TU staff member Stefan Hildebrand and TU alumna Carolin Neumann founded the “BYTE Challenge” to bring computer science to life for school students. They’ve since received several awards.

The coronavirus pandemic forced most of us to alter our trajectories, spurring some of us on to devise new projects and ideas. That’s how it happened for TU alumna Carolin Neumann and Stefan Hildebrand, research associate at the Department of Structural Mechanics and Analysis at TU Berlin.

COVID struck when Neumann was studying computer science and Hildebrand was completing his Computational Engineering Science program at TU Berlin. Suddenly finding themselves working from home in a wholly digital landscape, they both felt a responsibility to roll up their sleeves and get involved. “It was evident to us from the outset of the pandemic that the skills we learned at TU Berlin as computer science experts were in high demand throughout the country. Both my parents are teachers, so I experienced almost first-hand the difficulties facing the education system. We hit on the idea to motivate school students to learn about computer science,” Hildebrand explains. Neumann, who can remember enthusiastically taking part in a computer science competition during her school days, suggested they use a similar format to inspire the children.

Courses can be stand-alone or integrated into other lessons

In a matter of weeks, the pair had turned their idea into reality and created the “BYTE Challenge” platform. The concept targets school students in grades 5 to 13 and their teachers who want to incorporate the courses into their classrooms. Various aspects of computer science are explained clearly and comprehensibly in short, self-produced videos. Neither children nor adults need to have any previous experience with the subject. Afterwards, the children are encouraged to actively participate in a quiz round; whoever earns the most points, or in this case “$BYTEs,” is in with the chance to win a prize. The lessons are suitable for whole grades, groups, and even solo participants.

To spread the word about their learning platform, the two initially used mailing lists from various initiatives and the German Informatics Society to contact schools and teachers. And with every success: They received so many registrations in the first year that they quickly decided to make the format a permanent fixture and get to expanding the offers. The BYTE Challenge now has more than 100 free courses available in three languages, over 1,000 yearly registrations, and around 70 commissions from schools. The portal also spans a great spectrum of subjects, and students can learn about and be quizzed on topics from other STEM disciplines. What’s more, the BYTE Challenge team holds on-site workshops every year and takes part in the Long Night of the Sciences at TU Berlin.

The project, which is officially part of the German Informatics Society, has already received several awards, and Stefan Hildebrand was included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for the DACH region in 2023.

Positive feedback from school students

While Stefan Hildebrand has been working at TU Berlin’s Department of Structural Mechanics and Analysis since 2021, Caroline Neumann took on a position with an international tech company. Although they both have demanding full-time jobs, they are still actively involved in the BYTE Challenge after hours.

This is only possible thanks to the support of many volunteers, namely around 100 people, from school children to retired professors. They take care of content, the website, liaising with schools and other initiatives, maintaining distribution lists, and running social media channels. “We spend a lot of time and effort campaigning for sponsors. We need them primarily for the prizes the students can win,” says Hildebrand. “Last year, we gave awards to the 16 most dedicated schools. This was only possible because we had sponsors financing the prizes. We hope we will be able to do so again this year.”

But despite the level of work, the two thoroughly enjoy being involved. “We get very positive feedback from the participants and schools. It’s fantastic to see the brilliant ideas the children come up with, like they do in the programming course. The teamwork with everyone who pushes the BYTE Challenge forward is also very rewarding. Our team meetings are enjoyable and more like meeting up with friends,” says Hildebrand, continuing with an account about a Ukrainian school student: “He wanted to get involved with us and gave a presentation on neural networks at a workshop for children at a Berlin high school. He prepared the complex topic very well and the presentation was excellent. Not only that, but he did it all in German despite only living here for a few months. The other children were impressed. One girl was so inspired that she got in contact with us wishing to join the team. That’s a clear example of how things are constantly moving forward here. We strike a match and ignite inspiration.”

Volunteers are always welcome

In order to continue to set such levels of inspiration in motion, the BYTE Challenge team is always looking for volunteers, regardless of whether they are a school student, university student, alumni, etc. for the following tasks: scientific support, evaluation and publications; technical and didactic content quality control; IT administration; processing of funding applications and sponsoring; allocation and shipping of prizes; translations (English, Ukrainian); web design; public relations; representatives i.e. to attend public events and schools; implementation of workshops; content expansion (especially on machine learning and numerical mathematics). And of course, sponsors are also always very welcome.

 

Author: Bettina Klotz