Under the microscope: youth participation at zdi

zdi without participation would not be zdi. For almost 20 years, the zdi community has been working according to the “bottom-up approach”: every region, every network and every student laboratory has the opportunity - without major requirements “from above” - to develop themselves and their offerings and priorities regionally and to take the local circumstances and partners into account. All zdi actors have one goal in common: to bring young people closer to MINT. And that's where youth participation comes into play, because wherever your work impacts the lives of young people, it makes sense to involve them.

This “Under the Magnifying Glass” article is intended to give you zdi actors a first insight into the topic of youth participation, give tips for more participation in your offerings and show where there is already participation at zdi.NRW. At the end you will also find step-by-step instructions if you want to organize your youth participation in an advisory board or similar format.

The drawing shows a group of young people leaning over a plan and together "a light dawns on them". That's why a light bulb is shown above their heads.

The basics: involvement through participation

Participation is both the goal and the method. It enables exchange between different generations, promotes the development of solution-oriented ideas, strengthens the personal and democratic skills of young people and contributes to creative and needs-based planning and decision-making.

What many people don't know: Participation isn't just a "nice to have", it's a fundamental child's right. In Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child The consideration of the will of children is defined as a fundamental right. Giving young people space to make use of this right is the responsibility of adults.

But that doesn't mean that this space immediately has to be a long-term format or an elaborate event, because...

Participation starts small

The participation of young people can take place at different levels with different levels of effort: effort for the young people, but also for you, the organizers.

Here is a scale ranging from little to a lot of effort. It shows different formats and methods of youth participation:

  • Online surveys or quick polls
  • Feedback boxes or apps
  • Voting with a show of hands at events
  • Participate in focus groups or discussion groups
  • Workshops and project groups
  • Participate in planning and advisory committees
  • Youth forums and conferences
  • Development and management of own projects
  • Youth parliaments or advisory councils
  • Long-term engagement programs
The image shows drawn hands of different skin colors pointing up.

What is participation and what is not?

Real and lived participation goes beyond listening to opinions and ideas or providing advice on specific topics. It requires a certain degree of participation and decision-making power. True participation requires that all participants have sufficient information and that their contributions are taken seriously and taken into account in decision-making.

What participation not is:

  • A formal or symbolic involvement of young people in which their opinions are heard but not included in actual decisions.
  • A one-way communication where information is only conveyed to the young people from one side, without them having the opportunity to give feedback or influence the process.
  • Participation does not mean that everyone involved always has to agree, but rather that an open dialogue and discussion of different perspectives are encouraged.
  • Simply attending meetings or completing surveys is not enough. Rather, it involves a deeper process of inclusion based on genuine listening and consideration of different viewpoints.
  • Participation is not a one-time action, but an ongoing process that requires ongoing commitment and adaptation.

The participation ladder

From alibi participation to self-organization – there are different levels of participation on the participation ladder. The levels primarily help with the classification and evaluation of participation formats. Are the young people “just” providing advice or can they make decisions?
The ladder can be roughly divided into 4 categories: external control/no participation (8 and 9, red), preliminary stages of participation (5 to 7, orange), participation (2 to 4, blue) and autonomy, which is even much more as participation (1, green).

For classification: All levels from 2 to 7 are important for participation processes. Level 1 is desirable but often not achievable, at levels 2 to 4 you are doing a lot of things right and at levels 5 to 7 you are well on the way to more participation. 

Enable more participation

Anyone who wants to involve young people in their own work is often faced with a big problem: How do I find young people who want to join in and help shape things? You are very fortunate to have already overcome this challenge. There are plenty of committed young people at zdi.NRW. They regularly take part in courses, are in a MINT group after school or spend their holidays in zdi camps.

So here are a few tips to make your existing offerings more participatory with little effort:

  1. Get regular feedback on your offers. You can do this online or through a feedback box on site.
  2. Involve young people when planning courses. Ask openly which topics or offers the young people find exciting or let them vote (online), e.g. B. which of your course ideas should make it into the holiday program.
  3. Let the young people decide at events which topics they want to discuss. For example, if you are organizing an event where young people are supposed to discuss future topics, collect ideas together with them.
  4. Develops offers together with young people. This could e.g. This can happen, for example, in a series of courses aimed at young people who want to become teachers. This allows them to contribute their topics and interests and at the same time learn something about didactics.
  5. use the zdi community platform! There you can exchange ideas with young people in your region and stay in touch during courses or camps lasting several days.

Participation formats at zdi.NRW

zdi youth advisory board

Teenagers and young adults aged 13 and over who come from NRW and are interested in zdi.NRW and MINT can take part in the youth advisory board. In the regular meetings, they develop their own projects, get involved in zdi.NRW and ensure the co-determination that zdi.NRW is all about. They are also active as youth reporters for zdi.NRW and take part in events.

Youth Science Camp

A YouthScienceCamp is a special event format to promote the participation of young people in the MINT area. What counts here is to join in the discussion and share your opinion! Can technology, physics etc. make the world better? Can you calculate superpowers? What experiences have you had with exciting research projects? At the YouthScienceCamp, young people have the opportunity to share their projects and experiences and exchange ideas outside of normal school life. Important: at the beginning, the participants choose which topic they want to work on!

This format has been implemented in Krefeld for several years under the name “KReateFUTURE”.


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Strategy group (adult participation)

The strategy group, founded in 2014, supports and advises the Ministry of Science and the state office in order to further develop the future joint offensive through Innovation.NRW in the long term. It offers the opportunity for professional exchange and the development of new strategies and ideas in order to initiate joint projects and initiatives. It is made up of representatives from supporting organizations and central partners from the regional zdi networks.

Setting up participation formats – where do I start?

Organizing youth participation and building a long-term format is not an easy task. It requires a lot of time, commitment and support. In the following step-by-step instructions you will find important points that you should consider before you plunge into the “adventure of youth participation”.

Step by step to the youth participation format

  1. Create foundations:
    • Define who and why. Who are you? What do you stand for? Why do you want to involve young people? Realizing this can help with the next steps.
    • Determine responsibility. Which of you is responsible for participation? That doesn't mean you have to do everything alone, but one person has to drive the issue forward.
  2. Setting goals and managing expectations:
    • Formulate the goals of youth participation precisely. What do you want to know from the young people? What do you want to work on? What do you need input on?
    • Clarify the role and tasks of the young people. Where are they on the participation ladder? Do they advise, participate or decide? Do you have other tasks? Should they e.g. B. report about your offers on social media?
    • Get everyone on your side. Does everyone have the same opinion about participation? Does anyone have concerns about giving young people decision-making power? Seek conversation and try to dispel doubts.
  3. Define target group and topics:
    • Determine target group. Who should take part in the participation format? What interests do they have?
    • Matching youth interests with your goals. Does that fit together? Because when topics that affect young people are discussed, they are more likely to engage in participation formats.
    • Tip: You are currently in contact with young people. Use it and ask them what topics interest them and what you should consider when preparing the format. What is important to you?
  4. Select participation format:
    • Choose a suitable format based on your goals, your target group, your resources and the skills of your team.
    • Take into account how much time, staff, space and implementation options you have available.
  5. Plan participation:
    • Design of the format. Do you want to implement the format online or on site? How often do you meet?
    • Communication and documentation. On which platform or through which channels do you want to communicate with young people? How do you want to record the results of your meetings?
    • Addressing the young people. You already have contact with potential participants/members. How can you address them and inform them about the format?
  6. Implement results:
    • Think about how the results and ideas of the format should flow into your work. Who ensures that the ideas are shared across the entire team?
    • Important: Communicate with the young people the current status of the idea or project. Be transparent if aspects of a project or certain ideas cannot be implemented or can be implemented differently and also involve the young people in the problem-solving process.

Are you already working with a youth advisory board? Or have you gained experience with involving students in the design of zdi offers? Then please get in touch – we are looking forward to your experiences and would be happy to take them up!

Your contact person for all matters relating to youth participation

The photo shows Isabell Stollenwerk, a woman with long blond hair and glasses.

Isabell Stollenwerk

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