Overlapping perspectives on Science Gateway: Education Advocates at CERN - Meet Julia Woithe and Sascha Schmeling. Part I
As part of our series “Overlapping perspectives on Science Gateway”, former head of CERN Alumni Relations, Laure Esteveny had the pleasure of interviewing two colleagues who share a common passion for education and related research. They are currently coordinating the design and development of the educational content of CERN’s Science Gateway. In part one of this article, meet Julia Woithe and Sascha Schmeling. In part two, we will focus on eductaion being one of the three pillars of Science Gateway.
Two trajectories of education advocates which meet at CERN
Julia was completing a master’s thesis in 2013 in Particle Physics education research at the Technical University of Dresden when Professor Michael Kobel, Head of the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics, asked her, even before starting the planned discussion on the thesis, “What are you doing this summer? We have a job for you at CERN”. Excited at the idea of work experience in the mecca for Particle Physics, Julia accepted the role of contact person at CERN for the German Particle Physics Outreach network “Netzwerk Teilchenwelt” to organize workshops for students and teachers in the Laboratory.
“While I was at CERN, I heard about a fantastic education initiative called S’Cool LAB, which was being built, I applied for a Gentner scholarship1 and Sascha selected me to do my PhD thesis.”
During her time as a doctoral student, Julia developed the learning activities of S’Cool LAB, tested them on students and evaluated the educational impact of the programme. It was no easy job to study and write a doctoral thesis while, at the same time, managing all of S’Cool LAB’s activities as well as the S’Cool LAB team. Her first year was dedicated to setting up the environment in which she could conduct her research. She completed her thesis on “Designing, measuring and modelling the impact of hands-on Particle Physics learning laboratory at CERN S’Cool LAB” 2. “Due to the length of my thesis, I actually felt obliged to plant three trees to compensate for all the paper needed to provide the required printed versions”, Julia adds with a smile.
Following her PhD, Julia continued developing S’Cool LAB further, along with a growing team before she finally handed S’Cool LAB over to her successor in August 2020. Within Sascha’s Teachers & Student programmes section, Julia is currently the coordinator for the development and implementation of the Science Gateway education labs.
Sascha has a much longer history at CERN, which starts in 1995, when the Head of the University of Mainz Physics department proposed he do a PhD. At that time, Sascha was already actively involved in showing teachers how to demonstrate experiments in schools.
Sascha did his PhD within the LEP experiment, ALEPH, working on the ALEPH TPC (Time Projection Chamber) and being responsible for the laser system. He was also the technical coordinator of CosmoALEPH3, a small experiment set up in the ALEPH cavern with stations in the LEP tunnel.
By 2001, Sascha had moved to the LHC experiment, LHCb, where he contributed to control system design and test beam coordination. This took him to the controls group of the IT department where he enjoyed working on the interface between Particle Physics and the control system developers. Pursuing a multifaceted trajectory, Sascha joined the Physics department where he took charge of the planning of human and material resources.
When in 2014, Sascha officially became Head of the (School-)Education Unit at CERN, he had held a variety of posts and functions, always keeping a keen interest in education. Today, Sascha is the head of the section in charge of the Teachers & Students programmes, as part of the Education, Communications and Outreach group in the International Relations Sector.
Education at CERN, from a local initiative to an Organization’s strategic programme
I was very curious to understand from Sascha and Julia how targeted programmes for teachers and students had progressively gained considerable momentum and support in CERN, while the research lab is not, strictly speaking, an educational establishment.
“The first teacher programme was set up at CERN in 1998, at the initiative of three physicists John Ellis, Michelangelo Mangano and Mick Storr. Later on, Rolf Landua, also a physicist, joined them. They asked me to set up a workshop for 5 high school teachers”, Sascha recalls and adds: “I remember moving the complete demonstration laboratory that I co-ran at the University of Mainz, to CERN, in a lorry, to create the first ever teachers’ lab at CERN.”
From then on, Sascha joined the International High School Teachers’ Programme team which became very successful. By 2001, only three years later, 30 teachers attended the programme each year.
Passionate about the education of teachers, Sascha dedicated a lot of energy to developing the programme. He managed to install a teachers’ lab, so that teachers could conduct small experiments.
“Still, teachers had a problem: although they could follow the courses in English, they had difficulties transmitting the acquired experience into their own language back in high schools.” Sascha explains. This is when the one-week national teacher programmes were created, in 2006. Today, the national teacher programmes, very much appreciated by CERN Member States, are given in many different languages.
Being a research laboratory, at CERN there is also an interest in research on education, complementing the main component of delivery of programmes. Research allows the team to find out through which mechanisms teaching and learning particle physics could be made more effective, develop more opportunities for students and teachers to engage in particle physics activities, and consequently foster students’ interest in a career in science.
Thanks to a 1 MCHF donation from the Loterie Romande, the new hands-on particle physics lab S’Cool LAB was built in 2014. This not only allowed to move the material of the teachers’ lab to a dedicated building, but also enabled Sascha’s team to broaden the sphere of educational hands on activities. Over the years, the number and scope of CERN’s teacher programmes gradually expanded.
Later, in 2016, the Education unit moved again, to under the umbrella encompassing outreach and communication, into the International Relations sector, where it is today.
Recently, the European Particle Physics Strategy Update approved by CERN Council on 19 June 2020, following a three-year elaboration process, establishes4 the mission of the Particle Physics community clearly to “work with educators and relevant authorities to explore the adoption of basic knowledge of elementary particles and their interactions in the regular school curriculum.” Furthermore, the document officially recognises CERN’s teacher and student programmes “CERN has thriving teachers and students programmes, which are also capable of generating valuable data that should be made available to the education research community.”
In part two of this article, discover the future of CERN's educational activities within Science Gateway.
Author: Laure Esteveny (CERN)