Lectures with “light-bulb” effect
It’s 5 pm on a Friday evening in the Audimax at LMU, not a particularly judicious the most favorable time for a lecture, one might think. But the excitement among the audience is palpable – the subject of the lecture is dinosaurs.
The students awaiting the arrival of the lecturer, LMU paleontologist Dr. Oliver Rauhut, in the Audimax are considerably younger than the audiences he is accustomed to. Girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 12, who have registered for the Children’s University, are eager to hear the first lecture in the new semester, entitled “Dinosaurs – Mystical Monsters of the Mesozoic”. Moreover, their reaction to the Introduction shows that they are genuine students. They know that real students don’t clap at lectures. They express their approval by politely knocking on the desktops with their knuckles.
The fascination of feathered dinosaurs
They had other occasions to applaud during Oliver Rauhut’s presentation. He began by telling them that he had just come back from a trip to Austria to recover a dinosaur fossil that weighed 120 kilograms – and gave him lots of heavy lifting to do. “People who use brushes in their excavations are archaeologists. They are sometimes confused with paleontologists, but paleontologists tend to work with jackhammers and stone saws,” he remarks, with a grin.
The great attraction of Children’s University lectures for Rauhut is the unbridled enthusiasm of the audience. “You can really see their eyes light up when they get the point,” he says. And it’s not just the lecturer in front of the class who notices this. As Rauhut explains that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs a perceptible murmur of amazement ripples through the lecture hall. The kids are further astonished to hear of Rauhut’s latest research findings, which show that dinosaurs had feathers. Eight-year-old Carl, who is attending his first lecture at the Children’s University, is fascinated to hear that some dinosaurs even resembled modern birds in appearance. For him the take-home lesson is that ideas about what dinosaurs were really like have changed a lot recently. “People used to think that dinosaurs lived in water,” he explains. He also marvels at the idea that one can work out on the basis of fossil footprints whether dinosaurs plodded slowly across the landscape millions of years ago or zipped along at a brisk running pace.
Rauhut is delighted that his young hearers have had the opportunity to learn so much that is new, because much of what they read about dinosaurs in books is simply wrong. And although this experienced lecturer admits to having been a little nervous beforehand, he now says he wouldn’t hesitate to give other talks at the Children’s University – and not just for the pleasure of observing the sudden dawning of those “aha” effects.
Four more light-bulb lectures for kids
At the Children’s University, the new semester has just got underway. Four more established researchers are preparing to astound a young and inquiring public in the coming months. The next lecture is scheduled for the beginning of November, and will be given by Leibniz Prizewinner Professor Erika von Mutius, who will explain why children in farming families live healthier lives than city kids do. (Hint: The difference has a lot to do with cows.) Later in the month physicist Professor Tim Liedl will give a lecture on DNA, the thread of life. The differences between analog drawing with pencil and paper and digital painting with the help of computer programs will be the topic of the lecture entitled “Grab that Mouse – Painting with Digital Brushes”, to be given by Anja Mohr, Professor of Art Education at LMU, early next year. In the final lecture in the series (“No, I’m Not Getting Up”), chronobiologist Professor Till Roenneberg explains why it is so difficult to get up in time for school in the morning. Naturally, all lectures at the Children’s University are given in German.