Real life engineering challenges explored by school students
29 Jun 2011



Students from Reading Blue Coat School have been working with ISIS scientist Johnny Boxall to investigate alternatives to existing ISIS detector components.

Students from Reading Blue Coat School with ISIS scientist Johnny Boxall at the Engineering Education Scheme Celebration & Assessment Day.

This pairing is part of the nationwide Engineering Education Scheme, which matches scientists and engineers from industry with students from local schools. The AS level students were asked to examine alternatives to photomultiplier tubes, part of the detection system in some instruments at ISIS.

“When neutrons are absorbed by scintillators, they emit light, but that light isn’t very strong. The photomultiplier tubes amplify the light emitted by the scintillators, so it is much easier to detect” explained Johnny. “The problem is that these tubes are very old technology, and they are expensive and fragile. We asked the group from Reading Blue Coat School to design an alternative replacement- a ‘multi pixel photon counter’. This would be made of silicon, and would therefore be much more durable and much less expensive.”

Johnny visited the group for an afternoon a week for a number of months to help them with their designs and to teach them specific knowledge about science at ISIS. Most of the design and construction of the prototype multi pixel photon counter was completed at school, but the students were also able to use the detector group laboratories at ISIS to carry out testing and data analysis.

Tim Lewis, the co-ordinating teacher from Reading Blue Coats School said that the ISIS project was a challenging problem that stretched the students’ subject knowledge far beyond their learning from AS and GCSE courses. “Johnny encouraged the pupils to explore the full bounds of the problem yet was always there to provide support and guidance,” he added.

 “The Engineering Education Scheme provides a fantastic opportunity for Year 12 pupils to tackle a real life engineering problem and consider many different solutions. Our pupils were forced to consider constraints such as cost and practicality and had to learn how to respond when solutions didn’t quite work out as expected - key experiences that they rarely experience in the classroom.”

“It was really hard work, but it was great to see them working well together and being so enthusiastic about physics. Teaching them about physics principles also helped to test my own scientific knowledge” said Johnny. “Their results suggest the photo multiplier tubes remain the best equipment for the job. It was great for them to see that any result is good, regardless of whether it is the one you wanted or expected. It’s fantastic that they are still excited about studying engineering and physics, and I’d definitely recommend the scheme to others.”      

The students wrote a report about their findings and had to present their research at the Engineering Education Scheme Celebration Day at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. All four pupils are now determined to apply to engineering courses at university.

Reading Blue Coat School with ISIS scientist Johnny Boxall

​Teacher Tim Lewis and students from Reading Blue Coat School with ISIS scientist Johnny Boxall at the Engineering Education Scheme Celebration and Assessment Day.