Overlapping perspectives on Science Gateway: Education Advocates at CERN - Meet Julia Woithe and Sascha Schmeling Part II

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, we meet Julia Woithe and Sascha Schmeling. In part two, we focus on education being one of the three pillars of Science Gateway.

Rolf Heuer, with the participants of the High School Teachers Programme 2014 for a Q&A Session
CERN-PHOTO-201407-153-4, Brice, Maximilien

SGW – a Science Education gateway

From the offset, educational activities were included as one of the three pillars of the Science Gateway landscape.   In addition to outreach activities, dedicated educational activities will allow learners to engage more in depth in certain topics while benefitting from the guidance of CERN volunteers.
Julia explains:”255 m² of laboratory space and 2 storage rooms of 50 m² each will house the education labs in the emblematic building. This allocated space will allow us to at least double the number of students that S’Cool LAB can welcome now.

Rendering of the future Science Gateway Education Labs
CERN-PHOTO-201904-083-93, Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Brodbeck Roulet architectes associés

Science Gateway is widely considered today, by the Particle Physics community, as a strong and invaluable asset to reinforce Particle Physics Education on a European scale.

From 5 to 105 years old, all fun to work with, but different challenges

When I ask who is the target audience for Science Gateway’s educational content is, Julia smiles: “ in the words of Fabiola Gianotti, the Director-General, anyone from 5 to 105 plus years of age …"

She also adds “We have gained considerable experience in S’Cool LAB with students aged 15 to 19, but we have less experience with younger learners. Still, we know that it is particularly during their earlier period of lives that young people develop their “science identity” and associated interests. Here, Science Gateway is a unique opportunity to target also young learners and give them memorable hands-on researcher’s experience.  We are very excited by the prospect of reaching this new audience as younger students are a lot of fun to work with and a different challenge."

Two young learners experimenting with Superconductors during the CERN Open Days 2019
CERN-PHOTO-201909-250-2, Brice, Maximilien; Ordan, Julien Marius

"'We officially started the development of the education content with a kick-off workshop in January 2020 where we invited many experts from other science centres or similar facilities to generate ideas of what we could do. For example, Germany has a strong community of about 400 out-of-school education labs, connected with research institutes, of which we invited selected members. Indeed, this community is very open and very much looking forward to sharing their ideas. We were also very grateful for the input from the science centre community. Although not all science centres have dedicated education labs, the community with whom we are in contact is the same community which is also collaborating to develop the exhibition content of Science Gateway1.
We have many ideas but S’Cool LAB has taught us that developing good activities takes a lot of time. Thus, we go by trial and error in several systematic iterations, and we need “guinea pigs”, which we do not have for the moment unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also exploring specific furniture solutions, which you can adapt according to age, and we have stringent safety requirements to comply with, for the experiments that we propose.

"Based on the evidence collected in over 100 years of science education research, we are currently deriving and selecting design principles for our activities. Of course, we will still need to evaluate the activities that we will run to make sure that our activities work and lead to the desired results. In particular, we want to foster the belief that anyone can do science, and consequently, encourage learners to consider a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This important goal is also reflected in our motto “discover your inner scientist”. But of course, we will need to demonstrate that it can be achieved.
For the first phase of content development, we have selected the broad topics of coding and robotics as well as detection. Here, we can imagine activities for different age groups in each of these fields. Not to be forgotten, we will draw on many successful initiatives from other colleagues at CERN, such as the Women In Technology (WIT) coding sessions, the ATLAS outreach LEGO activities, or the CERN Micro club robotics classes. They will be embedded in the Science Gateway education space.
Moreover, together with colleagues of the Teacher & Student Programmes section, we are currently going through existing activities and researching ideas in various education databases. A bit earlier at lunch time, I was watching Emily’s wonderland on Netflix to study how they address young learners. Quantum computing and the challenge of “seeing the invisible” are also exciting areas, in our pipeline. For example, using fluorescence, you can create very impressive phenomena

Student working on a robotics activity by the CERN Micro Club during the CERN Open Days 2019
CERN-PHOTO-201909-318-13 , Rademakers, Fons; Chrul, Anna; Steyaert, Didier; Ordan, Julien Marius; Brice, Maximilien

The required lab material will be purchased from special school experiment suppliers complemented by equipment built at CERN. The main reason for this approach is that the team needs to make sure that everything is 100% safe for students and also that the equipment survives prolonged exposure to groups of students. This was the case, for example, for a huge model of the human brain, which the team had built for S’Cool LAB’s positron-emission-tomography experiment.
While Julia coordinates the design of the education content, Sascha ensures the liaison with the rest of CERN and puts all his networks at CERN, including his former colleagues in the Control group, to help design the control system in the education labs. A user-friendly control system is needed to make the labs as flexible as possible, for example, when light settings need to be changed, as many activities will be run by volunteers.

Model of a brain for S’Cool LAB’s Positron-Emission-Tomography experiment
CERN-PHOTO-201708-188-18, Ordan, Julien Marius

 The importance of volunteers as role models for budding scientists

Julia explains further: “What came out of my PhD research with S’Cool LAB is that the most important success factor for our education activities is the participants’ perception of the volunteers. Ideally, participants see that scientists are normal people and, because our volunteers are usually young and in the middle of their research careers, they are perceived as more accessible than traditional role models such as Curie or Einstein. This is very important to foster participants’ career prospects. If we did not have CERN volunteers, we would lose the authenticity of the place and the lab activities could be held in any other lab.”

A tutor with a group of students working at the Positron-Emission-Tomography experiment in S’Cool LAB, OPEN-PHO-LIFE-2016-003-18, Wiener, Jeff

CERN Alumni can help

When I ask Julia and Sascha how the CERN Alumni community may help make education in Science Gateway a resounding success, they are not short of ideas:
“Our call for engagement is very similar to the one given by Emma Sanders on the design of exhibits. CERN Alumni ideas for content development, how to make science and technology understandable, would be very valuable. In addition, we are very keen to find out what educational experiences take place around the world where former colleagues are located.  
The best ideas come where there are no self-imposed barriers. For example, we would like to highlight the technologies used at CERN and there might be possible collaborations with other education labs which we have not yet imagined.
CERN Alumni now working in educational establishments could help us with the recognition of the value of voluntary teaching at CERN. CERN Alumni in industry could share testimonies of how teaching in CERN’s labs took them to their next job.  
Other CERN Alumni who are themselves hiring could make a point that having such an experience in education makes a difference.
CERN Alumni still in the region could perhaps volunteer to contribute to the education labs in Science Gateway.
Last but not least, we could start an education interest group on the alumni.cern platform, with anyone interested by this subject to discuss possible ways to  promote Particle Physics education further, as an equally important partner to outreach.“

Thank you so much Julia and Sascha, we wish you continued success and enthusiasm, to you and the solid and dedicated team that we know you can rely on.
Author: Laure Esteveny (CERN)

[1] See our article on the exhibit content of Science Gateway at https://alumni.cern/news/390824

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