The History of Physics on Stage

The idea to set up the initial ‘Physics on Stage’ programme was first discussed by representatives of the CERN, ESA and ESO Outreach Departments in early 1999, in response to the European Commission’s Call for Proposals for the European Science and Technology Week 2000.

ESO already had some positive experience of a Europe-wide programme involving physics teachers from a project carried out for the EC-sponsored 1994 European Week for Scientific Culture.

On that occasion, more than 100 astronomy-oriented high-school physics teachers from approximately 20 countries met at the ESO Headquarters – the most visible result being the creation of the European Association for Astronomy Education [ EAAE ]. Clearly, the unique opportunity to encounter numerous colleagues from other geographical areas was considered to be an extremely useful experience by the participants, especially due to the associated exchange of experience and transfer of educational methods and materials.

The joint proposal for ‘Physics on Stage’ was submitted to the EC (Directorate General for Research) on June 1, 1999. It received a favourable response, leading to a contract being signed between the EC and the CERN/ESA/ESO consortium (with ESO as ‘coordinator’) in early 2000. The European Physical Society (EPS) and EAAE also participated. It was agreed early in the discussions that the project would have the following key objectives:

Draw attention to the low level of scientific (and particularly physics) literacy among European citizens.
Propose innovative and practical solutions to this problem.
Establish a network of experts on physics teaching and popularisation from all over Europe.
Produce and distribute materials that highlight the opinions and recommendations of these experts.

The programme was supervised by an International Steering Committee of representatives of the involved organisations. It was carried out in three main phases:

March – September 2000:
Establishment of National Steering Committees in 22 participating countries responsible for the associated national activities, in particular: the selection of the most outstanding and innovative educational means and methods, to be presented at the Final Event; the setting-up of interlinked central and national project websites; the production and distribution of promotional materials.
November 2000:
Final Event at CERN (Geneva) with approximately 500 participants: mostly high-school physics teachers from the 22 countries, but also including media representatives and ministerial delegates. A high point was a one-day visit by European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin.
December 2000:
Preparation and dissemination of the Conference Proceedings (‘Executive Summary’ and ‘Full Proceedings Document’; extensive Video Documentation)

The active involvement of National Steering Committees was crucial for success and the best guarantee for wide local attention to this European programme. Moreover, the involvement of key persons with different backgrounds in these committees was important (educators, government officials, media representatives, etc.). National events were held in the majority of countries and led to a wide spectrum of high-quality activities being represented at the Final Event in Geneva.

The experimental format of the Final Event was subject to much deliberation and eventually consisted of the following elements:

A Physics Fair with one booth for each national delegation, where a very broad palette of activities and materials was presented to the other participants.
A few General Lectures on Physics and related educational issues.
Plenary Presentations of selected demonstrations, experiments and teaching methods, given by the teachers.
On-stage Performances, many with eloquent artistic elements.
13 Workshops on central issues, including ‘Mapping the Crisis’, ‘Physics in Primary Education’, ‘Women and Physics’, ‘New Tools in the Classroom’, ‘The Role of ESO, CERN, ESA and the EU’, ‘Focus on Teachers’ and ‘Curriculum Developments’. The conclusions from the workshops were presented during a final session and the full records are available in the ‘Physics on Stage Full Proceedings 2000’, ESA Special Publication 497.

These different activities were obviously very conducive to intense information exchange and the participants left the event with renewed enthusiasm and a better understanding of the central problems associated with the current crisis in scientific literacy in Europe. In this sense, the Physics on Stage programme fully achieved its primary goal and provided a most important demonstration of how current physics teaching can be vastly improved and stimulated. In addition to the fundamental aspects of cross-fertilisation and increased motivation, this unusual market place also set the initial frame for continued interactions between many teachers in different European regions.

Of even greater impact, perhaps, was the loud political signal sent from Physics on Stage. In fact, this ambitious project most certainly took place at the right time and was seen by the authorities, in the individual countries and also within the EU environment, as a most valuable pilot project in its field, rapidly triggering a wide and profound interest, for example, at the Informal Meeting of Ministers of Education and Research in Uppsala, 1-3 March 2001.

There was an expressed desire that this kind of programme should continue. This was articulated by the physics teaching communities (and demonstrated most clearly by the organisation, since November 2000, of several follow-up meetings in various places, e.g. Physics on Stage symposium, 11-10-01, Munich, Germany and Concurso Nacional de
Física en Acción, 06-10-01, Valencia, Spain). In addition, the European Commission gave strong indication that, given the broad impact of ‘Physics on Stage’, a sequel would be most welcome.

ESA took the first step in this direction, by organising and funding ‘Physics on Stage 2’ at ESTEC in April 2002, with support from CERN, ESRF, EMBL, EFDA and ESO. This once again brought together a large number of the most active and progressive physics teachers in Europe. It was held only five months after another highly successful educational initiative (in a different format) conducted by the involved organisations; ‘Life in the Universe’.

Immediately after the Physics on Stage 2 festival, a proposal for Physics on Stage 3 was drawn up by the organisers, who were now officially members of the new EIROforum Working Group on Outreach and Education (see This proposal was submitted to the European Commission for funding within the scheme for the European Week of Science and Technology 2003. It was proposed to repeat the Physics on Stage programme once more, and build upon its success by adding a number of new elements; such as seminars on current areas of European research, the setting-up of a related archive of educational means and methods, as well as a comprehensive post-meeting impact evaluation.

The Physics on Stage 3 proposal was accepted for funding by the European Commission, which brings us to the present day. The 22 National Steering Committees are once again working hard to plan national activities and events that will identify new and innovative methods of teaching physics and recruit even more teachers to join the network and take part in the next international festival at ESA-ESTEC in Noordwijk between 8-15 November 2003.

The ‘Physics on Stage’ concept, having proven to be so successful, should obviously be continued beyond this. Thus, the Physics on Stage 3 programme will have an important bridging function. The recent creation of the EIROforum and its associated Working Group on Outreach and Education now provides the infrastructure for a comprehensive proposal for the continuation and further development of this educational initiative under a solid umbrella. A proposal for an EC / EIROforum European Science Teachers Initiative (ESTI) has been approved by the EIROforum Directors General and early discussions with the EC have yielded very positive feedback.

All news about Physics on Stage and ESTI will be posted at and widely disseminated to the Physics on Stage network.