Marshmallows and paper rockets: What volunteering in science has given me

By Jonna Jasmin Güven

I was pumping out the air from a vacuum tupperware box that had a marshmallow inside. The kids’ smiles were widening as the marshmallow was expanding inside the box. I asked one of the dads to try and remove the lid from the box. It wouldn’t come off as the vacuum had sealed it shut. The dad was laughing as I told him not to be too disappointed. ‘In fact, you would need to attach a small car to the lid to be able to pull it off’, I added. Now came my favourite part of the demonstration: releasing the air back into the box through a small hole on the lid. I told the kids to take a close look at the swollen marshmallow before I let the air back in. ‘It got small again!’ the kids yelled in awe. I explained that astronauts need to be protected from the vacuum of space with special suits or they would meet the same fate as the marshmallow. I answered a few questions some of the kids and parents had before they moved onto the next demonstration.

One of our volunteers, Afonso, showing the marshmallow demonstration to our Science Coordinator Marina and two audience members at the Levenshulme Markets in Manchester.

This was my first ever public engagement event as a volunteer for the University of Manchester Physics Outreach (UMPO). There would be many more, but the ‘marshmallow demo’ remained as my favourite table-top demonstration we did. I was in the first year of my undergraduate physics degree at the University of Manchester. Three years later, I am now the general manager of the Senior team of UMPO and about to start the fourth and final year of my degree.

The ladies from our Senior team at an event called Girls’ Night Out at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester. I am on the left, holding my favourite ex-planet Pluto, next to Caitlin and Megan, our previous General Managers, Mary our Recruitment Manager, and Emma our Public Engagement Manager.

UMPO is a student-led group that recruits physics students as volunteers to do events like the one above or go to schools to do workshops on different topics in physics. Before taking over as the General manager, I was UMPO’s School liaison for two years. My job was to contact schools around Greater Manchester, with an aim to break down barriers between communities in Manchester. In our workshops, we talk about topics like particle physics, astrophysics as well as women in STEM. We try to make the workshops interesting and different from normal teaching by using presentations with a lot of pictures and doing loads of activities. For example, in the particle physics workshop, the pupils get to make their own particle after learning about the basics of the Standard Model, and in one of the astrophysics workshops, they can build and test a rocket made from paper.

I may be slightly biased, but I really believe the children find these experiences really valuable. I think it fuels their curiosity, and we try to leave enough time to answer even their wildest questions. Our aim has never been to make them learn all the scientific terms or to ‘convert’ them into scientists, but to make science more accessible and hopefully a bit more interesting.

It’s not entirely a surprise, public engagement benefits the recipients of it, but as someone who has been facilitating outreach for almost four years now, I know from experience that the benefits go both ways. As an example, think of the crudest stereotype of a physicist. What often comes to mind is an old man with crazy hair, standing in front of a chalkboard writing incomprehensible equations while mumbling to himself. Luckily the way we view scientists has become slightly more inclusive. However, I would argue that there are still a lot of physicists who probably are not the most talented public speakers. Even though I have almost always been the loudest person in the room and therefore viewed myself as an extrovert, I have gained a lot of confidence from public engagement. As a non-native English speaker, I used to be very nervous when doing presentations at university and would even feel embarrassed about my strange, Nordic, albeit slightly American accent. I feel that students and lecturers alike would learn a lot from going into a classroom full of curious nine-year-olds and teaching them about the life cycle of a star, even if astrophysics wasn’t their specialty. In addition to gaining more confidence in public speaking, public engagement can help scientists fall back in love with their subject. As someone who has battled with depression for the better half of their degree, seeing children get excited about something as simple as an expanding marshmallow has really helped me find the motivation to keep going with my studies.

In the summer following my second year, Dr. Claudia Fracchiolla, at the University College Dublin, took me under her wing to do research in a field I had never even heard of before: physics education research (PER). Clueless as I was, Claudia, and my other supervisor Dr. Emma Sokell, encouraged me to do a small research project of my own. I even managed to win the interns’ poster competition at the end of my internship. Over a year later, I am still remotely working with Claudia and her group, who are about to publish their second research paper, which looks at how and which parts of programs similar to UMPO help students like me with their degree. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to gain experience from a professional research environment. My grades have always left a lot to be desired, but I am convinced an internship such as I had has given me as, if not more, important skills as those obtained from lecture courses at university.

Grades are important, of course, but as a close family friend has often told me, good grades do not matter if you can’t tell anyone about them. I used to see this daily during my last couple of years at university: some of my friends who were scoring high 80s in their exams were struggling to land interviews. Most of them had never volunteered or taken part in a society committee before. As more and more people are going into university, the competition for jobs is surely going to get tougher.

Although the global pandemic caused cancellations on most of the student internship programs this summer, I was lucky enough to find a remote data science internship at a British football club. In the interview, I kept giving examples from my being in the UMPO Senior team, a student representative, and the president of the university handball club. The position itself had nothing to do with any of these topics, but I had experienced situations similar to those that arise naturally in every workplace. Since I didn’t have a lot of experience from real workplaces, my roles in these extra-curricular activities helped me fill the gaps in my work experience.

As I am nearing the end of my degree, I am constantly thinking about the next steps in my career. Without sounding to cliché, I think being a part of UMPO and doing an internship in PER has definitely shaped me and the plans I have for myself in the future. I cannot stress enough how important I think it is to volunteer as a scientist, whether you’re an undergraduate or a seasoned professor. I think it is our responsibility as scientists to make science accessible and engage the public, be it with expanding marshmallows or paper rockets.

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