Early start

Taking college-level classes when you’re in primary school? Tilly Schildt (65) and Rowan Huijgen (29) are working together with student teachers like Justin Poels (22) to bring science into the classroom. "A guest teacher who’s still studying – it works."

TEXT: Marieke Poelmann
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jouk Oosterhof

It’s a great success: every year, more than 4000 secondary-school students from all over Zuid Holland participate in a learning programme at the Erasmus University Rotterdam through the Science Education Hub. These young students are often very impressed when visiting the university for the first time. "Wow, it looks like a cinema in here!" called one student on seeing a lecture hall. And, "My school would fit into this building ten times over!" The Science Education Hub brings young students to the university and in turn sends university students to their schools. There’s different programmes available for students between 9 and 18 years old: everything from one-off lectures to a seminar series designed for whatever purpose.

Learning how to think

Making science accessible for young students: that’s the aim of Rowan Huijgen and Tilly Schildt. "We want to get kids interested in science, give them tools for the future," Huijgen explains. The classes that work on these tools expand beyond the curriculum of general education, and are designed specifically for students who enjoy the challenge.
It’s not so much about knowledge transfer, but more about that the students learn to ask the right questions. 'Inquiry-based learning' is what the method is called with which the teachers work: make students so curious about a certain topic that they start looking for the answers themselves by doing their own research. The main goal of the student teacher is to guide the students in reaching that level of interest. "We give tools, keeping in mind what it is that the students need to know," says Justin Poels.
For two years now, Poels has enjoyed working as a student teacher next to doing his MA in history and a BA in philosophy. Doing workshops on economy or psychology is not an issue for him. The content is such that any university student could grasp it. "Although I like doing a class in my own field the best. There’s so much to discuss with philosophy."

What do we know for sure?

For Poels, the best thing about teaching is the unexpected nature of children and their unexpected answers. "That is one of the most challenging, but therein also one of the best things about this job." During one of the philosophy seminar series Poels had given, he spoke of how we experience time, and how to tell you’re actually away. After a few of these classes one boy spoke up: "If time is an illusion and we never really know if we’re awake, what do we know for sure?" Poels laughs as he retells the story.

Inspiring children

The fact that the teachers themselves are still students is a major factor in the success of the Science Education Hub. "A guest teacher who’s still studying – it works," says Huijgen. "Kids see these student teachers as role models, they look up to them and realise: I can grow up and do that as well!"
For the student-teachers, working at the Science Education Hub is more than just a student job. "It’s very special to see that I can actually contribute, that I can inspire kids," says Poels. He is considering getting his teaching certificate and pursuing a career as a teacher. "A while ago, after I did the first lesson of the series, one of the classes asked me if I couldn’t stay for the rest of the year."

Finally, a guy in front of the class

As a man there’s also an extra valuable element you bring into the game: there’s not many men who teach in primary education. "The kids love having a guy teacher for a change," says Poels. "Sometimes they call me 'miss' by accident, just because they’re so used to it." Having access to an academic education should be attainable to everyone. That’s why Schildt and Huijgen believe it’s important that the university becomes a consideration for parents and children of all different backgrounds. "There’s smart children everywhere," says Schildt. "You hope that they’ll realise: this is Rotterdam, this is my city, and this is what I can work toward." Eventually, the goal of the Science Education Hub is to make sure that enrolling students start off their university career with confidence. "They’ll have met a professor a few times, will feel more at home at the university, will know what it all entails," says Huijgen. "This is here for you, too – that’s the feeling we want to give these young students."

"This is Rotterdam, this is my city, and this is what I can work toward."

  • The Science Education Hub of Erasmus University Rotterdam has several programmes on offer, designed for students of primary and secondary school levels. The programmes focus on inquiry- based learning and academic thinking. Below a selection of available classes:

    Primary level

    • -  Erasmus Junior College (‘plus’ classes for upper levels)

    • -  Individual programmes (gifted students)

    • -  Online classes

    • -  Workshops

    • -  Kid lectures

      Secondary level