Students at Austria's schools are now directly experiencing the "fascination of research" first hand and up close. This is thanks to the most highly acclaimed scientists in the country: the Wittgenstein prizewinners. With the support of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), they established the Wittgenstein Academy. Since the end of June, Academy members have, for the first time, been bringing cutting-edge research to Austrian schools in a very personal manner. In addition to sharing their knowledge with students in years 6 and 7, the prizewinners also set the students a number of challenges: school projects linked to the research carried out by the prizewinners can be financially supported by the Wittgenstein Academy – once the best ideas have been selected. In this way, the students can experience the demanding competition researchers constantly face in their everyday work in seeking external funding - and how genuine enthusiasm wins such support.
Good science depends on continuously acquiring knowledge – across the generations. Austria's top researchers have long since realised this and have now enthusiastically accepted the challenge to inspire interest in science among young people. To achieve this aim, they established the Wittgenstein Academy, a community of scientists, all of whom are winners of Austria's most prestigious science prize, the Wittgenstein prize. The extensive programme, which ten classes and several individual groups have already participated in, is now starting with a pilot phase consisting of the first exciting presentations and discussions on the prizewinners' current work.
Explaining the background to the Wittgenstein Academy, professor Jörg Schmiedmayer from the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics (Atominstitut) at the Vienna University of Technology and 2006 winner of the Wittgenstein Prize, stated: "The aim of our initiative is to give young people an opportunity to personally meet scientists. This can set the scene for inspiring enthusiasm for research and sparking interest in science." In order to achieve this aim, the Wittgenstein team working with Schmiedmayer adopted a very pragmatic approach when planning the initiative. "We noticed that after the Examination Boards meet at the beginning of the summer, the routine classes become a challenge", explained Schmiedmayer. "We wanted to offer an alternative – a visit to a truly high-tech laboratory under the personal guidance of top researchers." Thanks to the strong interest, this offer was eagerly accepted already in the first year of the Wittgenstein Academy.
This meant that in the second half of June, students were able to find out about cutting-edge research topics such as quantum physics and its ‘craziness’ or information processing at cellular level. They learned how to make individual atoms visible and discovered what the coldest material has to do with precision clocks and how the Middle Ages affect our present-day prejudices. But instead of dry lessons from a school book, the students enjoyed the explanations given by enthusiastic scientists in their laboratories, who also provided a realistic and exciting picture of their everyday research work at the same time.
The involvement of the members of the Wittgenstein Academy, however, extends beyond simply sharing their knowledge. They are also offering genuine incentives to students to apply their enthusiasm for research to specific projects. As a result, the students are invited to creatively examine the cutting-edge research conducted by the prizewinners involved in the initiative and to submit their ideas about the research to the Wittgenstein Academy. There are very few restrictions – experiments or videos are just as welcome as art projects or plays. As Schmiedmayer explained: "A jury from the Wittgenstein Academy will reach a decision on financially supporting the implementation of projects, up to an amount of EUR 1,000. In this way, we would like to create an awareness of the everyday life of a researcher in which the competition for external funding challenges us and encourages us to aspire to excellence in science and research."
In fact, in addition to sharing the latest findings in the world of science, this FWF-supported initiative also provides a very personal and individual insight into the professional life of Austria's top researchers. Authenticity is ensured by the personal involvement of Wittgenstein prizewinners, who, due to their outstanding achievements, also constitute ideal role models for future scientists.