The right architecture helps young children learn better

Maria Ustinova remembers one sentence particularly well. "I am really happy to be involved in this", a small boy in school year three said to the Russian researcher during one of her field studies. Then the boy added: "The grown-ups have never asked us what we thought before." And yet they really should be asking the children what they think, believes the urban planner. For some years, 36-year-old Ustinova has been studying the architecture of schools and nurseries in collaboration with Technische Universität Darmstadt. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the subject, exploring how learning environments can be designed in such a way as to ensure that children feel at ease and are fostered in the best possible way. To this end, Ustinova and her colleagues in the Urban Health Games research group have been using a smartphone app that allows children to photograph and comment on the construction and architectural details of their schools and school playgrounds. Ustinova believes that this is a very promising methodological approach: "I am always amazed by how well children understand their environment and how clever their suggestions are."

Interdisciplinary studies in Germany and Italy

The right architecture helps young children learn better
Maria Ustinova guides students during a workshop.

Moscow-born Ustinova only began focusing on educational and architectural research during her second degree. Initially she had obtained a master's in public administration in the Russian capital. She then worked for a regional ministry, where she supervised the construction of municipal buildings. It was during this period that her interest in urban studies grew. "At the time, no interdisciplinary master's programme in this field was available in Russia", explains Ustinova. As she had already learnt German while doing her first degree, she began looking for a suitable degree course in Germany – and found just what she wanted in Darmstadt.

At the technical university (TU) there, a degree in International Cooperation in Urban Development has been run since 2007. The course is part of the Mundus Urbano master's programme that is jointly offered by four European universities and forms part of the European Erasmus+ programme. Teaching takes place in Darmstadt during the first year and students then spend the second half of their course at one of the other universities. Ustinova successfully applied for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship. From 2008 until 2010 she studied in Darmstadt and Rome together with architects, urban planners, economists, political scientists and sociologists from around the world. "That was truly a life-changing experience for me", she says today.

Field studies in nurseries and schools

This is because she maintained her ties with Germany even after finishing her degree. Although Ustinova moved back to Moscow, where she began working in the area of educational facilities design for an international aid organisation, she regularly returned to Germany to give lectures and attend conferences. She was determined to continue her field studies into effective learning environments. This became possible in 2015 when she was awarded the German Chancellor Fellowship for tomorrow's leaders by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The funding allowed Ustinova to return and spend a full year at TU Darmstadt. She used her second stay there to visit nurseries and schools and conduct interviews with architects and education experts. She will now incorporate this material into her thesis.

Mediating between German and Russian research

The right architecture helps young children learn better
Urban planner Maria Ustinova is researching the ideal learning environments for children.

Ustinova finds the current situation in Germany extremely interesting: "There is a lot of research being done at universities into how nurseries and schools should be designed in the future." These days, the urban planner sees herself as a research mediator. Next year, she will also teach a seminar that she designed for TU Darmstadt master's students at Moscow City University. "Thanks to my close research ties with Germany, I can bring international debate into the Russian context – and vice versa."

Various options for young researchers

Students and young researchers will find good conditions for studying at German universities. According to the CHE Ranking, the following universities in particular stand out in the fields of architecture and urban planning:

RWTH Aachen University

Technische Universität Braunschweig

Bauhaus Universität Weimar

College of Fine Arts Berlin

University of Stuttgart

There are also various research opportunities for young architects and urban planners at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example at the:

Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO, Stuttgart

Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development (IÖR), Dresden

International Cooperation in Urban Development degree programme, TU Darmstadt

The two-year master's programme at Technische Universität Darmstadt lives up to its name: students complete half of the degree course in Germany and the remainder at one of the three cooperating European universities in France, Italy or Spain. The course focuses on the challenges that rapidly growing urbanisation entails. A maximum of 30 students per year take modules in urban planning, urban management, urban development, international cooperation and project skills. > International Cooperation in Urban Development