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Vol. 32 No. 3
May-June 2010



Xperimania—From Molecules to Materials: An Industry-Academic Partnership

by Ann Whent

There are not enough young scientists to meet our needs. This has been a growing concern for the chemical industry as a whole, and the petrochemical industry in particular, over the past few years. How can we make science fun and therefore more attractive to young people?

Students wait for the prize ceremony to begin in Brussels.

Four years ago, the Association of Petrochemicals Producers in Europe (Appe) decided to confront the challenge of declining interest in science by implementing an educational program to raise awareness of petrochemistry topics, products, and career opportunities via inquiry-based teaching methods.

Off to a Good Start in Romania
read an update of the xperimania project

It was important, however, to find support to assist Appe in this ambitious project. As it needed to contact both teachers and students, it soon became obvious that European Schoolnet (EUN) would be the ideal partner. EUN is a network of 28 ministries of education in Europe, which was founded in 1997 to bring about innovation in teaching and learning. It supports teachers, schools, and researchers through projects, competitions, activities, communication, and information exchange.

Xperimania—From Molecules to Materials was launched on 17 September 2007. It focused on 10- to 20-year-old secondary school students across the 27 EU member states, and was therefore available in the 22 EU languages.

The jury was fascinated by the diversity and high quality of the entries, which were original, creative, and pedagogical.

A dedicated website—
—supported various activities for the first year. Students were invited to take part in two competitions, and to participate in online chats with industry experts. One competition involved setting up an easy and fun experiment in science relating to petrochemistry and materials. The other asked for contributions to a timeline of scientific discoveries in the field of materials from 1800 to the present day.

After eight months, organizers received a total of 447 entries from 18 different countries for both competitions. Xperimania succeeded in stimulating the scientific and analytical observation abilities of approximately 650 students who participated in the competitions. The winners, three for each activity either as a team or as an individual, were invited to Brussels for the prize ceremony. They were also invited to visit a major petrochemical research center.

The finalists’ work showed that the pupils had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to their projects. The jury was fascinated by the diversity and high quality of the entries, which were original, creative, and pedagogical, while giving an interesting perspective on the future. Teams of Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Cypriot students were prize winners in the experiment category and individual Maltese, Hungarian, and Polish students were the winners in the timeline category.

Some key lessons could be drawn from an early survey of the participating teachers. Based on the assumption that petrochemistry is a relatively new science, teachers indicated that 87 percent of them thought that Xperimania provided an attractive learning environment for their students. Eighty percent of the students changed their perception of petrochemistry and science careers during the project and 92 percent of respondents confirmed their interest in Xperimania II.

“This is a fascinating experience” concluded Pierre de Kettenis, executive director at Appe. “We feel confident that in a few years from now we’ll be able to measure the return on our investment in terms of attracting young talent into the European petrochemical industry. There are many job opportunities waiting for them.”

Only one activity was put on the table for the second year of Xperimania. Secondary school students were invited to participate in the “Check Out the Property!” competition in groups of no more than three.

Students had to focus on a specific property (e.g., weight, water resistance, energy, or efficiency). They then had to conduct research related to the chosen property, find a way to test it, and explain the results in a clear and structured way in order to enable others to understand and learn from the presented example. The lab report of the test process presentation—with picture(s), and eventually video or other multimedia—had to be uploaded on the website and displayed in the online gallery.

Exploring and investigating a scientific discovery in the field of materials, and developing hands-on experiments, remained attractive challenges for students. By the end of May 2009, almost 900 secondary school students from 20 European countries had participated, with 430 submissions. With a 27-percent increase in participating students over the first year, the competition proved to be very successful.

One of the main evaluation criteria for the “Check Out the Property” activity was the clarity of the submissions, and how they combined fun with understanding science. The jury pointed out that “A scientist needs to tell a good, entertaining story about what he/she is doing. Even a very complicated subject can be made understandable and interesting with clear words, figures, and an easily followed research structure.”

As there was only one competition, the jury decided to reward five teams of students; each student and the teachers overseeing the teams received personal media players. More importantly, prize money was awarded to their schools to spend on scientific classroom resources.

The Xperimania II winners were announced on 18 June 2009. The two 13-year-old students who were part of the winning team from Glasgow, UK, were really thrilled to win the first prize. They looked at the water absorbent properties of disposable diapers to see how they could be made more efficient. Not only did they manage to mix science with fun to create a unique experiment, but they were first among 900 other youngsters, many of whom were older than the winners. Also, thanks to their prize money, their school was able to buy high-quality equipment it would not normally be able to afford.

The second prize went to students from Estonia who looked at heat resistance, third prize to Lithuania (air and cold protection), fourth prize to Spain (toughness), and fifth prize to Spain (insulation).

The jury was fascinated by the diversity and high quality of the entries, which were original, creative, and pedagogical.

During the 2007–2008 and 2008–2009 school years, Xperimania also organized regular online chats with experts on specific topics. The one-hour Xperimania chat sessions addressed classes led by one or more teachers and were aimed at promoting awareness of all aspects of petrochemistry. These chats brought together students from 90 schools in 17 different European countries to ask questions of key European scientists.

The chat topics were carefully selected to focus on societal concerns (climate change, environment, career opportunities, the need for petrochemicals), everyday products (toys, fashion, cars), and leisure activities (sports, art restoration). Most of the chats were held in English, with the exception of one Spanish-, one German-, and one French-speaking chat. The guests came from the petrochemical industry, chemical federations, trade press, and museums.

Spanish students with equipment bought with their prize funds.

There was an overall feeling that the chats were very stimulating, and some students were genuinely surprised that chemicals played such a major role in their everyday lives, while others appeared to be concerned that products they come in contact with may in some way be unsafe.

At the closing of Xperimania II in June 2009, despite its successes, organizers were facing many industry budget constraints as a conse quence of the financial crisis. Xperimania had gained both in reputation and popularity, with 115 000+ web visitors. The participation rate demonstrated an ever-growing enthusiasm from students and teachers all over Europe.

The announcement that 2011 would be the International Year of Chemistry was a boost to the Xperimania project since one of the main objectives of the year is to increase the interest of young people in chemistry. This is exactly what Xperimania had been doing successfully since 2007. It was finally decided that Xperimania III would act as a bridge to the International Year of Chemistry.

Students in Romania during an Xperimania workshop in February 2010.
Rather than hold a competition in 2009–2010, Appe put out a call to schools to be considered for a visit from Xperimania Science Ambassadors. By the December 15 deadline, 432 schools had registered. In six of them, Xperimania ambassadors will conduct a two-hour workshop with inspiring and interactive chemistry and physics experiments that enable students to become directly involved in science. The ambassadors will also provide easy tips on how to present the experiment results to the general public in the form of a lab report. The selected schools were announced in January 2010, and the Xperimania Ambassadors will pack their bags and get on the road for visits in February–April 2010.

Due to a high-level of interest among schools, the jury decided to increase the number of winning schools from three to six, and to visit four countries instead of the original three. The winning schools were as follows:

  • Romania: Traian Vuia in Maramures
  • Portugal: E.B. 2,3 de Alcanede in Alcanede
  • Slovenia: Osnovna šola heroja Janeza Hribarja in Stari trg pri Ložu
  • United Kingdom: Bartley Green School, St Francis Primary School, and Highters Heath Community School in Birmingham

In three years, Xperimania has succeeded in being recognized as a credible education resource by the educational community in Europe. It has demonstrated some of the benefits petrochemistry can bring to everyday life and has provided a global understanding of the processes involved. The International Year of Chemistry represents a unique opportunity to show to younger generations and the public at large how the chemical industry can help provide solutions to climate change and other of society’s biggest challenges.

Ann Whent <[email protected]> is communication counsellor for Appe, Cefic Industry Sector.

Page last modified 12 May 2010.
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