Thursday, 5 February 2015

Inspiring the ITER generation - CCFE's Fusion Workshop

by Sarah Medley

It’s a really exciting time for fusion research right now – we’re building the next-generation tokamak ITER and we’re working towards a demonstration power station (known as DEMO), to put fusion electricity on the grid before 2050. However, the dream of fusion as the ultimate energy source will never become reality without one essential ingredient: people! We need people to continue the research, to operate ITER and design DEMO! So it is essential that the fusion community considers how to inspire this next generation of fusion scientists and engineers - often referred to as “the ITER generation”.

Fortunately, CCFE already has a strong outreach programme dedicated to this goal. We give tours of our JET and MAST fusion experiments to A-level and university students, and we take the Sun Dome science roadshow into primary schools. However, the graduates realised that there was a ‘gap in the market’ when it comes to secondary school students, so we decided to develop something specifically aimed at inspiring GCSE-age students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (a.k.a. STEM) subjects to A-level and beyond!

And behold, the CCFE Fusion Workshop was born. Developed entirely by CCFE graduates, the Fusion Workshop is an interactive activity session that uses hands-on science and engineering demonstrations to bring the real-world applications of STEM subjects to life in the context of fusion research. What exactly does that mean, you ask? Well basically we assemble a crack team of graduates, pile them into a van with a load of demonstration kits and send them off to a local school to invade a GCSE physics lesson.

The Fusion Workshop team. From left to right: Jim (materials scientist), Alastair (physicist), Greg (mechanical engineer), Kim (control engineer), Sarah and Alex (physicists).

 School lessons only last for an hour, so the Fusion Workshop is designed to be a snappy and exciting insight into the world of fusion research and why it’s so awesome, all delivered in less than 60 minutes. We kick off the session with a short intro to fusion and CCFE, before diving into the best bit – the demos! This is where the students get to have a great time playing with lasers, magnets, expanding marshmallows, and not forgetting the robotic arm chocolate relay race! Of course, it’s not just about having fun, as the graduates are on hand to provide easily understandable explanations of how each demo relates to a particular element of fusion research, whether it’s plasma diagnostics or vacuum technology. So the demos all aim to show how the science taught at school is actually applied in the real world of fusion research! We wrap up the workshop with a quick chat about how to become a scientist or engineer - and why it’s such an exciting career choice! - then we pack up the van and drive off into the sunset (or back to CCFE), happy in the knowledge that the students all had fun and are hopefully now considering STEM career routes as a result of the session.

Of course, this is how we see it, but what do the students think? Well, the feedback speaks for itself – after trialling the workshop with a local year 10 class, we received comments such as “I loved it and it just made me want to go to university and be an engineer” and “I am hoping to become a physicist when I'm older and this has really enthused me”. One member of the class has even applied for work experience at CCFE, as a direct result of our workshop.

So you put a marshmallow inside a vacuum chamber, switch on the pump, and then….? Greg and Sarah show these two year 10 students what happens and why.

Future remote handling engineers?
Unsurprisingly, adults enjoy the workshop session just as much as school students. We witnessed this first hand last month at a networking event that we co-hosted with Science Oxford, where 25 teachers and STEM Ambassadors from across the country came to CCFE to experience the workshop for themselves! This was an excellent opportunity to give us invaluable feedback, which we can now use to refine the workshop and develop it further.
The plan is to continue to work closely with teachers and schools to make sure that the students really are getting the most out of the workshop, and then it can be officially rolled out later this year!

Jim explains to teachers how the GCSE physics concepts of reflection and refraction are applied to JET’s essential laser diagnostics.
Alex explains to teachers how we use ferrofluids in the workshop to illustrate magnetism to students. Magnets are the most essential part of any tokamak!

So, what started out as an enthusiastic group of graduates with a vision is now a very real project with a lot of momentum, and we’re super excited about it. The workshop also has great potential to incorporate other demos in future, for example other graduate projects such as the table-top plasma device or RIFT, so watch this space! Whatever happens, we hope that the CCFE Fusion Workshop will continue to inspire young scientists and engineers for years to come!