Innovative Practice - Lab in a lorry

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
A mobile physics laboratory is offering a hands-on science experience to excite children about the subject

The background

Physicist Dr Charles Jenkins was inspired to find a new approach to science experiments in schools after his daughter told him about a disappointing lesson. The practical had failed to go to plan and the teacher ended up telling the pupils what the result should have been, instead of exploring why it had not worked. "I had this naive idea I would do something about this," Jenkins says.

After a few trips to the pub with a former headteacher, where they discussed different ideas, Jenkins approached his colleagues at technology development company Schlumberger with the idea of putting laboratories into a touring lorry. The project then got support from the Institute of Physics and staff at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. The lorries began making free visits to schools in early 2005.

The project

Lab in a Lorry is a mobile science laboratory that provides hands-on lessons for 11- to 14-year-olds in groups of six. Two of the lorries, each 13.4m long, are currently touring schools, one in Scotland and the other in the North West of England.

Each contains three areas for experiments, including one that allows pupils to try to smash wine glasses using sound waves and another that shows how fibre optics are used to diagnose sick patients.

Staff on the project come from a mixture of backgrounds where science has been part of their daily work, including industry and academia.

James Bamford, Lab in a Lorry coordinator, says: "The whole idea is to give the kids hands-on experience and show how science is connected to the real world - we're not trying to teach them quantum physics in 20 minutes."

Tips from the scheme

"Giving the kids a chance to use the kit themselves and not being afraid of making mistakes are important," Bamford says.

Encourage pupils to see science experiments as open-ended and exploratory, rather than having simple "wrong" and "right" answers.

Try to connect the experiments to the pupils' world. A lesson on optics and digital sensors can explain how the camera on a mobile phone works.

Evidence that it works?

The Institute of Physics commissioned Durham University to evaluate the impact of Lab in a Lorry. The findings indicate that pupils appreciate the "hands-on" aspect of the experience, with 85 per cent agreeing that the volunteers were good at explaining science and more than 70 per cent agreeing that the lessons had been an enjoyable experience. Nearly half said they wanted to find out more about science because of the lorry.

As a result of the project, Jenkins - who has gone on to work in the astronomy and astrophysics department of the Australian National University - was awarded the Kelvin Medal for outstanding contribution to the public understanding of physics by the Institute of Physics in 2007.


Approach: Putting a physics lab in a lorry Started by Dr Charles Jenkins in 2001, with the first labs touring from 2005

Founding organisations: Co-founded by the Institute of Physics and the Schlumberger Foundation

Partners: For the North West of England tour, the Institute of Physics and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. For Scotland, the Institute of Physics, OPITO (the oil and gas industry's skills initiative), the Scottish government, the Rank Prize Funds and the Schlumberger Foundation.

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