Tracking tiny organisms: 15 preschool children visited the HKI in Jena

“Since it’s raining cats and dogs we simply moved our picnic from the green meadow under cherry trees behind the HKI building 5 to this dry place under the glass roof.” For the kindergarten teacher Frank Nebelung and the preschool kids of the Kindergarten Saaleknirpse this was no reason not to pleasurably take a bite from their sandwiches. „Besides this, there is a great view from here over to the buildings of the HKI and indeed, “There is one!” The children observed a scientist in a white lab coat working in a lab behind the window.

A quarter of an hour later in building 3 the preschool children turned into small researchers with the help of small lab coats, gloves and goggles. After an instruction, how to behave in a lab, the children started to find out why hygiene is so important and what bacteria and fungi really are.

On the way to the lab the crowd passed the cold-storage room. The children discovered this room with comments like “Wow, a walk-in fridge!”

Some days before their visit at the Hans Knöll Institute (HKI), the preschool children got the task to stamp their toys, fingers, and whatever they could think of on agar plates directly in the kindergarten. The agar plates were provided by the HKI-coworkers Caroline Semm and Christiane Weigel from the group Jena Microbial Resource Collection (JMRC) at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, headed by Kerstin Voigt, PI of FungiNet project A6. The children were very excited to see, what the agar plates would look like after some days in the incubator.

“There are snowflakes growing!”, “Mine looks like a rocket!”, “And I see a falling star!” the children excitedly asserted. Scientific coordinator Sina Gerbach, organizer of this event, explained, what the falling stars, the rockets and the snowflakes really are. The children listened as quiet as mice. Our aim was to make the children understand, how to visualise “invisible” germs on the skin or on toys.

In the meantime, some children already queued in order to be the first at the microscope. “We have now visualised the germs, but we don’t know, if they are good or bad. Therefore, we need to observe them under a microscope. This is what we are going to do right now with the baker’s yeast.” The sentence was not yet said, as one child after the other blinked into the microscope to see the yeast cells, prepared by Sandra Höfgen (Biobricks of Microbial Natural Product Syntheses). “Yes, there are small circles!” or “They move and turn around themselves!” were the excited comments of the kids. “Very well observed!” praised Sina Gerbach the fascination and the prudence of the kids.

After having learned, how to evaluate the hazardousness of germs, the kids answered the question “How can you protect yourself against dangerous germs?” immediately with “Washing hands!”

This was the catchword for the “Magic Soap”, which the kids eagerly used to wash their hands. Under a UV-lamp, the hands were glowing in a fabulous blue. Forgotten spots on the hands, in contrast, remained dark. In this way the kids learned, how to wash hands correctly. 

After some rounds on the swivel chair, the last surprise for the day was presented: a real “fungal-bacterial lunch” was served consisting of bread rolls (yeast), cheese and yoghurt (bacteria), as well as little sausages.

The clever mini-researchers realised immediately, that the sausage is the only food, not produced using any bacteria or fungi.

The educational objective was reached! The children will remember this successful morning as junior scientists. They left knowing, that bacteria and fungi are not visible by eye, but do live on their skin, toys, door handles and so on.  But not all of them are dangerous. Some germs are even useful and important for the production of food, medicine or plastic packaging.

The children returned to the kindergarten with the blue gloves on their hands, the highlight of the day. They were very grateful for this exciting experience and assured, that they absolutely want to visit the HKI another time soon.

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