In October 2014, a collaboration was initiated with two primary schools in Thessaloniki, aiming to introduce concepts of high-energy physics, with a focus on the ALICE experiment, to young pupils in their final year before high-school. The biggest challenge that this project presented was keeping the audience engaged without compromising quality for oversimplification.
Using technical terminology to explain physics often tends to deter pupils from asking questions. They might think that they do not understand the subject because they are not smart enough. If teachers and scientists talked about heroes with whom children are already familiar, and explained science through ordinary terms and examples, more pupils would participate in class discussion and learn some principles of modern science.
The project was a big but exciting challenge for the teachers of both schools, Mr Isidoros Zourgos and Ms Voula Karipidou, as it was the first time that they participated in such a programme, collaborating with scientists and having to teach concepts that are not included in the curriculum. Nevertheless, they happily agreed to participate in this effort, while we also decided that the programme would stop if children lost interest in it. Thankfully, our fears proved unfounded: pupils worked with excitement throughout the year and presented their projects a few days ago. In the course of the programme, they discussed with CERN scientists, went to the CERN exhibition in Thessaloniki, which was presented on the occasion of CERN's 60th anniversary, visited the Observatory of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and made a virtual tour of ALICE.
Under the supervision of Mr Zourgos, the pupils of Thessaloniki’s 34th primary school created a painting of the Universe, encompassing both the microcosm (elementary particles) and the macrocosm (planets, galaxies, etc.). They also used their imagination to draw the six quarks and worked in teams of four to create their own comic strips about the history of the Universe and the emergence of matter after the Big Bang. The pupils had a great time learning physics, which demonstrated that one of the best methods to communicate a concept is through pictures and comic books that explain complex concepts and ideas with pictures and pacy storylines, keeping readers engaged.
With the help and guidance of their computer science teacher, Ms Karipidou, the pupils of the primary school in Diavata designed a website about CERN and the experiments conducted there, focusing on ALICE. Moreover, they used dedicated software to create and present an animated version of the new ALICE cartoon. For them, CERN and ALICE were an original way to accomplish the educational objectives of the course.
It was refreshing to see an educational comic about a teenage girl that uses the power of science to protect her family and friends or about quarks discussing the history of the Universe and the fate of our planet. We were equally enthusiastic about the CERN/ALICE portal and the animated ALICE cartoon, which the class from Diavata submitted to Greece’s National School Contest for Informatics.
The success of the programme demonstrated that the advancement and diffusion of physics knowledge can be educational and fun, and it is our firm belief that an understanding of the nature of the Universe can greatly benefit humanity. In addition, we made a number of interesting observations in the course of the programme. First, we noticed that, although the pupils worked in mixed-gender groups, girls were less vocal in expressing their ideas. Perhaps more depictions of women and girls in science would encourage their participation in science subjects. Moreover, parents were as excited as pupils about their children's comics and work, which indicates that there is definitely an appetite for more similar activities.
All the participants of this pilot programme, including the teachers, feel proud of the final result. We hope that we will have the opportunity to continue this initiative next year, learning from our mistakes and further improving our work. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Department of Education of the University of Thessaly has shown interest in organising and promoting a physics programme for primary schools.
You can browse the webpage created by the children here (in Greek!): http://st2dimdiavata.wix.com/st2dimdiavat