School children visit ALICE as they learn about scientific method

Ian Randall

Local school pupils have been visiting ALICE – and learning what goes on at CERN – as part of a scheme to introduce children to the principles of the scientific method.

Two classes, from the local Trembley and Conches schools, visited the ALICE experiment on 9 & 12 May – with 38 pupils aged around 11 and 12 getting a chance to see some of the work that physicists undertake at ALICE.

CERN/Josiane Uwantege

A scientist in the making? A pupil from Ecole d'Ornex investigates one of the mystery boxes,
as part of the Dans la peau d'un chercheur scheme

The visits are part of a larger programme which was launched in January this year, entitled Dans la peau d'un chercheur1 - which will introduce a total of 670 students from local schools to the work of researchers.

The pupils have been learning about life as a scientist, and have even been given a special practical assignment – with each class receiving a ‘mystery box' containing a variety of unknown items. The students must come up with a series of tests – for example, based ohow the box smells, the sound it makes when shaken or how much it weighs – to work out the hidden content of the boxes for themselves.

"It is really great... to go into the class and to see the enthusiasm of the kids with this simple box," says Corinne Pralavorio, who is in charge of local communications at CERN and one of the leaders of the project, adding: "The students are a key target [for outreach] because if you can reach the students you can also reach the families at the same time."

It is hoped that this exercise will introduce the students to the concept of scientific investigation - as they come up with hypotheses on the contents of the box, and methodologies with which to test their theories; while also offering an apt parallel to the studies of sub-atomic particles within the ‘mysterious boxes' that are the experiments of the LHC.

The students are also being taught the difference between observation (e.g. ‘there is a small, hard, spherical object in the box') and interpretation (‘I think there is a marble in the box').

At the end of theexperiment, the pupils from the 30 different classrooms involved in the programme will join together in a conference at CERN's Globe of Science and Innovation on 24 June, to discuss what they have discovered – much like in a professional scientific collaboration.

The programme is a joint venture between CERN; the local education authorities in the Pays de Gex; Geneva's Service de la coordination p?dagogique de l'enseignement primaire; and the Faculty of Education and PhysiScope group of the University of Geneva – and is a follow up to last year's successful ‘Draw me a physicist' programme, which was also undertaken in conjunction with local schools.

Unlike last year's scheme, however, this is a result of the local education authorities requesting a project from CERN; thus ‘Dans la peau d'un chercheur' is actually a complete part of the school curriculum – with the teachers having also come to CERN beforehand, in January, for training on teaching the course.

“What is very gratifying for us is that this is a collaboration between two education networks, in two countries - which is not obvious, because they do not have the same way of working,” says Pralavorio, explaining that – especially in the French education system – there is often a focus on theory over empirical teachings.

“It is important for us to show science - real science," she adds, "[the pupils] can see that doing science is fun; it is not just writing equations - it is more than that - and it can be applied to anything in nature."

The visit to ALICE itself certainly seemed to go very well. The pupils were delighted to meet with ALICE scientists, visit the exhibition at Point 2 and the Alice Control Room – and were keen to ask many questions, such as: Is Einstein your role model? Why did you choose to study physics? Are there any risks in doing the experiments?

A lot of questions were also asked about research done at CERN - such as how long the experiments last, if we ever fail with an experiment, etc. The children were also keen to talk about their own experiment, with their mystery boxes, saying that the most difficult thing for them was not to open the box. They did not want to have to wait so long to uncover what was really in the box - and learn if the results of their experiments were correct.

"They [the children] were quite interested,” said ALICE outreach coordinator, Despina Hatzifotiadou, adding: “They seemed to not want it to stop."

More information on this outreach programme can be found on the Dans la peau d'un chercheur website.

  • 1. In English: ‘In the shoes of a researcher'
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