In April 2013, I was invited to deliver a week of workshops for the British Council’s Science in Schools programme. The workshops took place across seven different schools in Paris. I was asked to prepare a two hour session suitable for children aged between 14 and 19 years and that included a “hands on” element to it.
My job is as a research engineer for EADS Innovation Works where I sit in a team which develops new methods of protecting aircraft against lightning strikes. Essentially, traditional aircraft made out of aluminium can withstand a lightning strike as metals are good conductors of electricity and dissipate the electrical current easily. Now we’re making non-metallic aircraft, we need to make sure we add adequate protection to the material whilst still trying to minimise the overall weight in order to optimise fuel efficiency.
Although I have run hands on workshops in the UK, they have been more generically based on engineering as a discipline and not so much related to my particular field of research. My presentations on lightning are very interactive and visual – I ask questions to the classes throughout, bring volunteers up to help with demonstrations and play videos of us blowing things up in our lightning laboratory at Cardiff University (see this Youtube channel for examples!).
However a two hour session requires something a little bit more interactive and at first, I struggled to think of a suitable idea. But then it dawned on me… You see, I have a sort of second job. When not working at EADS, I can be found behind a microphone at Radio Cardiff, a community radio station in South Wales manned entirely by unpaid volunteers. At the station I present breakfast, science, jazz and quiz programmes, produce a soap opera and read news bulletins. It was the last of these that ‘sparked’ (excuse the deliberate pun) the idea for my Science in Schools workshop.
So the sessions were developed – I’d start with a 45 minute interactive presentation on lightning, what happens when it hits aircraft, the company I work for and my research. During this part of the workshop, pupils would come up, play with a plasma sphere I had brought along and use a balloon to make a fellow pupils’ hair stand end. The presentation was delivered in English and the level of understanding varied from school to school. In general, most pupils seemed to cope with the language without any problems and when there were problems, the British Council staff (along with the class teachers) were there to help interpret.
I then explained my role as a radio presenter and told the classes that they’d all be becoming radio news presenters in the second half of the session. They’d be split into groups and each group would write a script for a radio news broadcast – they had to cover the story of an aeroplane being struck by lightning near Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. They’d then perform these scripted bulletins with me recording the audio. Within each group, one person had to be the news reader, one played a passenger on the plane, another played a witness on the ground, one was a spokesperson for the airline and finally, each group had to have a scientific expert who explained why the aircraft was not damaged.
Once I had played the class an example of me reading the news on the air, they started working on their scripts. Worksheets were provided which helped the groups script their reports. The handouts were structured in such a way that those with a limited knowledge of the English language could fill in the gaps of suggested sentences and create a report whereas those with a more fluent grasp could create their own sentences. Once each group had written their report, we went to a quiet room and I recorded them reading their reports. Once each group was recorded, I quickly added some appropriate music to the audio and played each report back to the whole class.
Here are a few comments made by the children who in general all gave a positive response to the experience :
“The broadcast was awesome”; “The most interesting is why the planes don’t crash when the lightning hits them”; “I learnt many things on the conductivity of different materials”
I think there are several reasons for the success of this workshop:
• the scientific topic is of interest and immediately appeals to children of all ages
• the interactive aspects in the first half of the session keep the class engaged throughout
• the hands on task in the second half of the workshop meant that the pupils had to understand, write and speak in English
• the worksheets provided catered for pupils with different levels of fluency in English
• playing the reports back to the class, helping to raise the pupils’ self confidence in speaking English
We were able to achieve two main objectives with the workshops. Firstly raise awareness as to what engineering is and what exciting and interesting jobs there are in this area of work and secondly encourage the use of the pupils’ English through listening, writing & speaking and boosting their confidence by giving them the chance to hear themselves reading the news in the language. The Science in Schools project is clearly a well thought out scheme with a really positive benefit to those schools who take part in it. It is the first time that I’ve been exposed to any sort of schools workshop outside of the UK and I was very impressed with the concept and organisation of this programme by the British Council.
I sincerely hope that I will get the opportunity to repeat this experience in the not to distant future.
Rhys Phillips is a research engineer for EADS Innovation Works in the UK where he works in a team developing lightning strike protection for aircraft. He is heavily involved in outreach activities in the UK, promoting science and engineering to children and the general public. In 2011 he won the Most Dedicated STEM Ambassador award. He is a volunteer for the Institution of Engineering & Technology, one of the founders of Cardiff Science Festival and has devised a large science variety stage show featuring comedy, magic, music and more. When not in the lab, Rhys can be found behind the microphone at Radio Cardiff where he presents and produces several shows including his science and technology magazine programme, Pythagoras’ Trousers.