An unexpected journey

It’s a story told and re-told countless times across cultures and generations: the hero’s journey. Our heroes are 16 apprentices from the UKAEA (United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority) called upon to help realise EUROfusion’s upcoming travelling exhibition on fusion energy. 

Article first published in the spring 2019 issue of Fusion In Europe

Call to adventure

Right from the start the plan was to include an educational component in this outreach project.  As EUROfusion’s Responsible Officer for the Fusion Expo, Mohamed Belhorma sought a team of students to develop the 2nd of three parts for his state-of the art, novel approach. “The Apprenticeship scheme is a unique programme with fusion resources actually in-house. And the students would clearly benefit from this communications exercise,” shares Mohamed.

It was a good fit for the Apprenticeship Scheme too. “Working with other people is a big part of what science is about,” explains John Hill, Manager of the UKAEA’s Apprenticeship Scheme. “The opportunity for our young people to collaborate on such a big, international project was ideal for their personal and professional development into fusion technicians and engineers.”

2nd (is) best

Designing the 2nd part of the Fusion Expo project was initially daunting. “It was a surprise,” shares Katriya. “All we knew was that we had to design an exhibition! We just saw ourselves as apprentices… How could we do all that?!”

But do it they did. Mohamed had judiciously given them the most conventional part of the Fusion Expo to design. Tasked with communicating what is happening in fusion right now, the apprentices could explore many similar exhibits, models and references such as the Science Museum in London. Most helpful was the workshop and guided tour they were given by professional curators, museum accessibility technicians, gender-equity hands-on designers and others at the Cité des Sciences in Paris. “For everything engineering-related, all the info they needed was accessible to them on-site. This was important given that the students could only dedicate 1 to 3 hours per week to this project,” imparts Belhorma.

Crossing the Threshold

With help from their mentors, the apprentices quickly incorporated new information and began learning about the challenges of scientific communication.

“We were quite disappointed to learn how little people know about fusion,” confesses Katriya. “Our interest is an anomaly!” As the fusion enthusiasts learned about fusion communication challenges such as lack of immediacy, past mistakes and exaggerated claims, the solutions became ever clearer.

Katriya continues, “Honesty and integrity are the best paths forward. ‘Bringing the Sun to Earth’ or ‘a star in a jar’ sounds like science fiction. People imagine Star Trek. We should keep it factual: we are re-using old equipment and control rooms built in the 70’s and 80’s but conducting cutting edge science with it. To gain public trust and make fusion relatable we have to be vulnerable. Science is not omniscient. It is trial and error until we get a conclusion. We fail, we create fantastic initiatives, we are not perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t be here now.”

Revelation

Science is difficult to communicate. Scientists struggle to communicate internally amongst themselves, let alone externally with the general public.

Katriya, co-lead Alex Tilley and the rest of the second and third year apprentices had to bring complex scientific ideas down to the personal level. “We needed to tap into the context each unique individual already has,” says Katriya. “The answer was storytelling.”

Transformation

Once overwhelmed and unsure, the transformed apprentices shared their insights into science communications at April’s Public Awareness of Research Infrastructures (PARI) conference in Oxfordshire, UK. Their presentation was a hit. “They learned unbelievably quickly!” says Petra Nieckchen, Head of Communications at EUROfusion. Since storytelling is an essential part of their exhibition design, the apprentices used its techniques in their presentation. “The audience was completely quiet…” recalls Petra. “Everyone wanted to hear the end of the story!”

Learning the essentials of communications has helped the apprentices come out of their shells. “Both the scheme and this project have developed me socially and intellectually,” details Katriya. “I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. It is the best decision I have ever made. The EUROfusion project has made me more social, more confident.”

Diverse on purpose

The UKAEA’s Apprenticeship Scheme brings together younger people who share an interest in engineering and fusion energy. The scheme fits to each individual - for some more hands on, for others more theoretical.

“Fusion is not limited to just mechanical and electrical areas,” tells Katriya Sabin, third year apprentice and one of two elected team leads for the Fusion Expo project. “It encompasses robotics, air control, radioactive gases, cryogenics, and many more areas.”

“We needed to tap into the context each unique individual already has. The answer was storytelling.”

Katriya Sabin

The Fusion Expo

The Fusion Expo Project will be a participatory and educational endeavour seeking to create awareness about energy issues and develop individuals’ opinions about the future role of fusion energy in our energy mix. Currently it is wrapping up the prototype development stage. Check future issues of Fusion in Europe to see how this project develops!

Return

The apprentices are presently turning their designs into prototypes for the official presentation to EUROfusion this summer. Once accepted, they will begin to build them.  

“Fusion is about challenges,” explains John. “These 16 apprentices are becoming very skilled and experienced people who will be prepared for any challenge that comes their way and invaluable members of the fusion community as a result