Every year, the European Space Agency’s Communications Office hosts a week-long Open Days event for local students. Last week, ESA’s Earth Observation Centre ESRIN welcomed 1500 students from area schools to learn about and engage with STEM subjects. As anyone who has been involved with planning educational events for children knows, finding the right balance between engaging, informative, and fun can be quite the challenge. But this year’s Open Days managed just that. How? Our Karina de Castris, ESA Education representative at ESRIN, explains.
In the olden days
Open Days at any institution tend to be a series of presentations – a speaker and an audience and a lot of talking at instead of talking with. When the material presented is more challenging, this model is especially in vogue. But it doesn’t work so well with kids. “In the past, we had a bit of a problem keeping kids’ concentration levels high. The Open Days were more about presentations of the different departments/directorates and were quite long for children to follow for a whole day,” Karina explains. Another challenge was finding the right people to work with kids, as the specialists asked to present their work could not always tailor it to a younger audience.
With over 5 years of experience planning these Open Days in collaboration with ESA Communications, Karina knew it was time to change things up. With more financial and didactic support from ESA Education, the team proposed labs.
Labor(atory) of love
Kids love the basics, they love to be involved, and they don’t mind a mess. So why not labs? This year’s Open Days featured 6: The Earth as seen from space, The Ice is Melting, Launch your Rocket, Become a programmer with Lego Mindstorms EV3, Satellite Materials (which excitingly took place during Sentinel-2B’s launch week!), and a lab run by the Near Earth Objects Centre. The students were divided into 6 groups of 50 students upon arrival and rotated throughout the days among the labs.
What’s more, each lab featured kid-friendly speakers. A lot of volunteers were science communicators, generally Masters students with solid science backgrounds. With a little training, they were set to go: “I met with them a couple of times before the Open Days to explain what labs they would be doing and how to present these labs,” says Karina. “I trained them on the various material they would need (Spacecraft Materials Kit, Lego Mindstorms, Rocket lab) and gave them a power point presentation that they could ‘tailor’ if they felt the need to do so.”
The results? “The children’s faces say it all! They were attentive, engaged, and enthusiastic throughout the day, even though we had a pretty packed day lined up for them. The teachers kept telling us how great the format was, and how it was all much more than what they were expecting, which is exactly what we wanted.” But you don’t have to take Karina’s words for it, check out the album below and see for yourself.
Kid tested, kid approved
Though the new structure for this year’s ESRIN Open Days proved a success, there are always takeaways for future planning. Here are some of Karina’s dos and don’ts for planning educational events for kids:
- Get hands-on: “Experiments! Labs! First give them an intro/basics about the subject, but then let them discover themselves. They learn so much more this way, and they have fun doing so. And that’s really what we want – we want children to understand how fun science can be. How making a hypothesis, testing it and obtaining a result is exactly what scientists do. And they have fun doing it”
- Work with what you’ve got: “We managed to run 3 labs in the big conference hall this year, beating the odds of the awful acoustics by proposing a set-up involving earphones, which worked beautifully. Each group had a different frequency and was able to listen to the speaker of their lab only. This allowed us to keep the noise level down and the students’ concentration high.”
- Talk, talk talk: It’s a bad idea to have kids be ‘passive’ all day, just listening to presentations. It’s boring for them, and we don’t want it to be boring, we want to inspire them! We kept presentations to a minimum, and ensured we had a real experiment happening for most of the lab.”
- Be afraid to shake things up: Bogged down with logistics and details, organisers often lose the fun of setting these events up. Get creative when you conceptualise. “Find a theme for the day, build the labs or activities around the theme, run your own experiment to see how to make things work logistically.”
Many thanks to Karina de Castris for her insightful tips and a round of applause for the ESA Communications and Education teams and all volunteers at ESRIN for making this year’s Open Days a success.