Science on show at Jean Vilar secondary school in Grigny

Giving secondary school pupils a taste for science and opening up the doors of their school in the Grande Borne housing project in the suburb of Paris. This is what “Expo sciences”, held at the Jean Vilar secondary school in May 2006, was all about. Lets go back to the weeks before the science exhibition: pupils, teachers and parents were part of the adventure!

Revealing the rotation of the earth using the famous Foucault pendulum, making soap bubbles that are bigger than you are, or seeing your body disappear thanks to an optical illusion. These are just some of the experiments visitors could try at “Expo Sciences” held by Jean Vilar secondary school (Grigny, Essonne, about 20 km from Paris) in May 2006. “This exhibition was first thought up during a school trip to the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in La Villette, Paris, last year,” says Eric Durand, the physics and chemistry teacher who is behind the project. “Our pupils were really inspired by the scientific experiments exhibited at La Villette. And yet, this kind of equipment is often very simple to set up in relation to the spectacular effects it produces. I thought we should try to do some of these experiments ourselves at the school.”

The “Fête de la science” (science week), in October 05, presented the ideal opportunity to carry out the first project. Eric Durand, who for the past year has been leading a chemistry workshop on Wednesday afternoons as part of the "Ecole Ouverte" (Open Schools, see Key facts) initiative, worked with some volunteer pupils on a liquid soap that could produce giant bubbles. A soap wall was soon developed with the help of the school’s “Segpa” section (fitted education for pupils facing difficulties at school). The operation turned out to be a great success, and over the past month and a half new experiment projects got underway.

Six pupils in year 10 are working enthusiastically on the construction of a four metre high Foucault pendulum (see box). Other volunteers from years 8 and 9 are working on experiments involving optical illusions (a bottomless well and a headless body), as well as on a model of a mini tornado. A show combing music and soap bubbles is also being prepared. An art teacher and a French teacher have now joined the project and parents are also getting involved thanks to DECIDER, an association which provides individual support to the inhabitants of the Grande Borne housing project where the school is situated. “The parents will work on two experiments to do with colour synthesis and electrostatics, which they will carry out and explain to the pupils using short video clips,” Eric Durand explains.

Thanks to the support of the school’s administration, a budget of 3,500 euro was made available, which made it possible to buy the necessary materials for setting up these initial experiments. Some suppliers gave discounts on orders or were able to loan scientific materials. In addition, the grant awarded to the project by the Conseil général de l’Essonne (council for the Essonne region) will round off the budget for the exhibition. “The difficulty now will be to organise our timetable in order to manage all these willing volunteers!” admits Eric Durand, who now devotes his Wednesday afternoons and any precious spare time between lessons and after school to the “Expo science” project. After all, there is still a lot to do before the exhibition in May. Each experiment they put together contributes towards the success of the challenge: stimulating the pupils’ interest in science and “sharing with them the wonders of physics and the surprises of chemistry.” But Eric Durand hopes to go even further and use this exhibition to create a true dynamic, for example by asking each pupil to think about the topic “Draw a scientist at work”. “Carrying out such a project adds value to pupils’ work, both inside and outside the school. We would like the science exhibition or some of our experiments to travel to other schools in the Essonne area after this.


Key facts

  • “You are invited to see the earth rotate”…
    … These were the astonishing words used by the physicist Léon Foucault to invite visitors to the great exhibition of 1851 to stop in front of his 67 metre high pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the Pantheon in Paris. And they were completely justified, for by following the gradual deviation of the pendulum’s oscillations, it was possible to observe the actual rotating movement of the earth! This is the historical experiment that was reproduced at Jean Vilar school (Grigny). The year 10 pupils who were in charge of the project worked first of all on a model, before setting up their experiment in the school’s main hall. Their fellow pupils from the Segpa section were in charge of constructing the frame, whilst the Jean Perrin "lycée professionnel" (grammar school providing vocational training) at Longjumeau constructed some other parts. As for the parents from the “DECIDER” association, they set up posters that tell the story of this famous scientific experiment.
  • “Ecole Ouverte” (Open Schools) program:
    Introduced by the French Ministry for education, higher education and research, it involves opening secondary schools and grammar schools during school holidays, as well as on Wednesdays and Saturdays (when there are normally no lessons in France) during term time, for children and young people who don’t or rarely go away on holiday, and who never or rarely use the holiday child care schemes on offer.

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