How to handle a radioactive nucleus: ISOLDE 50th anniversary robot competition

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


The field of nuclear physics suffers greatly in the public image from its association with catastrophes (Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Tchernobyl, Sellafield, Fukushima). The first aim of this project is therefore to tackle misconceptions about nuclear physics among 14-16 year olds; to make clear the distinction between nuclear power, nuclear engineering and nuclear weaponry; and to introduce concepts from current nuclear research. This will include both practical issues such as radiological risks, radioactive material handling and waste management, and the fundamental questions of nuclear physics: How does matter hold together? Where does it come from?

These ideas will be introduced to the students in the context of the work going on at CERN ISOLDE, with the secondary aim of raising public awareness of this facility, its history, ongoing research, and the UK's involvement. This will tie into the upcoming 50th anniversary of the facility's foundation.

In order to communicate these concepts to the target audience in an engaging, accessible way, the programme will be themed around a robotics competition, where schools will be challenged to build and program a LEGO robot analogous to the ISOLDE target handling system. This practical, hands-on activity will be a fun introduction to robotics, and the programming element will build on activities schools may have undertaken as part of 2014's 'year of code'.

Ten undergraduate 'science ambassadors' will be trained to deliver a schools workshop around nuclear physics and ISOLDE, and introducing the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kit to be used in the competition part of the programme. Each school will then be provided with a Mindstorms kit and assigned a science ambassador to act as 'robotics coach'. This ongoing contact with a student science ambassador will give pupils from ten schools an opportunity to talk informally to a physics undergraduate about his or her academic path and careers plans, with the aim of raising aspirations and promoting physics as a subject choice at A-Level and beyond.

Planned Impact

One of the project personnel, Emma Nichols, is the University of Manchester's Ogden Science Officer, and as such 0.5 of her role is funded by the physics educational and outreach charity the Ogden Trust. The Ogden Trust has established schools partnerships across the country - these are regional groups of 6-12 schools which receive annual funding to support physics enrichment activities. The UoM science officer works with 7 of these partnerships in the North West, visting each partnership termly and maintaining regular contact with teacher representatives from a total of 60 schools and colleges. The workshops and competition will be marketed to schools selected from this network.

Outcomes from the project will be reported at one of the Ogden Trust's biannual meetings, and will therefore be shared with the other 18 Ogden Science Officers working at English universities ( A project guide will also be shared among this network to enable other OSOs to run similar schemes, and will also be made available to UoM's other academic Schools via the internal public engagement and widening participation networks. Emma Nichols is also a member of the Institute of Physics' Schools Outreach Support Network, which meets several times a year to share best practice.

Any resources produced (the project guide, presentations or other materials on ISOLDE, or on nuclear research) will be shared online through the Ogden Trust website, the UoM School of Physics website, and the National STEM Centre library. The acquired LEGO Education robotics tool kits will be made available to other outreach events.


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Description We used the STFC small award funding to buy ten Lego Mindstorms kits and ten laptops. A Mindstorms robot was designed based on the target handling robots at the CERN-ISOLDE radioactive ion beam facility. Ten copies of this robot, plus the computers to run the Lego software, were taken into local schools, where undergraduates delivered workshops to groups of Year 10/11 pupils - first giving an introduction to how robots are used to handle nuclear material at ISOLDE, and then teaching the group how to program the robots to locate and move a "radioactive" block. This addressed some misconceptions about nuclear research and nuclear physics, promoted the work of ISOLDE, and taught some basic programming.

The events were entirely led by undergraduate physics ambassadors, giving the school pupils the chance to talk informally during the workshops about studying physics at university and physics careers. These ambassadors (~15 so far) received training in delivering the workshops. For most of these students it was their first experience of delivering a schools activity. To date there have been six workshops, with more planned, reaching over 100 local school pupils.
Exploitation Route The workshops will continue to be offered to schools. One possibility under discussion as a legacy project is creating a number of different themed presentations, so the same robots/programming activity can be used in workshops on space exploration etc.

The project has been presented at meetings with other Schools within the University, and several departments have expressed an interest in using the workshops or equipment. The workshops will be made available on the University's website.
Sectors Education

Description To date, around 15 undergraduates have been trained and have taken part in the workshops. Following the training they all reported increased levels of confidence in engaging with young people. As of end February 2016 the workshop has been delivered 6 times in 5 schools to a total of ~120 pupils. Feedback has been extremely positive. Several of the schools have requested return visits for other classes or year groups. While originally designed for Year 10, with appropriate modifications to the level of scientific content in the opening presentation this workshop has been delivered (to very enthusiastic feedback) to a Year 7 class. Two of the undergraduates who had led the activity (designing and building the robots, and training the cohort of student ambassadors) reported on the project at the annual meeting of ISOLDE at CERN in December 2015, where they also donated the project's original robot to be displayed in the new ISOLDE visitors' centre. The robot was additionally presented to Rolf Heuer, CERN Director General at the time. At the LEGOLAND event, the programme was redesigned around the topic of Mars exploration. Since then, the programme has been regularly offered and a new generation of science ambassadors has been trained, showing that this project has generated a lasting, impactful programme.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal

Description LEGO Mindstorm workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As of end February 2016, 6 schools workshops delivered by physics undergraduates have engaged ~120 secondary school pupils under age 14 in explaining the nuclear research being carried out at CERN and teaching basic programming, in the context of challenging pupils to complete a task with a Lego Mindstorms robot.
Follow-up comment emailed by a parent: "[My child] really enjoyed the STEM activity. He had a real excitement about the event both leading up to it and afterwards. I think he particularly enjoyed the fact that they had some independence on their project, with support from the STEM team. He also really appreciated how science can be used in the workplace, how it can be a career and the sort of areas it can impact on."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
Description LEGO presentation at the ISOLDE Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation of the LEGO outreach programme at the ISOLDE Workshop & Users Meeting 2015 by the two leading undergraduate physics students on the programme.
The programme was presented to the ISOLDE community and received a warm welcome.
One of the robots was installed in the new ISOLDE Visitor Centre after being presented to the CERN Director General.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015