It’s 7am on a snowy, dark morning in Glasgow and I’m already on a bus to a suburban secondary school to spend the day, freezing, on a lorry in a car park. Why? Well, this isn’t just any lorry. There’s a lab onboard and I will be joined by other freezing volunteers (all from scientific backgrounds) and a whole heap of screaming, over-excited kids.
Lab in a Lorry was set up by the Institute of Physics in partnership with the Schlumberger Foundation with the aim of engaging children, aged between 11 and 14, with physics. It was hoped that the project would inspire gifted young scientists to pursue a career in physics and thus counteract a future deficit feared by the scientific community. The lorry is split into three sections and within each section is an experiment; what is so exciting about it is that the kids do the experiments themselves. The aim is then to educate children about various areas of physics by looking at their practical applications. The volunteers and staff are there to answer questions and guide them through the process. So not only do the kids leave the lorry having learnt something that will help them in class but they have also learnt how science really works by conducting experiments themselves. And it’s not easy stuff we do onboard. In one experiment the kids make their own digital camera. In another, they design and make a wind turbine that they use to generate electricity. Perhaps the most sensational experiment ends with the kids using a speaker to smash a glass – this never fails to cause roars of laughter and thrilled chatter.
It’s fun. The kids love it, the teachers love it and the volunteers love it. But it serves a much needed educational purpose too and, by all accounts, it works. Learning by doing is seen by many in the field as the best way of imparting knowledge. This sentiment has recently been reflected in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which shows a move towards more practical, hands on and less prescribed method of teaching. In Scottish schools such projects can be seen to go hand-in-hand with the new curriculum being taught in the classroom.
Similarly to science communication, simply preaching knowledge and expecting understanding in return is simplistic and naïve. Lab in a Lorry exemplifies the belief that you can achieve true engagement with education. But the process does more than simply teach science. One teacher who agreed stated that, “The students who have opted to do Triple GCSE science next year… were inspired, made to think and enthused about their opportunity to study physics to a higher level.” The result is something more than simply knowledge; it is excitement and enthusiasm for learning about science.
But what exactly is it about this project that is so inspiring? For me, it’s the relaxed atmosphere, the group of happy scientists who are just as excited about the prospect of smashing that glass as the kids are. James Bamford, Senior Operations Coordinator, thinks it is “,because we allow the children to engage with people from the real world, which enables them to see why physics is relevant to them in ways they may not realise.”
This is another aspect often lacking in education: the ‘why is this important to me?’ element. Abstract knowledge can be hard to tie to the real world. But learning how things work, interacting with the underlying science via exciting, hands on activities – this makes science less abstract by subconsciously making those connections for you.
However it works, and it certainly does, this project is an invaluable addition to mainstream education and is understandably going from strength to strength. In 2012 the two lorries visited over 70 schools and were boarded by nearly 20,000 kids. 2013 saw the project’s first visits to schools in Wales and Somerset in addition to the established contingents in the Northwest of England and Scotland. With over 1000 volunteers and increasing interest from institutions it seems like it’s full steam ahead for this lorry.
Liliana Derewnicka is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.