Arousing their natural curiosity
Interview with Beat Henrich
Mr Henrich, how did you discover your interest in physics?
When I was a boy, I was terrified of the dark so my mother explained where the sounds I was scared of came from, such as the creaking noise in the cupboard: the wood moves depending on the temperature because of the moisture it contains – and it creaks! From that moment on, I have always tried to explain things by investigating them. It was this wish to understand that brought me to physics.
So you became a physicist even though you didn’t attend a lab school. Why do we need an iLab then?
One thing I’ve noticed is that people almost have too much information at their fingertips these days. We know that we can google anything at any moment. Since in principle the information is readily available, we are losing the urge to understand things. We aim to revive this natural curiosity in the lab school.
How do you bring abstract things like sound waves, vacuum or light into the classroom?
The key is to kick off with an example from everyday life, and not technical jargon. The children are encouraged to learn to understand physics through logical real-world contexts. When we study the topic of light in our lab, for instance, we start off with a leaf. Why does it look green? In order to find out, we measure the light components a leaf emits: we find that those in the green colour range are emitted because the leaf absorbs the other colours contained in sunlight, such as red or blue.
What is important to you in working with a class of schoolchildren?
We don’t want to end up with a school situation so the rooms are already set up in a different way. The children work in pairs so they can develop their own ideas and seek explanations. Much like in science, of course, sometimes they come up with misconceptions, such as that the leaf is green because its green pigments absorb the green portion of the sunlight. However, the kids can disprove this later on in the experiment. Showing these kinds of parallels with the research world is important to me as I’d also like to break down the reservations children have about science.
How do you measure the lab’s success?
At the end of the day, the pupils fill out a feedback form. In the responses, we by far exceed the results of the Pisa study. After a day with us, over seventy-five per cent of the children, both girls and boys, stated that they found physics exciting. In the OECD study, this figure is normally around fifty per cent.
However, I experience the programme’s success first hand when I bump into a former pupil from the iLab who has since become an apprentice at the PSI, and which has actually happened to me. Now I’m just waiting for the first researcher (laughs)!
At the anniversary event “Five Years iLab”, you called for the iLab to be copied. Why?
For the PSI, the iLab is a forge for new talent. Ideally, there should be one lab school per canton; then every pupil in Switzerland would have a similar opportunity at a convenient distance. Moreover the variety of topics would increase, too. Hopefully, schools would attend these learning centres more often then. We could get more children interested in subjects like mathematics, the sciences, and technology, for instance.
Why do think the idea of lab schools has not caught on quite as much in Switzerland as it has in Germany?
Germany was a pioneer in this form of promoting young talent, which is why our neighbour is ahead of the game: they already have 300 of these labs in the country whereas you can count them on one hand here. But it is also down to the fact that major companies like Bayer or Siemens spotted that they would have recruitment problems early on and so seized the initiative themselves. In Switzerland, there seems to be a lack of time and money for such structures, both at public research institutions and in the research industry.
Have you had any enquiries from institutions looking to copy the iLab?
Not exactly copy, but yes: in September, the head of the future lab school at Roche paid us a visit, since the vocational training department at Roche is looking to set up a similar structure at their new training centre in Kaiseraugst. We are only too happy to pass on our expertise, from information on managing a lab school to the documentation and equipment information for the individual subjects.
Are you more of a teacher or physicist now?
That’s a tricky one. I’m a passionate physicist, which made the decision to accept the post of school head and step back from research all the more difficult. But I’m very happy I did. After all, the glint in the children’s eyes, their interest and the endless questions give me the same feeling as gaining recognition from my peers in science. And at the end of the day, it is only through my work as a physicist at the PSI that I can offer the pupils a glimpse into the world of research. My dream as both a scientist and a headmaster is to operate a detector for ultrafast processes, a so-called pixel detector, in the lab school. Then the illustrative material would range from a normal camera to the high-speed-detector technology to be applied at SwissFEL, which we could use – to put it simply – to photograph how molecules bind.
Interview: Simone Nägeli