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Scientific culture

11/12/2014

Our scientists go back to school

The Inria Lille - Nord Europe research center launched ‘Researchers on the Road’ to coincide with the French ‘Fête de la science’ science festival. The Festival ran from October 6 to October 17, 2014, providing an opportunity for Inria scientists to give a series of one-hour presentations in secondary schools. Three of the scientists who took part share their experiences of going back to school with us.

Introducing school children to the digital sciences

The school children were able to discover the full range of research topics studied at Inria, including genomics, virtual reality, flexible robots, and the ‘internet of things’. Inria scientist were able to share the passions that make up their daily professional lives. During the Festival, the Lille research center gave 58 presentations in 16 schools throughout the Lille metropolitan area, reaching more than 1400 pupils from the first to the final year of secondary school. Three of the scientists from Inria Lille who took part in the Festival share their experiences with us.


Vincent Kubicki – Research engineer specializing in statistics

Vincent Kubicki - Inria

Vincent Kubicki is an engineer in the Modal Project Team set up jointly by Inria, the CNRS, the University of Lille1, and the University of Lille 21. He is a specialist in numerical computation, modeling, and applied mathematics. This year, he visited a number of final year science classes to talk about the use of statistical models in data processing.

His hour-long presentation introduced the pupils to research in general and the theory of statistical models, before showing a range of demonstrations of practical applications. Vincent was able to demonstrate a data processing software package that he developed at Inria with links to a number of statistical models.

If I had been shown more practical applications of mathematics and how useful they were, it would have helped me to choose my future career

« At school, the children study statistics at a very basic level. It was interesting to show them the relevance of this area of the curriculum and its links with a range of practical applications. For example, statistics and information technology are currently being used to process huge volumes of data, especially in an industrial environment. »

In discussions with the teachers, Vincent Kubicki learned that science subjects are often avoided by pupils as they believe that they are too theoretical and lacking in application to real life. « I studied physics at university, and now I work with statistics and information technology.When I did my PhD in fluid mechanics, I always preferred the mathematical aspects to the physics of the subject. With hindsight, I can see that if I had been shown more practical applications of mathematics and how useful they were, it would have helped me to choose my future career. It’s clear that the pupils do not have access to the information that they need – and neither have the teachers.The teachers that I met would like to see more interaction of this type, but unfortunately their heavy workload means that they just do not have the time ».

One of the objectives of the Science Festival is to encourage pupils to pursue scientific careers. « I prefer to go into schools and meet the pupils rather than simply to man an exhibition stand. It's one more way to interact with the local community » . In class, the questions from pupils in state and private schools often showed some surprising differences. « One pupil asked me how much I earned, and another asked me what grade I got in my final examinations. It made me laugh! »

I prefer to go into schools and meet the pupils rather than simply to man an exhibition stand. It's one more way to interact with the local community

After his meeting with the school children, Vincent Kubicki is convinced of the relevance of these visits, both in helping the pupils to discover the world of numerical techniques and research, and in offering them an insight into the applications of the subjects they are studying. « Nowadays, everyone uses digital technology in smartphones and other devices. It is important to show that there are theoretical aspects behind these systems. People either think that these devices work by magic, or they tend not to care how they work. But in this day and age it’s important to understand what lies behind the technology, especially for the younger generation. »


Viktor Toldov – PhD student in telecommunications and networks

Viktor Toldov - Inria

A native of Russia studying for a PhD in France, Viktor is a member of the Fun project team at Inria Lille, and the CSAM group at the Institute of Electronics, Microelectronics and Nanotechnology (IEMN). As part of his PhD, he is studying the problems of interference and adaptability in networks of sensors.

Viktor has visited a number of schools to give presentations on the operation of sensor networks using wireless technology, an emerging branch of telecommunications science encompassing what is nowadays known as ‘the internet of things’. He explained how modern systems are making increasing use of radio frequency (RF) wireless engineering. This growth has led to an explosion in the number of signals surrounding us, making the radio environment increasingly noisy. This phenomenon has a significant impact on the energy consumption of the sensors. « Having several devices all transmitting at the same time can lead to problems. I have tried to show how electromagnetic interference can result in the wasting of energy, an important factor in sensor networks. It is often difficult, or even impossible to replace the batteries in these sensors, so it is essential to reduce the power consumption of these devices as much as possible ».

Viktor came up with an amusing experiment to show the pupils how the environment can affect communications. He simply dropped the sensors into water and oil.  « Radio waves propagate well in air, but the pupils saw that the devices did not work at all under water. The sensor nodes began to work again when submerged in sunflower oil. Unfortunately for RF communications, there is a lot of water on the Earth. It has to be taken into account if problems are to be avoided. For example, on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, there is a lot of liquid methane. If we want to send sensors there this has to be taken into consideration ».

I tried to put myself in the place of the pupils, and to remember what I was like at the same age. I wanted to show them the usefulness of what they were learning, and to arouse their interest without overloading them with lots of equations

This was also Viktor’s first experience of the French education system. « It was interesting to see how a school works in France, and the differences between the French and Russian systems. I wanted to interact with the pupils and discuss things informally. Working on a PhD, I am still a student myself, just like them. When I was at secondary school, I wanted to know the practical applications of what I was learning. Physics is all well and good – but what is it for, exactly? I wanted to know how it could be applied.  I tried to put myself in the place of the pupils, and to remember what I was like at the same age. I wanted to show them the usefulness of what they were learning, and to arouse their interest without overloading them with lots of equations ». Viktor’s visits also highlighted some of the differences between the French and Russian education systems. « Back home in Russia, computer science is taught in schools. Pupils are taught how to program using BASIC in the early years of secondary school. Later, they go on to discover binary arithmetic. I think it would be interesting to introduce this module in France, as computer science is now an important part of our general culture ».


Fanny Chevalier – Junior researcher in graphical computing

Fanny Chevalier - Inria

A junior researcher in the Mint project team (a joint project with the CNRS and the University of Lille1*2), Fanny Chevalier works on the visualization of information. During the Festival she visited a number of schools to give presentations on the use of animated transitions in interfaces. « J’ai donné des éléments sur ce qu’est l’IHM, l’interaction homme-machine, sur quel est mon métier et ce sur quoi je travaille. Pourquoi c’est difficile et pourquoi c’est important. L’IHM est très facilement compréhensible, la difficulté est de saisir les problématiques liées… Les élèves baignent dans un monde où la communication entre l’homme et l’ordinateur est devenue relativement aisée grâce à une recherche poussée en interaction et en conception d’interfaces, ils ne voient pas la difficulté cachée derrière les interfaces qu’ils utilisent et ne connaissent pas les problématiques associées auxquelles nous étions sans conteste plus directement exposés il y a quelques années  ».

The pupils are used to communicating with computers as part of their daily lives. They find it easy. […]They are unaware of the hidden difficulties that lie behind the interfaces that they use, and they have no idea of the problems...

« I talked about image processing, and especially animations. A lot of effort is currently being devoted to animated transitions with the aim of eliminating abrupt changes in visual interfaces. We are trying to build interfaces in which new elements appear gradually, elements that are no longer needed fade away, and those that remain move or morph slowly into their new form or position. For example, when a window is minimized it moves away gradually rather than suddenly disappearing. The aim is to provide a continual visual flow for the user, giving the illusion that all the elements of the interface continue to exist, just like in the real world ». Today, this concept is present in the majority of digital objects, but it is still a difficult one for the pupils to grasp. « I found it difficult to position myself at their level, not in relation to my talk but rather in terms of their experiences and level of understanding. They did not appreciate that a lot of hard work has gone into addressing these problems. While animated transitions work well today, this has not always been the case, and significant difficulties still remain in this field ».

As a publicly funded institution, Inria is committed to promoting scientific research through outreach activities aimed at the general public. Introducing the new generations to the world of research is an important part of its work. « It is important to explain who we are and what we do, but it is even more important to spread awareness as widely as possible in the young people who will be our recruits of the future. We give them the basic information that they need, and encourage them to think about the devices that they use every day. When I was a child, I would have loved it if a researcher had come to my school to talk about the work being carried out in laboratories. I didn’t find out what researchers did until I went to university. It is very important that we share information in this way, and it is also very good for us, the researchers. It forces us to stop what we are doing for a moment and take some time to bring our work to a wider audience. We need to be able to explain our work to young people and our families in an accessible way, without in any way minimizing the problems that we face. That can be a very difficult thing to do ».

I didn’t find out what researchers did until I went to university

Following her visits to schools, Fanny is surprised that digital technology is not part of the curriculum. « It’s really odd. When I was a child we had lessons in computer programming. That was when I was in primary school, and the first personal computers had just appeared on the market. Digital technology has such an important place in our lives today that some of the basics should really be taught in schools. Children need to know how to use the new media, and how everything works behind the scenes. They often seem to take it all for granted! Despite this, I am sure that they would be fascinated to learn how a mobile phone sends a text ».


*1 within UMR 8524 CNRS-Lille1, Laboratoire Paul Painlevé, and EA 2694 "Public health: Epidemiology and quality of care", Lille 2.
*2 within UMR 8022 CNRS-Lille1-Lille3-Inria, LIFL and EA 2697 L2EP.

Keywords: Fun project team Modal project team Mint project team Outreach Researchers in school Scientific mediation Researchers on the road Science festival

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