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Travelling exhibition lights up interest in science

Do you know that light consists of waves as well as particles called photons? Or that red light carries less energy than blue light? Thousands of European schoolchildren now do, thanks to a travelling exhibition that is spreading the word about one of the most captivating fields of physics: photonics.

Organised by a group of European optics, photonics and laser researchers, the Fascination of Light exhibitions have so far been held in ten European cities, with the 11th and final event kicking off in Barcelona in November. By then, more than 30,000 schoolchildren, hundreds of school teachers and countless members of the public will have gained a better understanding of light, from its essential role in supporting life on Earth to its uses in communications, engineering and healthcare.

“Our goal is to explain photonics and how it applies to everyday life through exhibits that make complex subjects and technologies understandable to the average person or student,” explains Daniela Stozno of Germany’s Max Born Institute, which coordinated the initiative.

The EU-funded Fascination of Light project promotes a hands-on approach to teaching science, encouraging visitors to the exhibitions to participate in experiments and games that teach them about light in a fun and interesting way.

Schoolchildren, for example, are offered the chance to play with different sized lenses to see how light can be concentrated, or with mirrors to see how it can be distorted. Lasers and their myriad uses – from creating fancy light displays at rock concerts to performing surgery – are also shown and explained.

Stozno says that the reaction from visitors has generally been “Wow!”

“The only complaint was that the exhibitions did not go on for long enough. Most lasted around two weeks and focused on providing guided tours to school groups, although in some places members of the public were allowed to visit during the afternoons and weekends,” Stozno explains.

The exhibitions proved very popular in all cities where they have been held so far – Berlin, Athens, Brussels, Bordeaux, Paris, Thessaloniki, Amsterdam, Prague, Warsaw and Dublin.

“In Prague, people were queuing up to get in,” says Stozno.

Next-generation photonics researchers?

Held at research institutes and universities, the exhibitions offer a chance for schools and the public to get a feel for science that they may be unable to obtain elsewhere. “Some of the cities lack science museums or the exhibits they have are not very interactive,” Stozno notes.

Perhaps most importantly, the Fascination of Light events are an opportunity to introduce teachers to the benefits of a hands-on approach to science teaching that will all but certainly increase student interest in the subject. That in turn should lead to more schoolchildren going on to study science at university, providing Europe with a much-needed boost in its competitiveness in research and development.

The Fascination of Light project, which received funding under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research, is an expansion of a similar science-promotion initiative launched by the German Ministry of Education.

“The number of students studying photonics in university at present is too small and this results in a lack of personnel (in research departments),” Stozno notes.

Though the Fascination of Light team are due to hold their last exhibition at Barcelona’s Photonic Sciences Institute (ICFO) between 12 November and 3 December, they are planning to seek funding for a follow-up initiative that would allow them to organise longer exhibitions in other cities.

To promote teaching about photonics in schools, the project team is also distributing a teachers’ kit that includes a DVD of possible topics and suggestions for simple, easy to perform experiments involving everyday objects, such as mirrors, candles and pencils. For the meantime therefore, the project’s work will continue in classrooms across Europe, proving to students that light – and science – can indeed be fascinating.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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