Professor Pete Vukusic enthralled African school children with hands-on science demonstrations

Slinky science inspires African school children

A University of Exeter physicist has inspired hundreds of African school children to engage with science during a whirlwind outreach tour to Malawi.

Professor Pete Vukusic used simple interactive demonstrations including slinky springs, glass prisms, light sticks and iridescent butterflies to enthral large classes of pupils and teachers in underprivileged rural schools.

The charismatic lecturer combined use of the demos and an interactive and engaging teaching style to explain fundamental and modern science principles to students who are used to formal instructional teaching methods. Professor Vukusic hopes his visit will both help to inspire science learning in these schools and help their teachers adapt to more modern techniques that engage young people more effectively.

Professor Vukusic has become internationally known for his team’s research into biological photonics at Exeter and his work with science communication and outreach. In Malawi, he visited eight rural schools over four days, delivering 90 minute presentations to a total of 1,500 pupils and 55 teachers in one of the poorest areas of southern Africa.

He said: “I feel exceptionally privileged to have visited these schools and to have contributed in some small way to the students’ and teachers’ knowledge and appreciation of modern science. Despite exceptionally few resources and challenging circumstances, their eagerness for learning was remarkable.

“One purpose of the trip was to try to introduce pupils and teachers to a more engaging and interactive style of science learning and teaching, which few had previously encountered. With just a few simple portable demonstrations used in the right way, it was possible to investigate and discuss a range of fundamental scientific ideas. It was profoundly rewarding to see the students and teachers so interested, engaged and making such progress with their understanding of new science.”

With the help of the Institute of Physics, Professor Vukusic has sent each of the eight schools the sets of physics teaching equipment that he used so that they can incorporate more interactive and engaging teaching methods in the delivery of their science curriculum.

Professor Vukusic is an expert on light manipulation and colour and leads the University of Exeter’s research group in natural photonics. His expertise is in how colour and appearance can be formed through nano-structures found in nature: from the dazzling iridescence of butterflies’ wings to the pure black of beetles’ shells. He has worked with external companies, including L’Oreal, Bausch & Lomb and Imerys, on developing new techniques to mimic nature’s designs in products ranging from cosmetics to paper applications.

The trip was part-funded by the Institute of Physics and the University of Exeter, with additional support from Ripple Africa, a charity whose work includes the improvement of education in Malawi.

Professor Vukusic also visited Mzuzu University in northern Malawi, where he delivered an academic seminar and met with its Vice Chancellor and science department in order to establish research links with Exeter.

The professor has a distinguished track record in communicating science. He was the Institute of Physics Schools Lecturer in 2007 and the Institute of Physics Ireland Schools Lecturer in 2011, delivering over one hundred lectures in schools across the UK and Ireland in these programs. In 2008 he was awarded the British Association of Science Lord Kelvin Prize for science lecturing and he regularly gives talks to schools and science societies across UK.

The visit to Malawi follows on from Professor Vukusic’s science outreach visit to Ethiopian schools last Spring. He hopes to continue to engage students and teachers across Africa with presentations and interactive discussions about modern science, through sharing the University of Exeter’s world-class research expertise.

Date: 17 December 2012