‘Young children are naturally curious’: how a company is inspiring kids to be the scientists of the future

At the Dusseldorf headquarters of Henkel, the chemical and consumer goods company behind familiar names such as Schwarzkopf, Bloo and Loctite, there’s one laboratory that looks a little different from the others. The laboratory tables are stocked with child-sized lab coats, beakers, tongs, pipettes and safety goggles. There’s a colourful breakout area to encourage play, and the lockers are shaped like water droplets hanging from a ceiling of blue and white clouds. It’s the birthplace of Forscherwelt, or “Researchers’ World”, an educational initiative aimed at inspiring groups of eight- to 10-year-olds to become scientists.

“If you want to get kids interested in science, you need to start early,” Ute Krupp, Henkel’s senior manager for education relations and the founder of Forscherwelt, says. “If you start when they’re teenagers, they have so many other things on their minds. Young children are so naturally curious and they love doing research.”

Henkel spokespeople Ute Krupp and Sandra Breuer
Henkel spokespeople Ute Krupp (left) and Sandra Breuer (right)

The programme started in 2011, originally as week-long holiday programmes for the children of Henkel employees. Over the past 11 years, it’s grown bigger than Krupp could have ever imagined. More than 81,000 children have taken part in activities across South and North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The classes are based on the four research areas that Henkel specialises in – adhesives, laundry and home care, cosmetics and sustainability. Children learn skills around critical testing, analysis, interpretation of data, teamwork, as well as scientific methods. One experiment using vinegar applied to eggshells, for example, teaches students about tooth decay by showing the impact of acidity on surfaces that contain calcium compounds.

The feedback from schools after a class of children has visited is always very positive, Krupp says. “Usually primary school teachers don’t have an in-depth scientific background, they tend to be generalists. So they’re happy to add this to their curriculum.” In the lab the children are allowed to run their own experiments using proper equipment (with a tutor’s supervision). “It’s very hands on and they can really take their time with the professional equipment we have here,” says Krupp. And while the lab is unique in Dusseldorf, Krupp trains Henkel colleagues and tutors around the world to deliver their versions of the programme (often in collaboration with local NGO – non-governmental organisation – partners), and shares modules and lessons based on the original course programmes.

Supporting thriving communities is one of the goals outlined in Henkel’s 2030+ Sustainability Ambition Framework, and Forscherwelt is just one example of a wide array of social initiatives that the company runs and supports. As well as educational programmes, there are social partnerships in the communities where the company operates to support local initiatives and public institutions. Employees are also encouraged to volunteer their time to a variety of causes, such as the “trashfighter” initiative – a programme that raises awareness of waste in the environment – or supporting Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps people around the world build or improve a place they can call home. And finally, the organisation provides emergency aid where it’s needed, through its Fritz Henkel Stiftung Foundation. Recent efforts have focused on supporting projects working in the aftermath of wildfires in places such as Algeria, Greece and Italy.

Schwarzkopf Million Chances award Image from Climb Gmbh, which works with children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to offer learning holidays.
The Schwarzkopf awards have supported winners such as social enterprise Climb, which offers learning holidays to disadvantaged children. Photograph: Gemeinnützige Climb GmbH

“Social engagement and responsibility have always been part of the company’s strategy, values and culture,” Sandra Breuer, head of sustainability transformation at Henkel Beauty Care, says. She helps organise the Schwarzkopf Million Chances award, another one of Henkel’s flagship projects promoting female empowerment, which is now entering its fifth year. It’s one of 30 projects under the Million Chances initiative in 2021, which has supported more than 136,000 women and girls around the world, since it launched in 2016.

There are four categories for the Schwarzkopf awards, with €10,000 (£8,600) given to each winner. “All of the entries we get are really inspirational and it’s always hard to make a selection,” Breuer says. “But it’s really rewarding to see what these people are doing and how we can collaborate with them to support them.”

She’s always surprised at how much can be done with the awards, says Breuer. Past winners have included social enterprise Climb, which works with children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to offer learning holidays; Karo, an association that campaigns on behalf of girls and young women who suffer violence and sexual exploitation; and the GründerMütter initiative [female founders initiative], which helps mothers find opportunities in self employment.

For Breuer, being able to be involved with such initiatives has been incredibly motivating. “Working for a bigger corporation like Henkel, you’re able to have a really big impact by supporting these initiatives,” she says. “I love my job even more because I can be part of creating a better future for people.”

Back in the lab, Krupp is starting face-to-face lessons again after the Covid-19 pandemic forced Forscherwelt to switch to digital. Remote working was fine, she says, but she prefers seeing the children in person. “I always like their reactions when they do something for the first time, when they’re eagerly listening to the teachers, and when you see the penny drop – literally – and they understand why something has happened. That’s what drives me. They just love it.”

Find out more about how Henkel is helping people through their business by supporting equity, education and wellbeing