The project NeXT Generation on Campus at TU Darmstadt playfully introduces pupils to the degree programs of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology. Student assistants conduct workshops as an important way of recruiting young talents, also in emergenCITY’s field of research. That is why our research center has been financially supporting the work of NeXT Generation on Campus since this summer. In this interview, David Botscheck presents the project in more detail.

emergenCITY: When did NeXT Generation on Campus start?

David Botscheck: NeXT Generation on Campus as a project has existed for about ten years. I myself have been involved for four years now. I work here as a student assistant alongside my studies in Information Systems Technology.

emergenCITY: What exactly do you do in the project?

David Botscheck: Until the Corona pandemic, we mainly ran workshops for schoolchildren, where school classes came to us for programming workshops. These are always one-day workshops lasting six to seven hours, including lunch break, of course. Our motivation here is to spark interest and - depending on the age and skills - to challenge the students so that they will hopefully end up at the TU Darmstadt for their studies at some point. That is the ulterior motivation.

emergenCITY: Which study programs at TU Darmstadt are you specifically promoting?

David Botscheck: NeXT Generation on Campus is a project between computer science and electrical engineering. Each workshop always begins with a short lecture about the degree programs Information Systems Technology, Biomedical Engineering, Mechatronics, Electrical Engineering and Information Technology as well as Computational Engineering. The students are usually still a bit tired at that point, but afterwards they know about the courses. And this has already turned out to be very helpful in terms of degree programs that are otherwise not so familiar to pupils.

emergenCITY: How do you introduce the students to programming?

David Botscheck: At first, we teach them the basics: How do you program? We use the LEGO Mindstorm robots for that purpose. But instead of using LEGO’s own programming interface, which is easier to get started with, we use the real programming language Java to challenge the students a little more. In this way, we want to give the pupils a nice introduction: they program, but also see directly what happens - instead of just creating virtual content on the computer. It’s much cooler when you tell a robot: “Move forward” and then it actually moves forward. At the end of the day, most students can be proud of what they have achieved.

emergenCITY: What age groups are your workshops aimed at?

David Botscheck: We can adjust the skill level. We are starting with offers for younger children from the 5th or 6th grade. There, we lower the thematic scope and give more general tasks, such as “Drive the robot up to the wall and back!” But still, the children write a line of code to get there. Our focus in the target group, however, is high school, because we want to recruit new students for university.

emergenCITY: How does a workshop usually proceed?

David Botscheck: We have different scenarios and tasks: One is the so-called LEGO Space Scenario with different stations. For example, you have to set up a solar collector by turning a wheel, or hit a plate as hard as possible to make a rocket go off. You drive against the satellite antenna, rescue the Mars rover - in other words, various small tasks that are also fun. The idea here is to overcome barriers and show how cool programming is. At the end, there is also a competition in which two teams face each other in a task.

emergenCITY: And what is the other scenario?

David Botscheck: Our other Mindroids workshop is designed for the older ones, a bit more difficult and therefore also suitable for, say, advanced computer science courses. In this workshop, mobile phones are added to the LEGO components. The university itself developed the corresponding interfaces. We work more with sensors. At the moment, this enables us to have communication between the robots. That means, for example, if a robot drives up to the wall, then from there it can send a message to the next robot via the mobile phone: “You drive off now.” Here, the pupils are already using different programming constructs, which is a bit more challenging. That’s a general outline of what our NeXT workshops have been like and hopefully will be again soon, live and in colour after the pandemic.

emergenCITY: Speaking of the pandemic - What have you been doing lately since you couldn’t hold any more workshops during the Corona pandemic?

David Botscheck: Right now we are developing the project further so that we can start even better after Corona. We started cooperating with Students at School. They generally coordinate the school activities of the Central Student Advisory Service at TU Darmstadt and we want to use their resources to advertise even better and reach more schools. For this purpose, we have also developed a more compact concept with which we can go to the school ourselves for one and a half hours. Up to now, we have been tied to our own system, because it is not easy to set it up in the schools every time.

emergenCITY: What does this new concept look like?

David Botscheck: At school, we work with LEGO’s own programming interface on tablets, laptops and mobile phones that we bring along. This way we are more flexible. We can address the pupils on a slightly different level and spark their interest so that they will then hopefully come to us again for a full workshop. If we block just one lesson from one teacher instead of making the students travel to the university for a whole day, we can hopefully reach even more kids.

emergenCITY: How many students actually start studying at the TU Darmstadt after one of your workshops?

David Botscheck: Unfortunately, there are no precise numbers. But there are always nice personal stories: A teacher who is very enthusiastic about our project had a student who wanted to study Computer Science but was still hesitant. She asked me if I could talk to him. In the end, we talked for one and a half hours and now he is successfully studying Information Systems Technology. Those are the nice moments in between.

emergenCITY: What is remarkable about the workshops and what excites you about the work?

David Botscheck: I always find it interesting to see how different the new pupils are, and also how differently motivated and enthusiastic they are. When I see that the younger ones no longer type on the keyboard, but directly on the robot, because they think it is touch-controlled, then I realise: this is the mobile phone generation. Apart from that, I’m always happy to see the bright eyes of the schoolchildren when they experiment and programme and puzzle their way through.

emergenCITY: Is it possible to register for your workshops at the moment?

David Botscheck: We are in the starting blocks, but it depends on the conditions of the university. We are not allowed to run workshops at the moment. But as soon as the TU allows us to do workshops again, we are ready.