CERN inspires primary-school students to Play with Protons

"Playing with Protons" (Video: Stella Tsikrika)

This spring we highlighted the activities of primary-school teacher Tina Nantsou of Hill Memorial School in Athens, Greece, who, together with CERN, launched the Playing with Protons project to instill in her students the excitement of particle physics research. The documentary above charts the progress of the project, from its inception in Nantsou's classroom to a visit to CERN for 12 lucky students in her class.

In the Greek national curriculum, students are introduced to the basics of physics when they are 11 years old. Hill School helps pupils to begin to understand the natural world from the age of seven through hands-on, creative experimentation. After Nantsou attended the Physics Teacher's Programme at CERN in August 2013, she teamed up with Angelos Alexopoulos of the CERN Education Group to inspire these younger pupils to take an interest in particle physics, and in CERN. 

"I was blown away from everything that was happening [at CERN]," she says. "I really have to pass on this experience to my students."

The resulting project – Playing with Protons – started in September 2013 and continued for a full school year. “The project focuses on the process and not the outcome, allowing students to try, experiment and learn from their mistakes,” says Nantsou. “By creating imaginative and unique mockups, the kids, for example, learn to visualize their ideas and at the same time to develop problem-solving skills. And all this in a cooperative, fun atmosphere.”

The 45 students involved in the project drew lots to choose 12 students – 6 boys and 6 girls – who visited CERN. "I did not know what particle physics was until I was in university," Ewan Hill, an ATLAS scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada, told the students on their visit. "You guys have 10-15 years more advanced schooling than I did!"

"It is important to get students interested in science when they are young," says Alexopoulos. "Playing with Protons is one of an increasing number of noteworthy efforts in Greece, such as national-level virtual visits to LHC experiments, that help young learners to appreciate not only the importance of science in their daily lives but also the beauty of how science works."

The project also has the support of Dimitri Nanopoulos of Texas A&M University in the US, Greece's scientific delegate to CERN.

Alexopoulos says that inspiring the next generation of scientists is a key task for his country – Greece – which researchers are leaving to find jobs elsewhere.  "The country is currently experiencing a brain drain," he says, "Which makes projects like this all the more important."

At a recent teachers' seminar at SNFCC in Athens, Greece as part of CERN's 60th anniversary celebrations, Nantsou presented the Playing with Protons project to other teachers. Incidentally, also presenting at the seminar was Andreas Valadakis of Varvakios Pilot School, who visited CERN along with a winning team from last year's "Beamline for schools" competition.

The aim of Playing with Protons is to be an example of good practice to help spread creative and collaborative approaches to teaching modern physics at primary schools across Greece, and further afield.

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