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Meet the professor: ‘Can my sister be prosecuted for stealing my eraser?’

On the university’s birthday, professors traditionally teach a class of 10 and 11-year-olds during Meet the Professor, and this year was no different. The professors were bombarded with questions. ‘What happens if you freeze your finger?’

As Bart Schermer (Professor of Law and Digital Technology) walks into the playground at Leiden’s Lorentz School, the children recognise him straight away. They have been focusing on his discipline for a few weeks already and have a photo of him up in their class. In the classroom, the professor immediately grabs the children’s attention by asking who has ever played video games. All the hands shoot into the air. ‘Who has experienced anything unpleasant in a game?’ A few hands go up again. Some children have been called names or yelled at by other players online, which hurt their ears.

Schermer wants to seek justice with the children. Can you yell or steal someone else’s sword in a game, for example? He explains that the Penal Code sets out what you are not allowed to do. Only if something fits the description in that book is it a criminal offence. A bunch of hands shoot up again because a lot of children want to know if something that has been done to them is an offence. ‘My sister stole my eraser. Is that allowed?’

Schermer laughs, ‘You could go to the police but I don’t think they would do anything about it. These rules are for bigger crimes.’

Bart Schermer wearing a professor’s gown and pointing to an electronic whiteboard. Children sit at their desks and listen.
Bart Schermer explains about law and the digital world.

Experimental physics

One door down, emeritus professor Edgar Groenen is introducing the children to experimental physics. ‘If you drop a lead ball and a ping-pong ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which will hit the ground first?’ Most children think it’ll be the lead ball but Groenen has a surprising answer, ‘They’ll arrive at the same time.’ By doing tests and research, you can find out how something really works, he says.

Edgar Groenen wearing a gown and holding a pointer in one hand and pointing a finger in the air, clearly enthusiastically explaining something to the children.
Edgar Groenen introduces the class to experimental physics.

The purpose of punishment

Miranda Boone, Professor of Criminology and Comparative Penology, is standing in front of another class somewhat further down the corridor. She conducts research at the interface between criminology and criminal law. Boone asks the class if they know of any punishments and what we want to achieve by punishing people. The children don’t seem that impressed with the punishments they themselves are given by their parents or teachers. They say that their parents confiscating their phones for two days doesn’t make them clean their room faster the next time.

When Boone says that she has visited prisons many times, she gets loads of questions. It’s an exciting topic for the children. ‘What do people do in a cell?’ one girl asks. ‘On television, you always see them carving graffiti into the wall.’ Boone explains how there isn’t much to do in prison and that the cells are really small. ‘Inmates watch TV or read or write if they enjoy that. But they often get extremely bored.’

Miranda Boone lets a blond-haired boy try on her gown.
Miranda Boone lets the children try on her gown.

Fantastic teaching children

The professors were supposed to teach for an hour but haven’t manage to answer all the questions in that time, so they stay a bit longer. ‘It’s fantastic teaching children this age’, says Groenen. ‘They want to know everything and you can actually tell them things because they already understand a lot.’ Schermer and Boone are also buzzing when they finally leave the classroom. ‘Meet the Professor is a great way to introduce children to research and academia at a young age and to spark their curiosity.’

Meet the Professor

During Meet the Professor children in year 7 of primary school [aged around 10 or 11, Ed.] are introduced to research and researchers in a lesson by a professor in their own class. Enquiry-based learning is central: the children learn class in six preparatory lessons about the professor who is going to come to their class. This year 60 professors visited 35 schools in the Leiden and The Hague region.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photos: Stefanie Uit den Boogaard

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