Getting kids interested in science is never easy but, says Cynthia Chen, getting them spinning on a chair with a turbo mode, and letting them solve a murder is always a good start
SCI-FUN is a non-profit organisation, bringing the word of science to the masses of Scotland. I say masses but our current focus is on school children, aged 11 – 13 years old. We achieve this by way of a roadshow that travels around Scotland visiting secondary schools. We often conduct dawn raids to set up our show, so that we can best capture the notoriously elusive attention of the teenage species. By targeting them while they are still in a semi-torpid state, we can make the most of our subliminal messaging and hypnotic techniques.
Of course, we don’t really brainwash them. Rather, we aim to encourage a genuine enthusiasm for science, by engaging their interest and imagination. We reveal the science underlying many fascinating phenomena, such as the Waterfall Illusion. This illusion, in our Senses show, has never failed yet to elicit a dramatic response. This is no mean feat in the modern media age, brimful with YouTube clips and social networking websites. Having now mastered a somewhat convincing semblance of that quelling Look so favoured by teachers and dog trainers the world over, we now actively solicit total audience participation in our shows. We conduct a series of mini-experiments, where schools are pitted against each other, in order to find the loudest class or the class with the best hearing. The scoreboards are then updated each week on our website. The Senses show is then followed by the hands-on part of our programme. The audience, divided into small groups, plays together and work through a variety of exciting interactive exhibits. The forty or so exhibits, carted from school to school in our expertly driven 7.5 tonne lorry, range from small lo-tech puzzles to large hi-tech gadgets – well, as hi-fi as shoestring budgets will allow.
One of the most popular exhibits is the Spinning Chair. As the name suggests, this comprises a swivel chair but with one crucial difference: a turbo mode! We use it as a physical demonstration of the angular momentum of a simple object rotating about an axis, which can be calculated by multiplying its mass by its spin radius and its velocity. Thus, by reducing their spin radius by pulling in their outstretched arms and legs, the pupils spin around in the chair very fast.
|The job of inventing new exhibits and designing them to withstand that mightiest of destructive natural forces – 11–13 year old kids – is a continuous process|
Other exhibits function more as short experiments, where the pupils perform scientific techniques to arrive at an answer to a (possibly hypothesis-driven) question. (An example of this is our forensics exhibit, where pupils work through a series of forensic techniques to deduce the murderer.) The job of inventing new exhibits and designing them to withstand that mightiest of destructive natural forces – 11–13 year old kids – is a continuous process, employing the whole team. The final roadshow segment comprises a brief presentation about the all-purpose usefulness of science and why we advise them to study it as a GCSE, standard or intermediate grade. We also outline many of the rewarding careers that science can lead to, including some of the less well-known, exciting and lucrative ones.
This is followed by another show, which details the causes and rather frightening consequences of climate change. We believe it is clear that climate change is already happening and that it is a future that our planet is now committed to. The extent of change is yet to be determined, however, and we try to terrify our audience into realising that it is everyone’s personal responsibility to safeguard our planet and to act now on climate change. Horrific visions aside, we feel that this is particularly relevant to the age group of our audience, as this is a reality they all will experience and must seriously consider in their lifetimes. In some schools, we also run evening sessions for older primary school children and their parents. They play with the hands-on exhibits and watch a Wild Weather show, involving oodles of audience participation, including the classic van de Graaff demonstration. Although the Roadshow is currently the SCI-FUN work-horse, we also run another roadshow, aimed at 10 – 11 year olds. SCI-FUN Primer uses scaled-down hands-on exhibits, set out in classrooms. The children work through each exhibit with the help of SCI-FUN presenters when required. The hands-on session is sandwiched between a short introduction and conclusion. These provide a scientific context for their play as well as a forum for some questions, discussion and storytelling about famous scientific discoveries and inventions. SCI-FUN further incorporates the Particle Physics for Scottish Schools (PP4SS) roadshow, aimed at 16–18 year olds. It works to encourage a greater uptake of Physics at Higher and A Level. The teenagers work through a series of exhibits, which introduce them to the world and concepts of particle physics. They learn, both practically and theoretically, using detectors for cosmic rays and muons, mini-particle accelerators and ideas such as special relativity. By demonstrating some of the more fantastic aspects of the world around us, we hope to engage students at a time when physics is decreasing in popularity as a subject for further study. We also offer workshops for students, aged 15-17 years. The workshops are conducted with smaller groups of students, usually class by class. We work through theoretical and practical exercises in-depth, answer questions and chair discussions directly related to topics covered in the school’s syllabus. Week-long work experience and Nuffield bursary placements are also offered, and many of our students have won national prizes, and have even been recognised internationally for their youthful efforts and contribution to science. Many continue on to study core science subjects at university, with the intention of pursuing a career in science. SCI-FUN also takes part in various other activities involving public engagement in science. We are often intimately involved in the Edinburgh International Science Festival, collaborating on exhibitions with researchers such as those at the MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit and the University of Edinburgh’s Biological Sciences department. In addition, PP4SS often contributes many exhibits to the Royal Museum’s Discover Science Zone. Most recently, we took part in the Science and the Parliament exhibition, helping the University’s School of GeoSciences with an Energy and Climate Change display. We believe it is crucial to foster links between scientists and government in order to tackle challenges such as the energy crisis and climate change, which looms deservedly large on the political agenda and in the public consciousness. Another challenge, perhaps less well-publicised in the public arena, is that of the shrinking science and technology skills base faced by the UK. This decline is due to the falling number of students opting for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at school and university. As high technology industries continue to expand in the UK, the shortfall in STEM graduates is being addressed by employers increasingly looking overseas for knowledgeable staff. If the pool of suitably equipped graduates continues to shrink, it is very likely that businesses and industry will relocate abroad, draining the UK of financial as well as human capital. The problem is compounded by the many closures of STEM departments in our universities due to falling student demand for core science courses and inadequate financial support. Many of these departments have conducted research and taught bright, young minds for centuries. Science has a strong tradition in our country, with forty-four Nobel laureates in the past fifty years, more than any other country bar the US. However, only eight of these prizes were won in the last twenty years. Sir Tim Hunt, the British biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, even told of how he and his colleagues had to scrape together enough money to afford a phone for the lab! The growing deficit of knowledge and skills will undoubtedly hinder innovation and impact the UK’s economic stability. The decreasing uptake of science by students is a trend we aim to help reverse. By supporting teachers and educating the children in an accessible and enjoyable way, we hope to attract more of them to science. Even if they do not continue to study science beyond a GCSE, standard or intermediate grade level, an elementary grasp of science and its principles will ultimately improve the scientific literacy of the general public and the electorate. Children may even be able to help educate their parents further in science.
It is obvious to many scientists that science is not just about discoveries and invention, it also about logic and critical analysis. These transferable skills (and many others), which science teaches, would be useful to everyone, particularly decision-makers and problem-solvers. A better understanding of science and the workings of the industry would improve the perception of science by a public that can be cynical and distrustful of scientists and their endeavours. We hope a more enlightened electorate of taxpayers will improve the financing of our academic institutions, scientific research and industry, which will ultimately help drive social and economic progress in the UK. As our Prime Minister said in a speech, to the Royal Society in Oxford, last year: “For Britain, science will be as important to our economic future as stability.”
SCI-FUN is a science outreach organisation, working with schools all over Scotland. As a non-profit-making organisation, our funding is somewhat limited. We would therefore greatly appreciate any donations, whether they are in the form of equipment, expertise or funding.
By Cynthia Chen. Cynthia works with SCI-FUN. She thinks science has so much to offer, and that everyone should know a little about it.