Electrifying Christmas science for schools

The past two weeks saw the return of the annual Oxford University Christmas Science Lectures, where scientists entertained and inspired the next generation with electrifying demonstrations.  

Over 750 Year 9 students from 21 schools across the country headed to the University's Museum of Natural History for inspiring science lectures and workshops.

On Monday 9 December, Dr Richard Earl from the Mathematical Institute talked about the fascinating features of Prime Numbers. The Accelerate! Show on Tuesday 10 December, presented by Kirsty Duffy and Lauren Peters from the Department of Physics, gave pupils the opportunity to get up close and personal with the exciting world of particle and accelerator physics.

Dr Edward Grefenstette from the Department of Computer Science asked Can Machines Think? on Wednesday 11 December, presenting a live demonstration of the Turing test. Finally, on Monday 16 December, The Christmas Chemistry Show by Dr Malcolm Stewart and Dr Fabrice Birembaut, Department of Chemistry gave students an explosive demonstration of the wonders of chemistry.

The Accelerate! Show was presented to over 200 pupils from five schools across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and was extremely well received by staff and students alike.

'Our students had a fantastic time and enjoyed it enormously,' said Graham Froggatt, science teacher at The Buckingham School. Pupils learnt the basic principles behind particle accelerators through interactive demonstrations using beach balls, Van de Graaff generators, liquid nitrogen and levitating magnets.

To show how charged particles can be accelerated by electromagnetic waves, the audience passed beach balls across the lecture theatre in a 'Mexican wave' motion. The pupils thoroughly enjoyed the interaction, although the resulting chaos also demonstrated the entropy introduced by schoolchildren!

'The main message of the show is that physics is interesting and fun, and it's fantastic to see young people being so engaged with the subject matter,' said presenter Kirsty Duffy, who is currently studying for her DPhil in particle physics. 'It's a really great feeling to share something that you're passionate about and see that other people are enjoying it too. Sometimes it can be difficult to step back from your research and think about how to really explain it. But I think being able to do that also makes you a better scientist, because you're able to think about things in lots of different ways.'

Co-presenter Lauren Peters, a third-year physics undergraduate, said: 'I wanted to get involved in outreach because it was the creativity and enthusiasm of a school science teacher that led to my studying physics, and I've never since looked back. I am therefore keen to give other students the opportunity to get excited about science beyond the classroom. I plan to stay in physics after I graduate, hopefully by completing a doctorate degree. Wherever I end up, I always hope to be involved in outreach, both for school students and the general public.'