Education and public engagement: a virtual year in review and upcoming Family Open House

Fermilab scientist Sara Simon displays a telescope component during her Virtual Ask-a-Scientist talk “The Telescopes We Build for Cosmology.” Photo: Amanda Early, Fermilab

For all of us, 2020 has been an interesting year full of unique challenges and unique opportunities. The Education and Public Engagement Office has used this time of change to focus on broadening the national and international reach of our efforts via new, virtual opportunities. In this column, I’d like to feature some of the highlights of the past year.

Many of our biggest programs have become virtual and attracted an expanded audience. The annual STEM Career Expo, teacher training workshops, Saturday Morning Physics, Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series, classroom visits from Fermilab staff, Ask-a-Scientist, and even Mr. Freeze have made the move to an online platform for the present time. Although nothing can ever replace the feeling of seeing big science up close, these virtual offerings are filling a gap until we can return to welcoming the public to in-person events.

Each summer the EPE Office offers a number of different workshops for K-12 teachers, each geared toward specific grade levels. The goal is to help teachers learn how to incorporate Fermilab science in their classrooms. The workshops’ hands-on aspect is crucial for learning and lesson planning. On short notice after we went virtual, EPE staff sent kits all across the country to teachers interested in participating, thus ensuring that the hands-on piece of the program was not lost. Now, Fermilab science will be taught in the virtual and in-person classrooms of 109 more teachers across the United States. Such training pays dividends for years, since one teacher is able to inspire hundreds if not thousands of students. Going forward, the virtual-workshop model will continue to be used in conjunction with in-person meetings to more easily reach teachers who may not be able to visit the lab.

University of Kentucky scientist Anna Driutti, Fermilab engineer Aisha Ibrahim, Fermilab accelerator operator Jakob Schaeffer and Fermilab education facilities coordinator Ketevan Akhobadze take questions from the audience during Virtual Ask-a-Scientist. Photo: Amanda Early, Fermilab

Saturday Morning Physics is a long-standing tradition at Fermilab. This 11-week program introduces high school students to Fermilab through talks and tours. It is always well-attended and can even count newly appointed Department of Energy Chief of Staff Tarak Shah as a notable alum. In September 2020 the program was relaunched as fully virtual for the present time. Featuring talks by Fermilab staff, virtual tours and plenty of time for questions, this program had its largest graduating class ever. One hundred twenty-nine students attended at least nine lectures, with 89 students attending all 11 lectures. In 2020, participation from Chicago-area students increased five-fold and included more participants than ever from Chicago Public Schools. Saturday Morning Physics Co-Directors Bryan Ramson and Adam Anderson should be commended for their incredible efforts.

For those interested in learning more about Fermilab who are not eligible for Saturday Morning Physics, Ask-a-Scientist and the Summer Science Series are a great fit. With a similar format, the programs introduce the public to Fermilab science. The events have been well-attended: Nearly 500 people have attended the two series.

The Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series is renamed, for the present time, Arts and Lecture at Home, while Fermilab Art Gallery exhibits and Gallery Talks are also temporarily virtual. Attendees from around the globe have seen the work going on at Fermilab and the compelling links between art and science. Roughly 3,700 people have attended at least one of these events, and over 230,000 people have watched recordings. A collaboration between the Fermilab Art Gallery and the Arts and Lecture Series resulted in talks by our artists-in-residence, Chris Klapper and Patrick Gallagher, and Fermilab guest composer David Ibbett. It highlighted many of the things that make Fermilab so special.

The biggest EPE event of the year is undoubtedly the Fermilab Family Open House. Taking an event whose goal is to open Fermilab’s doors to the public and converting it into a virtual extravaganza is no small task. As mentioned previously in News at Work, the Open House will indeed be virtual this year. Programming will span five days, from Feb. 10-14, and include a variety of activities. Elementary school students will learn to be science journalists by interviewing lab staff. There will be a week-long “scavenger hunt” in which people will be able to participate from their living rooms. And since no Open House is complete without a performance by Mr. Freeze, Jerry Zimmerman has agreed to offer our attendees a virtual experience. Please join the festivities from our website, and if you would like to help with the event, email the Open House lead, Amanda Early, at It would be impossible to pull off an event without labwide support, and next month we will be sure to thank the incredible people who offered it.

In fact, we’re looking for help with all of EPE’s programs. If you would like to participate in these or other EPE events, whether by giving a talk at Saturday Morning Physics, visiting a virtual classroom or helping behind the scenes with a Zoom event, please email There are a number of ways to get involved in EPE, and again, support from the lab as a whole is the only way we are able to reach so many people. We appreciate your interest!

Rebecca Thompson is the head of the Fermilab Education and Public Engagement Office.