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‘Look into my eyes!’ – taking research to the classroom

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Three school children gathered around a plastic structure

‘Look into my eyes!’ – taking research to the classroom

Lead organisation: University of Bath

Project contact: Dr Ventsislav Valev

Together with a humanoid robot and a team of postdocs and PhD students, Dr Ventsislav Valev runs a series of science workshops in primary schools around Bath. The children are given the opportunity to construct a laser set up, to build and play a light piano, to design new materials and to examine light under the microscope. The activities are organised along stages of his team’s research, starting from the motivation and going through sample design and preparation, all the way to measurements.

Project aims

The aim of the project is to present science in ways that are different to those usually employed in schools. The approach energises children who are interested in science and changes perceptions among those who are not.

Audience

The activities are aimed at Year 6 children but are also accessible to Year 5 students.

How it started

During a University Research Fellow induction, Ventsislav learned that the Royal Society would strongly support outreach and he discovered the existence of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Small Grants. After following a public engagement training course at Chicheley Hall, Ventsislav was able to come up with a rough draft for the project. Further motivation came from a visit to Buckingham Palace, where Prince Andrew incited the Research Fellows to work with schools and to serve as role models for the next generation of scientists.

Partnerships

The University of Bath provided local outreach training and sent the team on training held by the science centre in Bristol, At-Bristol. Within the department of physics, support and guidance came from Prof William Wadsworth. The workshops are financially supported by the STFC, the University of Bath, Thorlabs and Zeiss.

What did you do?

The workshop begins with a short lecture by Dr Valev and his robot assistant followed by five activities aimed at multiple learning styles. The activities are centred on explaining the concepts of chirality, properties of light and metamaterials. The activities are:

  1. Laser rig – the children get the chance to safely guide a laser beam, using professional grade components that they need to assemble and position themselves
  2. Light piano – by attaching 7 coloured light bulbs to 4.5V batteries, the children construct a piano and play popular tunes on it
  3. Crystals – using a set of magnetic rods and metal balls, the children get to build a large structure that mimics an atomic crystal lattice and they learnt of the very limited number of crystal arrangements in nature.
  4. Chiral metamaterials – the children learn about chirality by looking at chiral patterns and drawing their image in a mirror. Light under the microscope – the children look at various objects with a microscope. In particular they examine the colours that make up pixels and can see for themselves how colour mixing works.
  5. Would I lie to you? – the children discuss counterintuitive questions about the interactions of light and matter (this is a back-up activity, in case of technical difficulties with one of the above).

Evaluation

Before and after each visit, children fill in a questionnaire that covers the science content of the workshop, the results of which allow the team to evaluate the effectiveness of the workshops. On average, the score before the workshop is 25% and after this increases to 58%. The workshops are also changing children’s perception of science. On average, before each visit, nearly 30% of the children say that they could never be scientists, however afterwards, 53% of those children say that they could become scientists if they wanted to.

An important reason for the broad appeal of the science workshop is the variety of the activities. The team emphasise the use of skills that are not often associated with science at schools, such as kinaesthetic or musical ability. They also brings in dazzling props and technology that schools often do not have access to. During the activities they use a humanoid robot, a laser, spectacular crystals, a meteorite, professional grade lab components and a “serious” microscope.

Key lessons learnt

Initially, one of the activities involved asking the children science questions and discussing their answers with a scientist. Although the activity was well motivated in theory, in practice it quickly became apparent that the children felt disappointed upon discovering that they were going to “just talk” with an adult for 15 minutes. The teams decided to replace the activity with something more exciting and obtained a microscope, on load from Zeiss. This substitution turned out to be a tremendous improvement and, subsequently, the team purchased the microscope, which is now a permanent part of the workshops.

Another issue identified was that a couple of classes did not return post-evaluation questionnaires. This was unfortunate because it prevented the team from evaluating the impact of the workshop on these instances. Subsequent discussion with the teachers revealed that the workshop questionnaires were overlooked because of SATs. Consequently, the team decided to avoid visiting schools in the time period immediately leading to the SATs.

An important difficulty was to always find five volunteers to join on the school visits. Initially, the team was composed only of Dr Valev and his PhD students. Soon, it expanded to include postdoctoral fellows, other PhD students and the department Ogden Science Officer. In the future, undergraduate students will be included as well.

Keys to making it work

Outreach is an important part of scientific life but doing it well requires a significant initial time investment for setting up the project. University Research Fellows are given that time and the investment turns out to be worthwhile because it reflects back on research communication. At this stage, the team can go out and perform effective outreach merely at the time cost of a morning’s or afternoon’s visit to a school.

In designing a public engagement activity, key advice would be to try and take in all the help you can get, while keeping the focus on what you really want to do. Trying to please everybody is hard and it can be discouraging. In Ventsislav’s case, the training provided by the Royal Society was key. But just as well, local support by the University of Bath, colleagues from the department, the science centre and the STFC were crucial. However, they all have different objectives and priorities, to which the needs of the children, teachers, PhD students and Principal Investigator also add up. It helped to decide what the project was not going to do and to focus on key priorities.