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A celebration of physics

   

About 400 participants were expected, but 550 showed up. All of them teachers (from primary to university level), from 22 countries (1), who gathered in Geneva at one of the most prestigious sites in the world of fundamental science. CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, a 'monument' to high energy physics, opened its doors between 6 and 10 November to become the forum for passionate debate. The aim was to find out why young people are shunning science courses - and in particular physics - and to think about ways to reverse the trend. The approach was to make it all a festive occasion, presenting knowledge in a most attractive, lively and playful light. As a result it scored a double success: the style detracted nothing from the content, and the debates never got bogged down in academism.

     
   

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Plastic + adhesive tape = music. Gordon Douglas, Irish flute player. Who said physics was boring?

For five days, the main CERN building became a place of celebration, the relaxed atmosphere in marked contrast to the greyness of the surroundings. Stands were set up on both sides of the aisles, on two floors. Everybody was free to browse - for ideas, for images, for new contacts. Meanwhile the main amphitheatre, with its succession of events and conferences, played to a full house. But the good humour was certainly not at the expense of serious - and multilingual - debate.

The various demonstrations clearly conveyed the common concerns. The notion of physics as 'boring and difficult' seemed to hover in the air, like a spectre to be banished from these innovative surroundings. But how? How can young people be motivated to train as the engineers, technicians and researchers - or even Nobel prize-winners - of the future? The challenge is formidable in the light of the growing trend, seen on both sides of the Atlantic, for students to turn away from physics courses. While the answers were many and varied, one seemed to be as obvious as it was essential: it is up to education to adapt to the students, as the opposite approach is a lost cause.

Imagining and understanding
Discovery, imagination, creativity: concepts which can be expressed in many ways. For example, take the curious clocks invented and produced by a group of Czech children aged between 11 and 13. Irena Koudelkova, their teacher, had simply asked each child to make a mechanism using whatever means they liked. One result consists of a cardboard cup, into which sand is poured, placed on a pivoting plank (like a see-saw) which tips down when it reaches a certain weight, thereby completing an electric circuit lighting up a bulb. Like an hourglass, this 'clock' measures intervals of three minutes. 'Having assembled the mechanism, the pupil then explains it to the others. That is when he has to learn to organise his thoughts,' explains Irena Koudelkova.

At the Portuguese stand you enter a completely different field. 'Holography is a very effective way of teaching both geometric and wave optics,' explains Pedro Pombo, who is a physicist at Aveiro University, which does not prevent him from cooperating with the high school in Covilhâ, about 200 kilometres away, where he completed his secondary school studies and began his teaching career. Passionately interested in holography himself, Mr Pombo wants to share this enthusiasm with others. 'When I suggested to my classes of 15- to17-year-olds that they make a hologram, they tried, failed, tried again and finally succeeded. That is how to develop the scientific spirit.'

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In addition to the debates and discussions, and before the evening shows, the two floors of CERN were filled with stands presenting 'physics' in all its infinite variety. With pupils displaying their projects, researchers giving demonstrations, and 'magicians' performing their experiments before a live audience. The theme for this bustling marketplace? Science is fascinating.

For my next trick...
A few metres away is the French stand of the Petits Débrouillards, an association of 500 clubs in 14 countries covering both schools and educational leisure activities. 'We visit schools on request,' explains Mustapha Waffa, one of its organisers. 'If a teacher tells us he wants to work on the concept of pressure, we prepare an educational game or an experiment on the subject and take it to the classroom.' At which point Mustapha gives us a demonstration which is almost like a magic act. He runs his hand along a transparent, U-shaped tube containing water. As he does so, so the water moves along the tube with his hand. Quite simply, he had covered the end of the tube with his other hand where he worked a kind of sucker to control the internal pressure. This device allows children to experiment with the relation of cause and effect between the pressure and the movement of the liquid.

'There is a need to rediscover the meaning of research and to work on how to present the sciences, which are often portrayed in a way which is too formal and abstract,' commented Philippe Busquin during his visit to Physics on stage. This is exactly how the participants at this November event intended to communicate their knowledge - and their passion.

(1) The countries of the European Union plus Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Switzerland.

       
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