SISSA for schools (S4S) is a programme of school visits of the International School of Advanced Studies (Trieste, Italy), which is an international, state-supported, doctoral school and research institute that specializes in mathematics, physics and neuroscience.

Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative

What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.

SISSA for schools (S4S) is a programme of school visits of the International School of Advanced Studies (Trieste, Italy), which is an international, state-supported, doctoral school and research institute that specializes in mathematics, physics and neuroscience. Since 2012 SISSA annually hosts an increasing number of pupils – from around 500 in 2012 to more than 1 600 in 2017/18. These pupils come from various school institutes and all ages are represented - young children from primary schools as well as teenagers from secondary schools. The kids participate in various scientific activities and learn about SISSA, its activities and researchers, including citizen science activities to help neuroscientists in their research on language and olfaction.

SISSA PhD students and young researchers are the main protagonists of the programme and they work as guides, speakers and facilitators of informal learning activities. Their involvement represents a distinctive and innovative feature of SISSA for schools in comparison to the usual institutional guided tours.

The program in based on a very participatory approach and is attentive to gender and social inclusion.

Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?

One of the more relevant parameters for evaluating the visitors’ perception of the quality of the activities proposed is the analysis of the reservation for the forthcoming year. The reservations procedure for the 2018/2019 school year partially changed with respect of those of the previous year. For example, in 2018, SISSA alerted teachers who have registered in the mailing-list on May 30th that bookings would be open from 14:00 on June 14th onwards. On that day a reminder was sent out again and the online form was available. On the very first day SISSA received 82 requests for a total of 140 classes and 3 127 students - almost four times more than what was available.

The selection was then made based on the booking priority, previous participation by the same classes (with priority given to students who never took part in the visits), a balanced participation of different school-types, grades and locations. In the end 36 classes were selected and about 790 visitors for the 27 days of visits.

Each year about 80 scientists (PhD students, post-doc, young researchers, senior scientists, or technical staff) are directly involved in SISSA`s initiatives, for the concern of enhancing and promoting the science communication involvement of scientists in general - about 30 of them in a more permanent way, the others only during bigger events. This group of volunteers continuously changes as PhD students finish their PhD in SISSA and have to move somewhere else, allowing new ones to enter. SISSA also observed that, within their volunteers, science communication careers became a frequent alternative choice at the end of the PhD, contrary to the academic route.

And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?

Despite the recognized reputation of SISSA as an international scientific research center, many people within the city of Trieste - a small city with a population 205 thousand - are/were not aware of its importance, what kind of research is going on here or even on the campus itself. On the other hand, people who know SISSA consider it a very close environment where only scientists are admitted and which is very far from “normal people’s” lives. By contrast, the opening of a regular visiting program where children from 6 yrs onwards are welcome and are free to run and explore the building, talk with scientists and other staff members etc. gives a direct message of non-exclusivity of the scientific environment to the neighboring society.

Moreover, during the years, SISSA proposed specific visits to underrepresented groups such as older adults, teenagers facing early school dropout and refugees. These activities were organized in collaboration with local organizations.

What challenges needed to be solved in this project?

1) At the beginning the usual resistance to start a new project

2) The slight hostility of the senior scientists

3) Necessity of an ongoing recruitment of volunteers

4) Providing professional training in science communication

5) Providing official recognition and reward to the volunteers

6) Too many requests from the schools – as SISSA can only accept about 1/4 of the requests as regards the number of participants and about 1/3 of the classes.

Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?

Dialogue model of communicaton - SISSA PhD students and young researchers are the main protagonists in the programme as guides, speakers and facilitators of informal learning activities. The communication between the volunteers and children does not follow the classic model of transfer of information (deficit model) that is still so common within institutional guided tours — on the contrary it is based on a more modern model of dialogue, with plenty of room for participation and mutual exchange.

Science capital - SISSA is aware that higher education institutions can play a major role in changing the life perspectives and improving the science capital of many children and young people who are kept at the margin of the educational system. In 2014 SISSA started an activity with a small group of teenagers who dropped out of school. The aim of the project was to explore the potential of science to mitigate school dropout and facilitate social inclusion. It was done in collaboration with the SMAC School, an alternative school that helps young people at risk of marginalization to comply with the compulsory school.

(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?

SISSA for schools was initially born in 2012 as a project of school visits in SISSA institutes with some different objectives equally directed to children and young scientists as stated above. During the years other initiatives have been proposed under the name of SISSA for schools. Some of them are now permanent and some take place from time to time. The main objectives of all the initiative are:

- providing occasions and training in science communication activities for young scientists in a state-of-the-art logical way.

- creating initiatives that involve citizens in scientific topics in a participating and non-directive approach together with a direct contact with real scientists and not only science communicators or tutors.

Beyond regular school visits we proposed:

SISSA Student Day – From 2015, every February, more than 500 students in their final years of high school have the opportunity to participate in a morning of activities dedicated to them.

Brains@work – For the first time in 2017, during the whole scholastic year, plans consist to repeat and widen the knowledge of children aged between 8-12 are involved in real research projects on olfaction and reading.

SISSA booth at Trieste NEXT – From 2013, each September during the scientific research festival of the city, we organized the content providing different talks and activities from those proposed during the year of S4S.

S4S and Università della Terza Età – From 2017 there were 3 events per year - SISSA for schools hosted groups of elderly people presenting them SISSA and its activities in Physics, Mathematics and Neuroscience. About 75 people took part every year.

Smells and emotions – In 2018 we, together with Dr. Valentina Parma, neuroscientist, organized an itinerary for little children of 1-3 years of age trough smells, emotions, relationships and the educational staff of SISSA kindergarten.

UniStem Day 2017 - The local edition of the international day dedicated to STEM cell research was held in SISSA this year, and hosted about 150 students.

S4S for SMAC – In 2014/15 and 2015/16 school years - In 2014 we started a new activity with a small group of teenagers who interrupted the school before the terms of the obligation and were enrolled in SMAC, an alternative school that helps young people at risk of marginalization to comply with the compulsory school. The project was focused on producing homemade video-games and animations using Scratch!, a coding software developed by MIT to introduce children into programming. Eventually the SMAC pupils were invited to become mentors of two CoderDojo events organized at SISSA with a group of children aged 9-11, and a group of teachers and educators in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The program has been replicated in 2016/17 and 2017/18.

Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?

Kids and young people from 2 to 19 years old (from nursery to high schools)

In order to strengthen the connection between low-level education and high-level ones and for reducing the distance between scientific community and children or young adults.

Elderly people from the local University of the Third Age

Most of the science engagement initiatives are dedicated to the younger population, however the senior population is massively increasing and deserve specific offers and occasions of involvement.

Early school dropout teenagers

SISSA thinks that increasing the science capital of these teenagers could help them in facing their difficulties with the regular education and in finding their place in the society.

Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?

Kids and young people from 2 to 19 years old

about 20% of the Italian population

Elderly people from the local University of the Third Age

people over 65 yrs. represent about 20% of the Italian population, within Trieste it is 25%

Early school dropout teenagers

in 2015/2016 the Italian overall school drop-out rate was almost 14% (about 1% in junior high school and about 22% in high school)

Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?

SISSA has a specific project dedicated to teenagers attending a special school that aims to counteract school drop-out; this mainly addresses teenagers from low socio-economic families.

In order to involve population from any economic status all the proposed activities are free of charge.

On which level is the project implemented?

Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Did the initiative have political support?


How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?

The project was not faced with any barrier with respect of local and national policies, but was not officially supported either.

Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?

Economically SISSA doesn’t have any support as it self-finances its initiatives.

Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?


What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?

Sissa Medialab is a private company owned by SISSA-International School for Advanced Studies (Trieste), a high level education institution where PhD courses and research activities are provided. Sissa Medialab does science communication with different media and to different audiences, with a network of thousands of scientists around the world in a strong international perspective. It aims both at the general public, from small children to adults, and to the scientific community. In December 2011 Sissa Medialab started taking care of the outreach and public engagement activities of SISSA, which include the SISSA Children’s University SISSA FOR SCHOOLS, involving more than 100 volunteers (PhD students) and thousands of children each year.

To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?

At the very beginning, the program was perceived as disturbing for the research activities from many senior scientists, but they slowly changed their mind and started to recognize the value of the initiatives. Indeed, some professors invite their students in joining the outreach team of volunteers and take part in some special events as speakers themselves. However, it still happens sometimes that principal investigators discourage PhD students in taking part in such science communication activities, as these are perceived as a waste of time.

(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?

SISSA has been part of different European projects (SisCatalyst, RAISE, …).

(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?

A tight collaboration and friendly approach with young scientists and other SISSA staff.

Continuous recruitment of new volunteers and new activities proposed.

The direct relationship with school teachers built along the years.

Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Please describe the specific activities carried out.

Beyond specific sub-projects, students of all ages took part in a regular visit - from very small children in the first year of primary school to students in their last year of high school. The program of each visit was adapted to the age and preference of the visitors.

For all groups, the program consisted of three parts:

  • Introduction to SISSA and presentation of the volunteers
  • Interactive activity, science game or seminar
  • SISSA tour with PhD students / Treasure hunt (for primary school).

For small children, the activities were adapted to their age

  • I-II school years (6-8 year-olds): highly interactive activities with a lot of games and very simple language
  • III-V school years (8-11 year-olds): interactive activities, more specialized language and more demanding tasks
  • VI-VIII school years (11-14 year-olds): discussion games, participatory and interactive laboratories, short seminars.

Whenever possible, two activities were proposed for older students - usually two seminars or one seminar and the guided tour to the The history of the Universe at a Glance exhibition.

What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?


The school visits program is strongly based on the active and voluntary participation of SISSA PhD students and post-docs, but also of senior researchers and technical staff.

Volunteers can choose to be a “guide” or a “speaker”.

A guide is part of a group of other people who welcome the visitors in the morning, briefly present himself/ herself and then bring a little group of visitors to explore SISSA or help them to perform a treasure hunt. This takes about 1 hour and then the guide is free to stay and observe the activity or go back to his/her usual work at SISSA.

A speaker is the person who takes care of the interactive activities of the day. He/she prepares a seminar/an experiment/a game that lasts about 50 minutes and performs it together with the visitors.

Volunteers are rewarded with getting some SISSA gadgets, with the possibility of becoming part of the crew of the SISSA ship for the local regatta or with the possibility of being admitted to a further science communication course at SISSA.



Dr. Olga Puccioni, neuroscientist and science communication expert from Sissa Medialab, is the manager of the project. She takes care of reservation procedures and selection, relationship with schools and teachers, annual calendar, single visit schedules, selection of activities, guides and speakers recruitment, formation and managing and as well as professional assistance in preparing seminars, activities and supporting materials.



The staff of the cafeteria, computer center and other services welcomed children of the primary schools and introduced them to the non-scientific, yet equally essential aspects of running the institute. This fulfilled another important objective of the school program, which is to present science as one of the myriads of human activities in its daily making. The secretarial staff provided ongoing and very cooperative support whenever it was necessary for the organization of the visits.

What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?

The fundamental principle that sustains the project is the volunteer commitment of PhD students and young researchers in proposing the activities. Often, science communication is conveyed by professional science communicators or tutors who are not necessarily scientists. The idea behind SISSA for schools is that real scientists meet non-scientists and introduce them to their work and life in a way that is used to discuss games, interactive activities, laboratories, games, quizzes, etc. – and not through a classic lecture or talk in which they “teach”.

What are the final revenues of the project?

SISSA for schools do not gain any monetary revenues since it is free of charge for visitors and funded by our organization. The participation in some European projects support the continuous professional training of our staff.

Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability

If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?

SISSA for school was initiated in 2012 as a project, but today it is a very well established annual program, known by many schools and recognized and appreciated within our institution. 2018/2019 will be the 7th year of activity. As far as the short-term impact is concerned, SISSA evaluated each visit by means of a short questionnaire for students older than 12 – with the focus being on their impressions, comments and suggestions and with messages and drawings in sticky notes for the younger visitors. Teachers are also required to complete a similar questionnaire about the visits.

And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?

It is a challenge to evaluate the long-term impact, however SISSA keeps in touch with professors and often told them that, after a visit, some of their students changed their approach to scientific subjects or even decided to enroll in a STEM course for the University (for those in the final years of high school). Sometimes after the visit teachers write us to thank us or to comment the activities, here some examples:


“Dearest Olga,

My students came back to school very enthusiastic and are preparing a surprise for you all.

I have to add a real interrogation from students of the 5th year class (which visited SISSA two years ago): ”Did you have the same activity?”, “ Did you meet Richard?”, “ Olga was there?” and so on for the first 30 minutes of a Friday morning, indicating that this experience stays in the heart!

[..] In the end, it is the first time that I have ever heard my husband saying “It was so interesting that sometimes I forgot to take pictures” (the teacher’s husband indeed is a photographer and accompanied the class to take pictures of the visit)”.

(primary school teacher)


“Dear Olga,

So far I could not thank you for the wonderful visit and hospitality you devoted us on the 8th of February. Despite students from liceo classico (high school focusing on literacy and not on science) they really appreciated your young researchers and all the proposed activities. They came back full of ideas. After the visit one girl even decided to be an astrophysicist! Since it was a success I’d like to reserve a visit for next year too, […]“

(high school English teacher)

Has your project been replicated elsewhere?

During 7 years of activities the project has demonstrated to be sustainable for a stable amount of dedicated budged. As far as SISSA knows, it has not been replicated elsewhere. A reason for that may be that, despite its general simplicity, the fundamental resource is the voluntary commitment of a group of young high-level scientists, which may be not so easy to gather elsewhere.

Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative

What was the budget for the initiative?

About 15.000 € per year, mostly dedicated to the salary of the activity manager. A small part of it is used for materials.

How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?

It completely depends on volunteers since the activities are carried out by volunteer scientists.

How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?

The cost is SISSA`s own responsibility and it is perceived as a fundamental activity among those proposed.

To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?

Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.

The main goals SISSA for schools aims to achieve are:

  1. Destroy the stereotype of scientists: Scientists are usually seen by people (especially children) as crazy men, often old, who manipulate dangerous chemical substances that explode very easily. Sometimes scientists are considered good, in some cases even superheroes, but sometimes they are perceived as evil characters. During the SISSA for schools visit the direct contact with real scientists changes the scientist stereotype that visitors had in their mind: after the visit students know that scientists are both males and females, they can be young and they are friendly and not crazy. Most of them do not use chemicals, but numbers, graphs, models and computers during their daily routines. For many students being a scientist became a future career possibility.
  2. Create positive feelings connected with science: People often feel uncomfortable when thinking of scientists and places where science is done, such as universities and museums. They feel like such places are dedicated to adults and quite boring. Inviting students to SISSA instead of going to their school classes, implies that they can directly explore a science institution that is not made for them, but were they are welcome and can have fun. They love exploring the building, seeing offices and common spaces, especially during the treasure hunt made for younger children, and they go back home reporting to their parents that SISSA is wonderful.
  3. Involving young scientists in science communication/outreaching activities

Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?

The experience of involving young scientists in outreach activities have been reported in a recently published article (The public-engaged scientists: Motivations, enablers and barriers, Research All, Volume 2, Number 2, July 2018, pp. 313-322(10), https://doi.org/10.18546/RFA.02.2.09.) The article extensively discusses this aspect. From the discussion section: “The benefits gained by the scientists participating in outreach activities are much greater than they expected, and some are totally unforeseen. In fact, beyond improving communication skills, and having an enjoyable and emotionally rewarding experiences, most of the scientists declared that they had become better scientists and better people. The scientists’ approach towards the audiences has been shaped by the desire to share their passion for science and to establish a real dialogue, where both parties can give and take. Motivations related to the attitudes of scientists who want to educate the public, based on a deficit model, were not registered during the focus groups. As a result, a real transformation, almost existential in nature, occurred in the way that scientists who were active in communication approached their research work, thought about their role in society and set the agenda for their personal career achievements.”

What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?

Beyond the points discussed above, the quantitative measure of the success of SISSA for schools are:


Number of visitors from about 500 visitors in 2012 up to more than 1600 in 2017/18.

Number of volunteers involved from about 46 volunteers in 2012/2013 up to more than 130 in 2017/18.

Number of topics, seminars and activities created in the first year of the project 24 activities were created. Now we reached a total amount of 196 activities created from the beginning.

(Appendix) How did you evaluate/monitor this intervention?

See question 6 and 8.