Milky Way

Science educators invite students to ponder our universe. Photo: Pixabay

Forty girls and one space science program

Research is like a journey. We wander the streets of our research life every day. One day, you take a new turn and, unexpectedly, find yourself in a different corner, enjoying new vistas in an otherwise familiar research landscape.

I like to be adventurous in my research. The other day, I stumbled over an unexpected yet very tempting opportunity. Naturally, I took the different turn abandoning the familiar route ahead. Early in November, my colleagues from Einstein-First organized a professional development workshop at the University of Western Australia.  A group of twenty Perth-based science teachers joined me to explore the nature of time and how gravity and time are intimately linked.

Stretching minds with modern physics

Einstein Space Science Program
Einstein is an icon of genius. Yet, few people know what he is famous for. Picture: Magdalena Kersting/Pixabay

Holding professional development workshops is not part of my research agenda as such. Yet, I always enjoy reaching out to connect teachers with activities that they can take back to their classrooms. It is very rewarding to excite the inner scientist in others. Plus, it is just plain fun to stretch everyone’s minds with concepts of modern physics.

This time, the workshop led me to a scenic detour that brought me to Perth College, one of the oldest independent girls’ schools in Western Australia. Two of my workshop participants invited me to run a space science program with their year 9 students. I would introduce the girls to our digital learning resources and to modern ideas of space, time, and gravity. How could I have not agreed to such an offer?

A glimpse of what lies ahead

For the past three weeks I have been at Perth College almost every day. And it is fair to say that this space science project has been one of my favorite research projects ever. As it turns out, 14-year olds are pretty smart and pretty awesome. Their teachers reckoned it would be a good idea to give the girls a glimpse of what awaits them if they study physics. Because let’s face it: Science in middle school can sometimes be a bit dull.

Well, the teachers were right: The girls just loved doing research on Einstein’s big ideas. I presented them with questions like “What is time?” or “How does gravity make things fall?”. These questions guided their inquiries. Most of the time, the students worked in smaller groups using our digital resources or doing research on their own.

Young minds keen to learn

Magdalena Kersting Perth College
I ran a space science program with students at Perth College. Photo: Magdalena Kersting

I would chat with them, answering questions and explaining concepts, or just telling them about my work as a theoretical physicist and science educator. It was such a stimulating experience being surrounded by young and eager minds that are keen to learn, keen to ask questions, keen to peak over the edge of school physics. I am not sure who of us had more fun – me sharing my knowledge about general relativity or the girls acting it out in front of the camera.

At the end of the project, each group presented a learning object that they had designed during our lessons. Most of the groups chose to make a video. We saw Einstein and Newton arguing about gravity, girls getting spaghettified during their journey to a black hole, and game masters quizzing us about the nature of space and time.

I’ve been truly impressed with the girls’ creativity and the effort they put into our space science project. The best thing, though? Having several of them come to me after class and telling me with sparkling eyes that they now want to become a physicist.

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