Serena Lee-Cultura, Ruiyi Li and Kjetil Dragland engage with COMnPLAY. Photo: Kai T. Dragland, NTNU

Students play their way to knowledge

How do children and young people become interested in science? Let them play, create and code, say researchers.

Children’s first encounters with science often happen in informal learning settings like museums or science centres, or by having an engaging teacher introduce them to it, says Michail Giannakos, an associate professor at NTNU’s Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering.

But science is increasingly affecting our everyday lives as technological developments accelerate.


  • Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  • University of Oulu, Finland
  • Foundation for Research and Technology, Greece
  • Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands
  • Uppsala University, Sweden
  • Technical University of Munich, Germany
  • University of Malta, Malta
  • Design for Change initiative, Spain
  • Ovos media GmbH, Austria
  • King's College London, UK
  • Science Museum Group, UK

Teaching children and adolescents how to code can give them a deeper understanding of how the digital world is created and how we can use digitization to meet our needs.

But children’s and teens’ first encounters are more likely to happen in less structured ways.

For the first time, researchers are conducting an extensive survey of how children and young people embrace science and what excites them about it. The EU COMnPLAY project comprises eleven partners from ten European countries, with NTNU steering the project as its coordinator.

“We’re finding that different events vary greatly. Some places bring a playful approach to science, where the kids can try out games, coding, or making things. Others present a dry text that tries to explain what science is, which rarely creates curiosity,” says Giannakos.

Open to input

All told, 150 experts – ranging from directors of science museums to teachers working on scientific activities for children – are involved in mapping the project’s informal learning arenas.

A key objective is to make the information accessible. COMnPLAY presents the procedures and highlights the ones that work best in a web tool.

Anyone who wants to can use these ready-made programmes or add their own tips — not just the 150 experts involved.

“Let’s say you organize afterschool activities and want to arrange a coding event. You can use the web tool we’ve created to customize your own event, taking into account the number of students that can participate, the duration of the activity, your budget and the subject you want to focus on, for example math or physics,” says Giannakos.

“We’re hoping this web tool will help people who want to arrange a scientific activity aimed at children and teens, to do it successfully and to create good content,” he adds.

COMnPLAY hopes the web tool will eventually take on a life of its own by involving eager actors. Several workshops are being held to help this happen, where people can meet to learn from each other.

This video from King’s College London is about science capital. Article continues below the video.

Tracking engagement and eagerness

The project is conducting ten different studies aimed at children and adolescents. The studies will collect data from the coding and science play activities that are set up in the ten partner countries.


  • The EU COMnPLAY project launched on 1 June 2018 and runs for three years, with a budget of 3.1 million euros.
  • The ten partner countries reflect the geographical, cultural and socio-economic diversity in Europe.
  • The COMnPLAYer app was developed as part of COMnPLAY SCIENCE, a research project that has received funding from the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The plan is for approximately 50 children to participate in each country. NTNU has completed one session with 25 primary school children in Trondheim, using NTNU’s already established Kodeløypa (code trail) programme. The goal of the programme is for students to program robots and create their own games.

“We track how engaging and fun the students find the activities and the extent to which these activities help give them new experiences and a new outlook on science,” says Giannakos. “Combining making with play and coding seems a promising way to increase students’ science capital.”

Science capital is a concept used by researchers to help them understand patterns in science participation – such as why some people engage in science and others do not.

The researchers have developed the COMnPLAYer app. The app has kids follow a funny story while answering science questions. At the end, they get a score for their science capital. The app has been translated into eight languages, including Norwegian.

“All kids have science capital. It develops over time and grows, based on what youngsters are exposed to. Giving them more science experiences and knowledge expands their science capital. The bigger their science capital, the greater the chance that they’ll choose to study scientific subjects later,” Giannakos says.

In addition to nine major events aimed at the project partners, several other events are being held locally in the ten countries involved. These will include students, their parents and teachers, as well as local decision-makers.

Better foundation for making choices

Giannakos points out that he’s not looking for all potential students to choose the sciences. But he wants them to be able to make well-considered choices when they stake out their course for the future.

“For example, if you think a computer engineer is a nerd who just sits in the basement and programs, your bias means that you have a poor foundation from which to make your choices. One of the project goals is for young people to have a chance to try coding, to create games and to gain a solid insight into what the sciences entail before choosing their path of study,” says Giannakos.

If the project succeeds, it will help Europeans to discover, learn about and develop a relationship with science from an early age. Then they will also be able to form an opinion about what science really means to them.