In his will, Alfred Nobel states that the fund that he established for the Nobel Prizes should be “annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. The aim of the Nobel Prize is to acknowledge the efforts that lead to important discoveries and inventions in various fields; specifically in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and last but not least to those working to alleviate violence and suffering. Curiosity, excitement and the readiness to tackle challenging tasks and persist in completing them are certain characteristics in order to progress in these fields.
In that sense it might not be an overstatement that every kid deserves a Nobel prize. You probably have seen how children are constantly observing and are willing to experiment with the surrounding environment as they discover the world. From the age of 6 children already start developing their skills for thinking scientifically; they begin learning scientific concepts that will allow them to make connections with their environment and cause-effect relationships. As Grigori Feofilov, main organizer of the ALICE Children's Corner, comments: “Children are always so eager to learn and understand the world; it was so exciting to interact with them, listening to their ideas and looking at their desire for understanding”.
Of course the way in which children learn about physics differs a lot from the formal academic teaching in a college crowded auditorium. Children need opportunities to play and freely investigate ideas which are relevant to them. The trial and error nature of play allows children to evaluate simple cause and effect relationships. Without prior knowledge, as it if often the case, to support their ideas children will create imaginative reasons to explain why things happen.
ALICE Children’s corner during the Open Days was organized so that children would first observe the experiment and its results, then listened to the explanation by an expert and finally they were invited to repeat the experiments themselves. Providing them with varied experiences and displaying an enthusiasm for investigating the world together can help in the development of scientific skills and a better understanding of the experimental process (based on three words: observe, record, repeat).
Grigory Feofilov says: “These are basic skills in scientific research. Moreover, I think that it can be very educative to see things with their eyes or for example being able to touch the magnetic field with their hands”. This active, hands-on learning approach was both educative and fun. Children didn’t simply repeat the experiments but tried to understand them in some depth. “This is something you could see in their eyes” as Grigory adds. However, children’s corner was also for adults as many came to ask questions about every-day phenomena that we observe, reminding us that sometimes we need to go back and talk about basic concepts in physics as Grigory notes.
Fifteen activities were organized for our young visitors and for all of them very simple materials were needed. Grigory Feofilov and Despina Hatzifotiadou had to search in their labs for old unused items while they also brought many things from their homes. In addition to the simple experiments, children also had the chance of “building the ALICE detector from scratch" with the ALICE papercraft. Tiziano Virgili, who designed the papercraft, travelled for a few hours to Geneva in order to help children cutting and gluing the various pieces needed to create the 18 subdetectors of ALICE (read full story here).
Grigory and Tiziano both seem to agree that the key to success, when working with children, is improvisation. It is important to attract children’s attention, give them a feeling of participation and animate the physical concepts that you are presenting to them. Unfortunately there is no recipe for that. However, his experience proved extremely valuable in deciding what should be shown to children and how it should be presented. Working to prepare all these experiments for children was a source of inspiration as at the same time he had to work on data analysis in order to get new physics results published.
Work for a physicist never stops but Grigory and Tiziano always found some time in the evenings to prepare these activities. Running Children’s Corner was a very emotional experience. Grigory says: “it is very nice to see that people understand what you are explaining to them; how the children’s eyes are sparkling when they learn something new”. It seems that science is the perfect subject to complement a child's natural curiosity.
The benefits of learning about science for young kids are enormous and ALICE children’s corner offered a unique opportunity. Children could do simple experiments, finding out how the world works, sitting next to the world’s most advanced technologies and just a few meters above one of the largest experiments in particle physics. All that can spark ideas in kids' minds that they, too, may one day be capable of giving answers to some of the mysteries of our Universe or finding solutions to some of the big problems that we confront in the rise of the 21st century. And yet who knows, maybe one of this year’s Nobel Kids that visited ALICE Children’s Corner will be a future Nobel prize winner.