Each September, Cavendish organizes a big event for schoolchildren: Physics at Work. Teenagers come to the Institute and spend a few hours attending demonstrations by various research groups. This year we broke the record and welcomed some 3000 kids. I say “we”, because I had an opportunity to participate, and I must admit I enjoyed it.
Firstly, I like the idea: boys and girls come to a real research institute, where they can see, touch and talk to scientists. I missed it at school: I had to use my imagination and figure out how work is like in such a place basing only on what I had read or heard. The more information you have, the better chance of making the right decision. Of course, (Polish) universities organize Open Days, but they are usually a few weeks before pupils take A-levels and are about to choose where and what to study. This is great, but it would be even better if they knew it at least one year earlier. This is exactly what Physics at Work is about: we are showing them how exciting research in physics is, but if they ask difficult questions, we are honest (I hope the other demonstrators were!). I also hope that they come back home with a much better idea of who a scientist is.
I volunteered to show our presentation to three groups of children. The slides had been already prepared - in fact, we had been recycling them for a couple of years. I think it might be slightly improved, I can’t see a point in talking about Ohm’s law and how we use it in our measurements if kids haven’t heard of it yet. However, we could as well play with liquid nitrogen for a few minutes, which always amused them. Expressions of girls’ faces in the first row when I dropped some of the liquid onto the floor was priceless. They were curious and I got questions from each group, the most difficult being Why do you do that?
Outreach is important, there is no doubt about that. There is no other way to encourage young people to study natural sciences than making them believe they really want it - if they don’t, they will be frustrated soon after they start studying. Department of Physics, keep up the good work!