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EinsteinPlus: Come for the fun. Stay for the physics.


How Perimeter Institute’s annual summer camp for teachers is transforming classrooms around the world.

Children are natural scientists. In kindergarten, they will happily explore ideas that make adults minds reel – from the warping of space to the direction of time.
 
By the time most of those children grow up and start learning physics – usually in high school – their minds are much less open, and the task of reigniting their innate curiosity often falls to overworked and under-resourced teachers.
 
And that’s where EinsteinPlus comes in. The one-week summer school run by Perimeter Institute is designed to not only equip teachers with engaging tools and lesson plans, but to reinvigorate them as well.
 
The 44 teachers from around the world who attended EinsteinPlus last week arrived with open minds and an inkling that something big was coming their way. They departed with goodie bags full of science demonstrations, a network of peers spanning the globe, and a rejuvenated sense of wonder and purpose.
 
“It really helps me re-engage with the toughest, most interesting bits of physics,” said Jon Clarke, a former high-school teacher who now runs professional development sessions for science teachers in the United Kingdom. “It is intense. This is hard work to be here, but very enjoyable hard work.”
 
Through a series of workshops, science seminars, evening discussions, and craft nights, the teachers explored deep science, from gravity and general relativity to the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) and particle physics.
 
And they did it from both sides of the pedagogical equation, performing the experiments first as students, then putting on their teacher hats for deeper discussions about the lessons.
 
For Mara Anderson, a teacher from Maryland, US, the format takes physics concepts that seem unapproachable, and presents them in a way that can engage a science-shy teen. 
 
But, for Anderson (pictured right), that is not the most powerful lesson. Far more important, she says, is the scientific approach itself. Anderson was particularly taken with the “knowledge building” approach, in which students lead their own exploration, guided by teachers. “Thats how you want people to approach the universe – its what scientists do,” she said.
 
Add in some hands-on lessons that urge students to predict what will happen in an experiment, carry out the test, and then explain what actually did occur, and you have a powerful combination.
 
Inevitably, some of your predictions will turn out to be wrong – many scientists joke about how they are wrong most of the time – but for those not used it, error can be difficult to stomach. “I hate it at first. I hate being wrong,” Anderson said. “My students are the same.”
 
Science forces you to confront that feeling, and to keep going. “It’s not going to go away. You work to be less wrong next time,” Anderson said. “Science teaches skills and research techniques that … are more important than the equations.”
 
Itumeleng Molefi, a high school science teacher in Carnarvon, South Africa, started incorporating “knowledge building” into his own lesson plans after attending CERN’s High School Teacher  program in 2016, where he also did a Perimeter Institute workshop.
 
“I really liked their approach of teaching science as a model that works,” said Molefi (pictured below during an EPlus workshop). “Sometimes we don’t know why the model works – it just does. No knowledge is absolute. That idea revolutionized the way that I started teaching.”
 

As a result, he noticed his students exploring scientific models and probing them in greater depth. It liberated them to look for clues, rather than answers. He particularly wants to bring the new EHT astronomy lessons back to South Africa, where a network of radio telescopes (which rely on the same physics principles as the EHT) is being built as part of the Square Kilometre Array.
 
“We’ve got this incredible project right there in the country, but so few people know about it, so few teachers know about it, so few students know about it. This is a good way to demonstrate it.”
 
The value of this goes beyond the classroom, says Amber Henry, a former high school teacher who last September became the education and outreach coordinator for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington, US.
Science, she says, makes people better citizens. They can analyze rhetoric, assess public policy, and make more informed decisions.
 
And it can help students understand the complexities of the world they live in. “There’s all this physics we use every day in everything we do that they have never heard of, and they will never hear of [it] unless they hear it in a high school classroom,” she said.
 
Henry’s role at LIGO takes her into all kinds of classrooms – from kindergarten to Grade 12 – where she runs workshops and lessons about cutting-edge physics. The funny thing is, her high school classes are much more daunting than kindergarten visits. Kids, she says, get it. 
 
“They’re born scientists. They ask questions constantly – it’s what they do,” Henry said. “When you get them as high schoolers, they’ve had that scientist beat out of them through the education system. They’ve been jaded, so now you have to find a new way to get them back.”
 
Through EinsteinPlus, the teachers now have a series of activities that invite childlike curiosity, and aim to keep the students – and their teachers – inspired. It’s a powerful boost, said Clarke.
 
“The facilitators are such engaged, enthusiastic people – they really want to share with us. And that gets me fired up to go share it again.”
 
– Tenille Bonoguore
 
 
 

 

Institut Périmètre de Physique Théorique

L'Institut Périmètre est le plus grand centre de recherche en physique théorique au monde. Fondé en 1999, cet institut indépendant vise à favoriser les percées dans la compréhension fondamentale de notre univers, des plus infimes particules au cosmos tout entier. Les recherches effectuées à l’Institut Périmètre reposent sur l'idée que la science fondamentale fait progresser le savoir humain et catalyse l'innovation, et que la physique théorique d'aujourd'hui est la technologie de demain. Situé dans la région de Waterloo, cet établissement sans but lucratif met de l'avant un partenariat public-privé unique en son genre avec entre autres les gouvernements de l'Ontario et du Canada. Il facilite la recherche de pointe, forme la prochaine génération de pionniers de la science et communique le pouvoir de la physique grâce à des programmes primés d'éducation et de vulgarisation.

 

http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/

 

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“It really helps me re-engage with the toughest, most interesting bits of physics.”
- Jon Clarke, UK