PhD students experience the rewarding nature of outreach work with junior school pupils

Science Week at St. Benedict’s Junior School in London proved to be both hair-raising and enlightening with a visit from PhD students and academic staff in photonics at UCL and University of Cambridge.

Professor Cyril Renaud, Jana Skirnewskaja (PhD researcher), Christina Vivian (PhD researcher) and Thenmozhi Elango (Masters student) from the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Connected Electronic and Photonic Systems (CEPS CDT) and colleagues hosted a series of workshops with pupils at St. Benedict’s Junior School in London last month.

photo of the photonics outreach team

Image: During the outreach session at St. Benedict's School, in London, from left, UCL lecturer Dr Thomas Gilbert, CDT Director Professor Cyril Renaud and Cambridge PhD researcher Jana Skirnewskaja.

The Science Week experiments delivered by the team were carefully designed to accommodate a range of ages and abilities and to inspire students to dive deeper into scientific topics. To open the discussion – and to tackle some of the common stereotypes – pupils were asked what they thought a scientist did, or what they might look like. Then the experiments began. Communicating with light, building electromagnets, programming a robot to find its way through a maze and lots of frizzy static hair, were just some of the experiments pupils participated in.

Communication with light

To demonstrate light communication using optical transmitters, students tried two different channels: one using an optical fibre which mimicked networks in the real-world; and a free-space scenario where the transmitter beam had to be precisely oriented onto the receiver. This process showed the students first-hand the challenges of optical communications research and the importance of fiber-optic cables.

The science of Electromagnetism

Photo of copper pipe experiment

Another experiment investigated the science of electromagnetism. Here, the students were given a copper pipe, which is non-magnetic, and a small magnet. They were asked to discuss then explore how the magnet would behave when dropped through the pipe. The magnet neither stuck to the copper rod, nor fell right-through. The falling magnet generated a magnetic field of opposite polarity to that of the falling magnet. The magnetic force decelerated the magnet causing it to fall more slowly through the copper rod in comparison to a non-magnetic object.

Afterwards, the students were tasked with building their own magnet by wrapping copper wire around a coil. The wire was attached to a battery and tested with a steel block. It was interesting to see how the students approached the topics and discussed the potential outcomes.

Metrology vs human senses

A third experiment investigated the science of metrology and the issue of trusting human senses. Students were asked to estimate the weight of two different size boxes, which were sneakily the same weight. They first estimated the weight by touch alone. This method resulted in some pupils being misled by the different box sizes. There were many guesses before the results were finally measured accurately with scales.

Exploring static electricity

Photo of pupils with balloons

The last experiment for the day was for younger groups to explore static electricity. Each student rubbed a balloon on their own hair and tried to stick it to a surface. They found some surfaces would stick while others would cause the balloon to lose its static electricity.

Throughout the week, experiments were designed to build the students’ interest and engage them in discussions. Younger pupils (8 and under) explored day-to-day phenomena such as thunderstorms, rainbows and gravity whilst older age groups (9 to 12-year-olds) conducted more complex experiments such as a pre-programmed robot detecting different sound and vision signals to navigate a maze.

The entire week was filled with hands-on scientific experiments for students at all technical levels.

It was as rewarding for the outreach team as it was for the pupils of St. Benedict’s Junior School.

One student said: “This was great! I hope to see you during the next science fair!”.

Thanks to the students and teachers at St. Benedict’s Junior School and the photonics outreach team: Dr. Chow Lai, Dr. Thomas Gilbert, Jana Skirnewskaja, Christina Vivian, Daniel Mannion, Thenmozhi Elango and Fasil Bashir Wani.

If you would like the photonics outreach team to visit your school, contact: Professor Cyril Renaud, E:

About Jana Skirnewskaja
Photo of Jana Skirnewskaja Jana is a PhD researcher at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Connected Electronic and Photonic Systems (CEPS CDT), studying at University of Cambridge. Jana is passionate about using holography to facilitate augmented reality applications in the transportation sector.
About Christina Vivian
Photo of Christina Vivian Christina is a PhD researcher at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Connected Electronic and Photonic Systems (CEPS CDT), studying at UCL. Her research is in the field of Ultra-fast Photonics, exploring techniques to integrate group III/V quantum dot lasers onto a silicon platform.
About Thenmozhi Elango
Photo of Thenmozhi Elango Thenmozhi is currently undertaking her MRes (Masters of Research) at UCL. She is particularly interested in the field of Photonic Quantum Computing & Quantum Information Theory.
About Professor Cyril Renaud
Prof Cyril Renaud Cyril is currently a Professor of Photonics at University College London, and the programme director for the UCL/Cambridge EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Connected Electronic and Photonic Systems (CEPS CDT).

The EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Connected Electronic and Photonic Systems (CEPS CDT) is a joint Centre with UCL and University of Cambridge. The CEPS CDT is funded by EPSRC programme grant EP/S022139/1.

Published: May 2022.