting involved has been an exciting challenge.

The motto “MINTogether” really applies to you both as well then...

Marc Büssing: The project has certainly helped us two as a team. Being able to give the classes together has been a great advantage. We see the fact that the school management fully credits us both with the project as an important sign of appreciation for the work we’ve been doing.

What are your plans for the future?

Paul Feltes: We would really like to continue to run the project using the same, tried-and-tested method. As an extra step, we would also like to involve neighboring schools and local companies. This should help to provide the students with long-term career prospects if their residency status allows.
October 2017
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