Professor Peter Vukusic, during his outreach science tour of Tanzania.

African pupils taken on a scientific journey from the Rubik’s Cube to the building blocks of the universe

The sub-Saharan country of Tanzania enjoys an enviable position as one of the foremost regions for scientific discovery linked to the evolution of mankind.

During the mid-20th century, intrepid anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey made several significant fossil skeleton discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, which inspired a greater understanding of our human ancestors.

Now, an Exeter physicist has taken a few small steps towards inspiring a new generation of budding scientists within the East African country to look beyond their homeland discoveries, and turn their attention to the building blocks of the universe.

Professor Pete Vukusic, from the University of Exeter, has recently returned from a whistle-stop tour of schools in the rural Morogoro region of Tanzania, designed to help children of all ages to better engage with science.

Prof Vukusic combined interactive demonstrations with lecture-style teaching to explain fundamental and modern scientific principles to pupils at seven separate large schools. In a bid to enhance the engagement and learning in the classes, the charismatic physicist utilised a range of simple props he was able to take with him, such as glow sticks, glass prisms, slinky springs, and even Rubik’s Cubes, during his demonstrations.

Professor Vukusic hopes his visit will help both to inspire science learning in these schools and help their teachers adapt to more modern educational techniques that engage young people more effectively.

Speaking on his return, Professor Vukusic said: “It was truly an incredible experience, and also very humbling. To be able to contribute in some small way and to encourage renewed enthusiasm, energy and interest in science amongst the pupils was something that I will remember for a lifetime.

“The aspect that struck me most was a real sense of an eagerness to learn, not just from the pupils but also from the teachers, who couldn’t have been more welcoming and helpful. They face so many different challenges compared to our own on a daily basis, through a lack of resources or with very large class sizes, that it was a real pleasure to share their experience and demonstrate some techniques they may take forward in the future.”

“One purpose of the trip was to try to introduce pupils and teachers to a more engaging and interactive style of science learning and teaching, which few had previously encountered. With just a few simple portable demonstrations used in the right way, it was possible to investigate and discuss a range of very fundamental scientific ideas. It was profoundly rewarding to see the students and teachers so interested, engaged and delighting in their understanding of new aspects of science.”

In Tanzania, Prof Vukusic visited a range of rural schools over nine days, delivering 90 minute presentations to hundreds of schoolchildren on a wide variety of different topics.

He said: “One of the most interesting aspects of the visit for me was the wide range of pupil knowledge that was evident. The interactive lessons in each school were followed by discussion sessions in which we questioned and discussed many avenues of science. Despite often challenging educational circumstances some pupils showed a depth of scientific understanding and insight that was comparable to the very best students I’ve encountered in the UK.

“We discussed everything from cosmology to nuclear energy, from evolution and biological diversity to colour signalling mechanisms in insects – many pupils were driven by genuine interest in a diverse set of topics, showing with a passion for learning that was astonishing.

“I hope that I was able to introduce pupils and teachers to a more engaging and interactive style of science learning and teaching, something different to that they have previously encountered. I have managed to stay in touch with some pupils, and they are still asking questions and challenging their own perceptions of science. Even in such a short space of time, it was a very special experience.”

Prof Vukusic has become internationally known for his team’s research into biological photonics at Exeter and his work with science communication and outreach.

He is an expert on light manipulation and colour and leads the University of Exeter’s research group in natural photonics. His expertise is in how colour and appearance can be formed through nanostructures found in nature: from the dazzling iridescence of butterflies’ wings to the pure black of beetles’ shells. He has worked with external companies, including L’Oreal, Bausch & Lomb and Imerys, on developing new techniques to mimic nature’s designs in products ranging from cosmetics to paper applications.

Prof Vukusic has a distinguished track record in communicating science. He was the Institute of Physics Schools Lecturer in 2007 and the Institute of Physics Ireland Schools Lecturer in 2011, delivering over one hundred lectures in schools across the UK and Ireland in these programs. In 2008 he was awarded the British Association of Science Lord Kelvin Prize for science lecturing and in 2013 was awarded the Royal Society Kohn Prize for his science outreach work.  He still regularly gives talks to schools and science societies across UK.

Date: 31 July 2014

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