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Bringing science to life for young people

Participants at the 3-2-1-Ignition pop-up science shop in Nottingham, UK. Image courtesy of Ignite! Futures.
Participants at the 3-2-1-Ignition pop-up science shop in Nottingham, UK. Image courtesy of Ignite! Futures.

Science graduates, museum staff and enthusiasts across Europe are sharing their passion for research by organising temporary exhibitions in shopping centres and parks to help inspire the next generation.

From information boards in city parks to temporary science ‘pop-up’ shops in bustling shopping centres, the PLACES project is working to inspire young people to take up careers in science and technology. 

‘We put together chemistry experiments that foam, and fume, and explode - the kind of thing that captures children’s imagination,’ said Miruna Amza, who coordinates PLACES in Bucharest, Romania. ‘Our biggest success was a remote-controlled robot built by engineering students at the University Politehnica of Bucharest ... the kids went wild over it.’

Georgina Heron, a cosmology graduate who volunteered to set up one of the PLACES projects in Nottingham, UK, ran a temporary pop-up shop for four weeks in the autumn of 2012, which later made an appearance at London’s Barbican Centre in March and April 2013. 

‘The idea behind the pop-up shop is to promote science and technology as fun and creative,’ she said. Alongside interactive science experiments, guides and career advisers were on hand, and video lectures on space science were streamed live from University College London. There was also the opportunity to play a game of Twister on a mat with squares highlighting elements on the periodic table.

Looking for fresh recruits

The PLACES project brings together 67 science centres, museums, and festivals in cities across Europe in locally organised action plans to give youngsters first-hand experience of science.

‘It made science come to life for me.’

Becky Jantschenko, a third-year biology student in the UK

To remain close to their target audience, each of the scientific institutions participating in ongoing PLACES projects works with a regional authority. Cooperation with ten European regional networks is built into the project to help share ideas, resources, and results across the EU.

At the same time, PLACES showcases job opportunities in scientific research for young people, and illustrates how dynamic and international scientific research really is. In this way it is attracting new talent to science, along with fields such as technology, engineering and mathematics.

‘It made science come to life for me,’ said Becky Jantschenko, who represented the UK at the 2010 European Science Youth Parliament, an event hosted by a PLACES project partner.

Dozens of secondary school students attended the event to engage in heated discussions about science policy. ‘Our group had to debate whether genetic screening should be allowed. We laboured through some of the technical background. But then, before the debate started, a professional biologist came in to talk with us about it. What they said was fascinating.’

The fascination of science

After the debate, Jantschenko phoned the university where she had just been accepted to study English literature and persuaded the staff to change her course to biology. She is now in her third year and planning her dissertation on lupus erythematosus, a group of autoimmune diseases.

‘I didn’t know that, in science, there’s always more to learn. We’re still figuring out how DNA works.’ Asked if her studies are offering the same excitement as the debates that changed her plans, she said: ‘It’s even better, and very different. At university, it’s not about the knowledge I have, it’s about learning new things, and I love it.’

By the time it finishes in 2014, the PLACES project aims to have developed a series of recommendations on how cities can promote science, which it will reveal at a final conference in Bremen, Germany.

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PLACES