Monday, 24 February 2014

Teach them well...

Our visit to CERN proper started in a crowded lecture room.  As well as the 51 UK teachers, there were around 40 Israeli students and their teachers.  Israel has just become a full member state of CERN, and these students were the first visitors since that event.  Over the three days, it was fascinating to watch these young people sit through some fairly tricky lectures on cosmology, the Higgs Boson and medical applications of particle physics amongst others.  And not only did they sit through the lectures, they listened and asked intelligent questions at the end.

Each year CERN hosts tens of thousands of visitors.  Amongst these are teachers from all the member states of CERN, as well as other friendly states.  The teacher programmes typically last a week (our UK programme is a little shorter than most), and is hosted where possible by a researcher from the visiting teacher’s home country. 

The education and visits programme is a massive endeavour for CERN, and so it is reasonable to ask ‘Why?’.  What is the benefit to CERN of inviting teachers and others to wander round the facilities, taking photos, getting in the way and filling the restaurant?

Indeed, one could also ask why the National Science Learning Centre, and STFC (who provide financial support for our study visits) take teachers to CERN.

The answer, said in a slightly misty eyed way way, is that it is for the kids.  We, in the words of a song, believe that children are our future.  
The future?

More prosaically, without kids taking STEM subjects, there won’t be big science and technology undertakings in the future.  Somewhere like CERN is the work of a LOT of people – people who studied sciences, engineering, architecture, and other STEM subjects.  And at some point, those people were in all likelihood taught science by enthusiastic teachers who made them think that science was a subject worth studying.

So CERN (and NSLC) want to work with the teachers because they are the multipliers.  If a single student, such as one of our Israeli companions, comes to CERN then that is one person who will (in all probability) be enthused about science.  However, if one teacher comes, then that teacher will go back into school or college with a renewed interest and, dare I say it, excitement about science.  One teacher may teach 200 to 300 students each year.  As the teacher says ‘when I was in CERN….’ and shares the excitement of standing just in front of a 15m wide particle detector 100m below the French countryside, then their interest can be contagious and spread to some of their students.  So one person’s visit will hopefully inspires classrooms full of students.
Up close and personal with a beam pipe
And it’s not just seeing the scale of the undertaking.  The guides who show the teachers round are often researchers, who volunteer to show people round CERN.  Meeting the researchers, chatting to them and asking about how they ended up working in CERN, provides real examples to teachers of possible career paths that their own students might take.  Career paths which the (non-specialist) science teacher might not have realised were possible.
Konrad, explaining why there is more than one particle accelerator at CERN
So to CERN, the cost and disruption, of hosting teacher programmes is worth it.  In fact, it is part of their core mission to the future.