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Learning Curve

Learning how the Germans learn

Marketplace Contributor Apr 9, 2015

WGBH’s “On Campus” producer Mallory Noe-Payne traveled to Germany with reporter Kirk Carapezza, where they visited a handful of cities and universities for a recent series of stories — that also aired on Marketplace — about higher education in the country.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Mallory’s photo journal of their travels recording on the road.

We arrived in Cologne at the beginning of February, just before the end of the semester.

Universities in Germany work on a different timetable, with a winter semester and summer semester, instead of fall and spring.

As soon as we landed, we met up with a group of Americans who are studying in Germany. They meet regularly to “cafe-hop” on Sundays. The particular Sunday we were there was actually Super Bowl Sunday, and we laughed at the irony of a group of American college students sipping their espressos and eating pastries, instead of drinking Bud Light and chowing down on chips and dip.

For a radio story, you’re constantly thinking about getting natural sound, or background noise, to help give listeners a sense of place. Here’s Kirk Carapezza making sure we have the sound of the espresso machine in case we wanted it:

Unlike American universities, the University of Cologne doesn’t have any staff dedicated to giving tours. Still, the school provided us with a Ph.D. student who was happy to show us around. Valerija Schwarz was actually born in Russia, but has lived in Germany since she was young.

I graduated from a large state school, and the facilities, classrooms and cafeterias at the University of Cologne felt very similar to Virginia Tech: large, spare and clean. Architecturally, the school felt very modern — no ivy-covered brick buildings.

We asked Valerija to show us the university gift shop and she laughed. While there were some T-shirts for sale, we didn’t see any students wearing one, and there weren’t any bumper stickers either.

We also visited the University of Heidelberg, about a two hour drive south of Cologne on the Autobahn. The library there was beautiful, but dead silent. I cringed every time my camera shutter clicked. American Rachael Smith told us she hated studying in German libraries because of how quiet they are.

In our first story, you can hear the University of Cologne’s symphony play. They were performing their end-of-semester concert. Every pew in the large church where they performed was filled.

Perhaps my favorite part of our trip was the time we got to spend with families in their homes. Everyone was so welcoming and accommodating, even as we followed them around with a microphone and camera. We spent one evening with the Park-Kim family in Essen, Germany — talking to parents Jane and Johaness as they made dinner for their three children and put them to bed. They three kids are young, which makes it difficult to interview in quiet. So, I handed over the role of journalist and played babysitter for an hour so Kirk could interview Jane and Johaness in peace.

Even though their children are still young, Jane Park and Johaness Kim are already planning for their future: They just don’t know yet if that will be American colleges or German ones. You can hear their story here.

Jay Malone showed us around the old town of Siegen, where he lived when he attended the university there. Unfortunately, his favorite schnitzel place had closed. That night we ate Italian — what a shame.

Interviewing children for the radio can be tough. Throw a translator into the mix and things get even harder. The day we visited this elementary school in Essen, the class was just beginning a lesson on the history of the bicycle. They would soon be taking a test, a sort of driver’s license for a bike.

Touring Bayer’s chemical production factory in Leverkusen felt like entering a man’s world. I was the only woman among the group of men that traveled from room-to-room.

That observation held true among the apprentices as well. I only saw one young female participating in Bayer’s vocational training. Recruiters there told me they struggle each year to convince young women to apply for the training program.

For more about German higher education and how it compares to the system in America, you can read the stories Mallory and Kirk worked on here: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

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