Learning Physics by Visiting Laboratories?

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Project Inside the Big Black Box (IN3B), Analysis and evaluation of the impact on visitors of public visits programme to the main particle physics laboratories in Europe.

IN3B project studied the visitor programmes at European research centres for physics in Germany, Greece, France/Switzerland and Italy.

The project started from the consideration that a great number of international research centres for science and technology in Europe now offer regular visit programmes and ‘Open Days’ initiatives to the general public. Considerable effort and resources are put into the visit programmes by these research institutions and, in turn, each year thousands of visitors – e.g.. school classes, university students, and groups of lay persons – exploit opportunity to have a look behind the scenes of scientific research.

But what exactly happens during these visits, and do they have any impact or consequences for the visitors? Are the visitors satisfied with the visit and why? Do they come back home from the visit with more awareness of what these centres do? Do they actually learn something about research and its methods? Do their attitudes towards science in general significantly change? And in case of young people – arguably the main target of such visit programmes – what is the impact on their perception of the research professions and on their potential inclination to enrol in science courses at the university?

So far, little systematic knowledge was available about the social and cognitive processes that take place on the visitors’ part during these visits, with these forms of communication between scientific institutions and the general public still evoke pictures of a black box, both from a scientific and practical point of view.

Despite a lot of studies about the impact of the visit to scientific museums and science centres has been realized (Bitgood, Serrell et al., 1994; Persson, 2000; Garnett, 2003) and altough these situations are quite similar to the visits to research centres for various aspects, the results until now obtained still demonstrate the necessity of more efforts in that direction in order to try new methodological solutions and to gather further empirical evidences (Piscitelli and Anderson, 2000). Moreover, it’s important to bear in mind the peculiarity of the visits considered by the IN3B project: they happen, in fact, where scientific research is actually done and they offer, therefore, the possibility to have a “direct” contact with science, rather than with an “artificial representation” of it. This characteristic of the visit programmes under observation trough the IN3B project represents their strenght, as we could see later, but, at the same time, it entails also some weaknesses.

The project “inside the Big Black Box” (IN3B) aimed at carrying out a systematic analysis of core aspects of such visit programmes by empirically analysing and comparing the visit schemas of national and international research centres for physics in four European countries: DESY, Hamburg, Germany; DEMOKRITOS, Athens, Greece; LNGS, National Laboratory of Gran Sasso, Italy; and CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. At each of these centres, a team of PR staff from the research centre and of social scientists from a different institution worked together during the survey.

The significance of the project was also related to the fact that attempts have never been made on a scientific basis to measure the impact of communication processes activity by science laboratories through public visit and open days. The project had thus taken the form of a research-intervention path, its actors being not only the subject directly involved in planning and implementation of communication activities at the laboratories, but also social scientists, psychologist and anthropologists, building a collaboration in order to devise best practices for public communication of science performed through direct contact between scientist and the general public on the same premises where the scientist usually do research. ”.

To know the project’s main results, download the final report (zip format, 937 K) and its annex (zip format, 450 K).

Project funded by the European Commission within the programme “Raising Public Awareness of Science and Technology”, participating countries are Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, 2002-2003.