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A typical day with the Lab in a Lorry

The IOP's Lab in a Lorry is an outreach project aimed at school students

Life touring with Lab in a Lorry is a slightly nomadic existence, but the instant feedback you receive and people you meet makes it very worthwhile and a great way to see the impact we have in an immediate way. So here is a typical day in the life to give a flavour of what goes on.

Planning for an event is done four months in advance to ensure that it runs as smoothly as possible during a week. This involves me working closely with the school contacts and our hauliers to arrange all the logistics required to get our large HGV onto their site or visit in advance and finding a nearby alternative if needs be. We’ve parked in supermarkets, fire stations, libraries and even a petrol station before. We visit one or two schools per week, operating for up to four days in a school. They get the choice of how long we stay for in order to engage with as many of their Key Stage 3 students as they wish. Ideally the Lab is brought down from its base in Telford the night before so we can set up, otherwise it arrives between 6.30am and 7am on the first day for us to set up.

Getting prepared

It takes about 45 minutes to park the lorry, level it up and remove the tractor unit before anyone can use it. I then have to set up all the experiment kit in the three sections before our volunteers arrive for training at 8am, which takes me around half an hour. We bring a team of up to six volunteers each day, aged 18 and over from any scientific background, and recruit them via STEMNET, local industry and universities. They may not have any outreach experience, so in the training session I’ve got an hour to give them a crash course in science communication. We send lots of information about the day and the manuals for our three experiments – optoelectronics, resonance and light scattering – in advance, but it is this hour where our volunteers can get to grips with the kit. I then take about half an hour to go through the three experiments, unashamedly bombarding them with an information overload, but it is important that they get to see how everything works and know which buttons to press.

Our aim is to inspire and enthuse the students who come on board. So I emphasise that we aren’t directly teaching the kids: it’s all about keeping the explanations short and sweet, allowing them to get their hands on and effectively lead the session themselves. The job of the volunteers is to guide them through it, pushing them in the right direction. They then have 20 minutes or so to have a play with the kit, team up with another volunteer, choose which one they want to start with and have one run through themselves before the students arrive. It can be a terrifying experience at first, and I’m always mindful of the way I felt the first time I did it, so my main job at this point is to put everyone at ease and fill them with confidence before we start.

The sessions usually start around 9am – the timings are up to the school but we usually follow the timetable, meaning we run five to seven sessions a day, each lasting up to an hour. When the students first come on board, I gather them in the middle and give them a brief introduction, asking who likes or hates science and if they watch any scientific programmes etc., to gauge what sort of receptions we are going to get. This is quite important as it tells me how easy or tricky a session might be and gives an indication or their prior knowledge too. I then split the pupils up into three groups of six and away we go.

It takes around 25 minutes to do one of the experiments, and, once you get going, it passes in the blink of an eye. So I rotate around all the experiments for the first few hours, assisting the volunteers, getting them fully up to speed and chipping in now and again, or I may have to present one myself if we don’t have a full complement. I’ll give them a countdown of the timings and most often, they will have either done half the experiment by the end or whizzed though it too fast the first time. However after they have done it once and they have seen how the students interact, it all becomes a lot less stressful and they can gauge the timings better. Everyone has their own presenting style, which is great because the kids get to engage with people in different ways during their visit. The students are meeting people from the “real world”, which they appreciate as they can see a direct impact and application of the physics concepts they are experimenting with. This is a crucial aspect of why the Lab is relevant – if they can see the point of it and how it affects them in their lives, you have got them engaged.

By the time break arrives at around 11am, everyone has been on the go for a few hours, so it is time for a sit down and cup of tea for 20 minutes. It is important to keep the troops happy, so a well-stocked tea, coffee and biscuit selection is essential. It’s also a good time for an initial debrief on how the first couple of sessions have gone, sharing tips, and, of course, having a good chat with each other since everyone is from different backgrounds. It is nice for me to travel the country and meet all these diverse volunteers. We have quite a few who come more than once, so they’re a great help to me when starting the day, as they can team up with a first time volunteer to get them up to speed more easily and get that team spirit going.

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Well-earned breaks

After break it will be time for another couple of sessions before lunch, so I offer the chance for the volunteers to switch experiments. Some like to have a go at all three during the day, some like to do one and get into the groove, it is totally up to them and I just make sure everyone feels as comfortable as possible. During this phase I try to leave them alone more often to give them their space to present the experiments alone, but always being available to help if needed. Our three experiments have a lot of equipment so that the pupils always have something to do. Whether it is using fibre optics and digital endoscopes to investigate how modern surgery is performed, experimenting with glasses to explore resonance and then apply those concepts on a larger scale and see a glass flexing with a strobe light, or finding out why the sky is blue by creating a sunset in a tube, discussing the electromagnetic spectrum and exploring the invisible UV and IR world.

Then comes lunchtime, and the joy of school dinners. Most schools have been Jamie-Olivered by now, and so you get a good selection, but the old favourites can still be found if you want and know who to ask. For quite a lot of the volunteers, it is the first time they have been back in school, so it’s always an amusing time of day. I’ve had so many now perhaps I should write a good school dinner guide. But for the record, the best ever was a few years ago in the Scottish borders where the local chef got fed up of running a hotel kitchen all day long, so moved to the school so that he was finished by lunchtime – and, quite handily, he had a Michelin star.

After lunch there may be a couple of sessions to go until school finishes between 3pm and 3.45pm. I’ll keep going round to make sure everyone is well watered so that they can make it to the end of the day and do the experiments myself to give people a breather if they like. It is a long day: you’re on your feet with only a couple of relatively short breaks, so you certainly feel it at the end of the day. The volunteers will all be experts by now, since they may have repeated the presentation up to 10 times in the day and I will have chipped in with my top tips, so they know what phrases to use and how to direct the students so that they enjoy the experiments. When you see those lightbulb moments in their eyes, it is a real pleasure to see the immediate impact that it has. Being able to let the students find out things for themselves in an enjoyable and comfortable environment, giving them the confidence to explore and find out how it all works for themselves, is very rewarding. If they pile out having said it was fun/ace/wicked/sick (insert the current buzz phrase of the time) then you’ve done a good job.

Wrapping up

At the end of the day hopefully everyone, pupils and volunteers alike, have had an enjoyable experience and will want to come back for more when we are in their neck of the woods again. Since we go to 10–15 schools per term, we’re usually relatively close to everyone who wants to participate at least once every few months. At the final debrief everyone shares their thoughts on the day, how they have adapted as they have gone along which has been useful for me over the years to optimise the experiments and visitor experience. As a thank you the volunteers get their LIAL freebies, t-shirts, IOP pens and the always popular toy lorry, as well as a year’s affiliate membership of IOP if they aren’t members already.

So by around 4pm is it time to pack up. If we aren’t moving the lorry then it is just a case of unplugging the power cables, locking the doors and heading to my digs for the night. But if we are heading to the next stop or have finished for the week, then everything goes back into flight cases to be safely stowed before we hit the road and set it up at the other end, otherwise it is time for me to head home after another successful week on tour. It can be a tiring job with long days needing lots of energy but I really enjoy it, being able to see the impact we have first hand, helping volunteers and students alike to improve themselves in many ways, and going home with a feeling of a job well done – and, hopefully, having inspired some of the scientists of the future.

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James Bamford

James Bamford

Senior operations coordinator for IOP's Lab in a Lorry
James Bamford

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