Conference Week: Hot on the Trail of Change

How does social change function and what can the actively engaged individual bring to the process?—this is what 1,800 students investigated during their first academic conference.  Under the banner, “Awakening, Upheaval, Breakthrough,” they presented and discussed the results of their first semester work during a three-day conference.  Their efforts were supported by prominent guests, such as Monika Griefahn, Rüdiger Nehberg and Reinhard Loske.

Whereas at most universities you hardly see any students during the winter break, Leuphana’s lecture halls and seminar rooms were in full-swing from the 26th to 28th of February.  The 2012 first-semester students designed and experienced their first academic conference.  The so-called arena program alone offered around 60 events including lectures, podium discussions, debates and art happenings.  More than a 100 other events including work-shops and group project sessions gave the students a wide range of possibilities to present their works on the subject of “Change” and to discuss them critically with fellow students and experts.  They got to practice the forms and methods of academic work that they had just acquired during the previous semester, while examining the question: What social meaning and responsibility does science carry?

“How does change happen?” was the central question of this year’s Leuphana conference for sustainable policy.  The first answer came from a prominent figure:  Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer, former executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program spoke to students as the conference’s opening act.  Töpfer gave his keynote speech via skype from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, where he served as the founding director in 2009 and now serves as its executive director.   Other prominent personalities who have engaged in very different kinds of social change reported to the students about their motivations and their distinctive career paths: for example, Monika Griefahn, co-founder and business director for Greenpace Germany, a former Minister for the Environment in Lower Saxony and the current director for Environment and Society at the AIDA cruise line.

Another speaker was Rüdiger Nehberg, a pillar of the Survival Movement—He reported about his life as an adventurer and human rights activist.  Dr. Reinhard Loske, a former Senator for the Environment in the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, joined in the “Slam of Change” to speak with students about ideas for transforming society and then gave a lecture about the green economy.  A former graduate of Leuphana also returned to his alma mater to talk about his social engagement: Kay Overbeck.  For the last six years he has served as the company spokesman for Google’s operations in northern Europe.  His lecture addressed the world created by the worldwide web and its importance for democracy.

The arena program was overall marked by a wide range of diverse topics: “fracking,” regional currencies, “Upcycling,” building with straw, or urban gardening are just some of the keywords that highlighted the multi-layered spectrum of approaches to social change.  Just as varied were the number of topics and projects on the gallery walk in the foyer of the lecture hall. Student groups showed their projects to the public and gave spontaneous interviews. Using films, installations and posters, these young researchers presented the results of their work, thereby simultaneously completing their oral examinations.  But there was also plenty of entertainment during the conference.  Film premieres, live acts, after-show parties, the evening’s program gave the students lots of choices.    

A special video channel on YouTube and a special newspaper published during the conference gave participants a lively image of the day’s many events.


First-semester students in all disciplines design the conference as the conclusion to their Leuphana Semester, which follows an interdisciplinary educational model unique among German universities.  All first-semester students complete the Leuphana Semester together as a group.  The four modules: Science and Responsibility, Science and Methods, Science and History, and Sciences and Disciplinary Boundaries offer students an entry into the sciences.  They gain insight into other academic disciplines, confront divergent perspectives, and through this process learn the fundamentals of academic work.  The Leuphana Semester culminates with the conference, in which all students present the results of their work in lectures, information booths and discussion groups.  The overall emphasis is on “sustainability.” The students identify and elaborate upon its many facets in their various seminars.