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Dr Laurence Wroe bridged the gap between music and physics to develop this innovative workshop, making use of evidence of what affects young people’s engagement with science to set clear objectives and inform his decisions. This case study delves into Laurence’s journey.

At a glance:

  • An award-winning project that used music and drums to engage young people with physics
  • The Project helped develop Laurence’s project management and other transferable skills that have enhanced his academic career
  • Support from his supervisor, a positive culture in the department, and availability of resources were important to Laurence’s success

Dr Laurence Wroe, a former Particle Physics DPhil candidate (now Senior Fellow at CERN), orchestrated an exceptional project that resonates with innovation. The ‘Funky Drums and Particle Accelerators’ workshop not only showcased the surprising parallels between music and physics but also a thoughtful, evidence-based approach to public engagement with research. This case study delves into Laurence's journey.

The Rhythmic Epiphany: From Equations to Drums

Laurence Wroe with one of his funky drumsThe idea for the project started materialising fairly early on in Laurence’s reading for his DPhil project. “In terms of playing instruments, I’m incredibly non-musical. But I came across this drum idea when I was Googling stuff related to my thesis research because, as it turns out, the equations that model radio frequency cavities [in particle accelerators] are the same as the drum. So that connection stayed in the back of my mind,” Laurence shared.

Laurence was motivated by a desire to make science accessible and to support access to university, Oxbridge in particular. “Even with my family, they’re not really scientists, so as soon as I would start explaining what I do as part of my physics research I could tell were switching off,” Laurence explained. “The drum is neat though because as soon as you start talking about drums, people are immediately more interested - they can visualise a drum, whereas they can't visualise a radio frequency, or RF, cavity.”

When the University’s Public Engagement with Research funding scheme was announced he was spurred on to turn this idea into reality.

The workshop was designed as a one hour-long workshop, where students visit three work stands: ‘Funky Drums’,

3D printed radiofrequency cavities from particle accelerators3D printed radiofrequency cavities from particle accelerators ‘Chladni Plates’ and ‘Accelerators’. At each work stand, the students have a quick demonstration of the equipment before being encouraged to get hands-on with the bespoke kit. The students do their own experiments and can record their observations in a bespoke workbook.


Striking the Right Chord: Evidence-Based Approach with Clear Objectives

From the outset, Laurence took an evidence-based approach and set clear objectives for the Funky Drums workshop. His primary goal was to build the ‘science capital’ of 11-14-year-old state school students, encouraging them to consider STEM studies post-16. From commissioning bespoke drums to designing an interactive workshop, every decision was grounded in the evidence of the key factors affecting young people’s science related aspirations and engagement.

Science Capital describes how peoples’ social and cultural backgrounds and access to certain resources and experiences can influence their engagement with science; people with higher science capital are more likely to aspire to scientific study and careers. Science capital goes beyond having lots of knowledge about science and includes aspects like science attitudes, engagement in science experiences, and whether they know people involved in science. Generally speaking it encourages ways of broadening what counts as ‘doing science’.

Laurence had first learnt about this concept in his departmental training and from further discussions with Divisional PCER Lead, Michaela Livingstone-Banks, when seeking guidance on applying for the PER Seed Fund.

Laurence targeted school students on the cusp of crucial educational decisions, saying, “the aim was that after the workshop they'll be more inclined to think, ‘oh, being scientist is not just going to a lab and mixing chemicals or working at a computer’. In the workshop I try to encourage the idea that science also requires creativity and problem solving skills which even comes into designing drums, which is quite creative and artistic.“

An Impactful Beat: What the Evaluation Shows

Thorough evaluation using pre- and post-workshop questionnaires revealed the workshop's success in building science capital. Around 350 students from four Oxford secondary state schools participated, and the feedback showed increased interest in STEM studies. Notably, those with lower science capital felt more open to informal science learning opportunities.

“Some of the classes are not always engaged in lessons but I was really impressed by how well they got stuck into this, they were more interested and animated than I have ever seen them before so it clearly hit the spot!” – Quote from teacher

Laurence also reflected on a number of useful practical insights to further enhance the workshop for students with lower science capital, such as:

  • emphasising practical applications of particle accelerators through interactive elements
  • highlighting how the skills used and gained from scientific knowledge could be broadly used
  • the importance of demonstrating the diversity of people involved in science

A clear result, was that the school students had found the workshop fun. Laurence reflected, “You don't want to get too stuck in the weeds of the scientific details because, ultimately, the students will only take home a few key messages. One way to make those points more memorable though is by doing it in a fun way which I think can enhance that learning.”

The success of this project was recognised when Laurence won the ‘best newcomer’ award at SEPnet.

Legacy Building Beyond the Workshop

Laurence didn’t stop at a successful workshop. Realising the importance of legacy, he crafted stand-alone resources and provided training to colleagues, ensuring the project’s sustainability. He has thought ahead to how the workshop activities could be extended and adapted for festivals, broadening its potential reach and impact.

Funky drums

Laurence emphasised that leading this project has had a positive legacy in the context of his academic career, as a means to give him practical experience and a way to demonstrate his ability to handle projects, people, and budgets, saying, “the DPhil is really a training programme for being an academic but there's much more beyond it than just the science research. Getting the experience of essentially being a PI [principle investigator] and making higher-level decisions was really valuable.”

Mentorship Matters: Nurturing a Supportive Environment

Laurence acknowledged the crucial role of a supportive environment. His supervisor, departmental training, and support from the University's PER Seed Fund were instrumental.

Laurence was co-supervised by Suzie Sheehy (now at the University of Melbourne); Suzie herself has been heavily involved in engagement activities, and her support played a vital role, reflecting the power of mentorship and encouragement. “In some ways, getting me to do outreach was her outreach to me”.

The Particle Physics sub-department offers all its students training and mentoring for small engagement projects. This experience exposed Laurence to a range of engagement concepts and served as a stepping to stone to gain early experience. Now at CERN, he is taking the chance to undergo ‘guide’ training, allowing him to lead visitors into the detector caverns, “particularly right now whilst CERN is in a YETS [Year End Technical Stop] and you can actually go down to the detectors… I’ve been frantically trying to sign up to the training courses and do the guiding which further trains you to talk about your research in an engaging way.”

Dr Sian Tedaldi, Outreach Programmes Manager in Physics, who introduced the department’s engagement training said, "we work really hard to foster a culture of bringing our transformative research to life for as many people as possible, and Laurence’s Funky Drums public engagement project is exemplary, showing how creative our students can be when given the right support and encouragement”.

Laurence’s advice for anyone thinking about doing engagement is “just do it” and “try to make it as fun as possible, not just for your audience but for you too”.

Laurence Wroe's Funky Drums and Particle Accelerators workshop stands not just as a successful engagement project but as a testament to the power of a considered approach. His journey, marked by clear objectives, evidence-based methods, enabled and catalysed by a supportive environment, serves as an inspiration.

Next steps

If you’re interested in doing something similar, why not try the following:

This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: the interview transcript was generated with AI. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks.