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The universe under a dome

26 Sep 2019
Taken from the September 2019 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

In this article – originally published in Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s regular column of humorous and offbeat essays, puzzles, crosswords, quizzes and comics, which appears on the back page of the print edition – school science presenter Louisa Cockbill shares hers tips and tricks for communicating science to a young audience

Explorer Dome

I have always found it difficult to get my head around the infinite complexity of our universe. Yet somehow I’m a school science presenter, with the task of teasing out the inexpressible and unknown details of science into a tangible reality for children. It’s somewhat daunting. But I do have an invaluable asset – a giant dome-shaped tent.

Never failing to draw out a child’s innate curiosity, the Explorer Dome’s 5–6 m high portable planetariums just about squish into even the smallest school hall. But the domes are delicate assets, which my colleagues and I regularly fill to the brim with squirming, squealing children of all ages. We ask classes to help us look after the dome, all the while warily scanning faces to spot early signs of a child who wants to test whether or not the dome is a bouncy castle. It is not. But the children are just as delighted to learn they’ll get to crawl inside the dome through the short tunnel on the side (I’ve never quite understood why this causes such glee). And when they reach the inside of the dome, something magical happens.

Although they are just sitting on the floor of their school hall, the children are transported a million miles away from their classrooms – into a new, exciting environment. It’s in this place that I have the opportunity to alter the concept of what science is for those young developing minds. However, getting kids excited about science is rather loud, and it can be difficult to get a word in edgeways – not an ideal situation for a presenter. But as we call the raucous shouts to order, and zoom into the star at the centre of our solar system; eyes widen, jaws drop and voices channel expressions of wonder at our universe.

Using hands-on demonstrations, we show how light and sound waves travel, how animals slowly adapt to survive, and why the body digests food. It’s great to see children process the concepts and build them up into some more complex questions. That’s when we know that they are starting to get it – science is all about questioning how things work.

Questions start to explode out of the older kids – “What’s the biggest star? Why is Mars red? Are there other planets outside our solar system? What happens when black holes collide?” Fantastic questions; although sometimes they get distracted by the science closer at hand – “How does the dome stay up?”

Often, there is at least one child who has seemingly swallowed an encyclopedia, and is keen on regurgitating everything they recall. As presenters, we try to rein in this flow of information, and remind the children that science goes beyond simply knowing facts. Indeed, we stringently guard the sanctity of the dome as a safe place to express wonder and ask questions. Occasionally though, the smarty-pants tell me something I didn’t know.

There are also times when they help us reveal an important aspect of the nature of science. For example, on more than one occasion a child has insisted I’ve got the number of Jupiter’s moons wrong. But this has given me the opportunity to explain that our understanding of the universe is constantly expanding – we’ve now found there are more moons orbiting Jupiter than previously thought. When I get a really good question from a child, one that moves outside of the shows’ usual content, it’s such a pleasure to answer. Or attempt to answer at least – the best questions tend to push the boundaries of what we as a species know about our universe. Queries like these often lead to interesting discussions, speculation and debate. Unwittingly the kids have stumbled on the foundations for building scientific theory.

In the space show, there’s a point under the night sky when we start to spin. Noise levels peak as the kids start to lose their grip on reality, but before anybody might throw up, we switch to the constellations, taking the children back in time to some of the great historic scientists – the ancient Greeks. Through tales of myth and legend, we point to the Greeks’ powers of observation, and so teach the children about another cornerstone of science.

As we cover the various sections of the curriculum that schools book us for, I hope that our shows help the next generation to glean the bigger picture of science, and dissipate any feelings that science is “not for them”. But it is hard to know the long-term impact of these types of science experiences.

Teachers and parents report that the kids go back to lessons and homes more enthused. But with a lifetime worth of potential influencing factors, it’s tricky to figure out how big a factor the dome experience is in developing a person’s understanding of the world around them. The lack of strong empirical evidence makes it difficult for schools to justify spending money on these types of experiences, and leads, at least in part, to the low earnings common within the sector.

It’s a privilege to use the Explorer Domes to convey the mind-boggling awesomeness of the universe that sometimes baffles and bewilders me. Loud, enthusiastic rounds of applause follow every show – I don’t think there are many other jobs where you get thanked so profusely and earnestly. The expressions of gratitude certainly help me to keep going through the back to back shows on a stifling hot day; all the way until we finally roll up the “cave of wonders”, squishing it back into its bag ready for the next school.

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