Tomorrow I am going to do some voluntary work. It is an unusual opportunity and one that allows me to play with things in a laboratory and – in one case – test something to destruction – by breaking a wine glass using sound. I am joining a team of volunteers to work in the ‘lab in lorry’ run by the Institute of Physics . The lorry tours the country’s schools showing kids just how exciting physics can be. Hence we get to show how things can break if they are made to resonate. We are also showing how light is scattered and polarised by it interaction with matter. We get to make a spiral rainbow in a solution of fructose and a sunset in a jar. There is also an experiment to explore the practical applications of optoelectronics using endoscopes and cameras. The kids see how these tools can be used for medical and other applications and practice an endoscopy on a lifelike human dummy. The lab in a lorry is operated by the Institute of Physics in partnership with OPITO, the Scottish Government, STFC, Schlumberger Foundation and STEMNET. It gives young people the chance to explore science through hands-on experiments. Weblink below.
I am excited by this venture – it was the science lab that got science under my skin, and as much as I enjoyed reading about science, the lab made it real for me. I loved how data lined up on a graph, the points grouping obediently as predicted by a scientific principle, or in chemistry how an indicator changed colour when I dripped acid into a solution. Best of all was when things popped out of solution like magic or a pattern of outputs emerged from a dull-looking circuit board or a spectrum of light from a colourless solution showed an electronic structure. In the lab, the hidden secrets of the world made themselves known to me. I felt privileged. Yes, after university I made a wrong turn with the desk job, – it paid well – but those experimental beginnings ensured that science had infected me through my life. You can take a woman out of science but you can’t take the science out of the woman!
My own children’s experience of science in school seemed bland. The curriculum and the short lessons left little time for the kids to get involved with experiment. I am not surprised that not enough students are now coming through to provide the country with another generation of scientists. Science is made more tangible by the act of experiment. No book can match the feeling you get from doing something for yourself. Being there for real – hot electronics and cold metal clamps. The whine of a signal generator and the fizz of a chemical reaction. The colours of reactions and the movement of dials in a circuit. The laboratory was empowering. It made us feel included in the process of making science and gave us the responsibility for our own work – and our safety.
I am not the one who is supposed to do the playing, I am there to get the kids confidently using the equipment and explain in basic terms what is going on. They are the ones doing the discovering. I hope that some of them will catch the science bug and that one day when I am long forgotten, they will be enthusing to future generations. I hope that I can remember enough of the basics to convince them that I know what I am talking about.
More information on this wonderful project is given in the weblink: http://www.labinalorry.org.uk/