Having delivered over 30 more or less similar lectures over the past twenty years in schools across north-eastern Italy, I think I have a rather good idea of what to expect from the participants in terms of their attention, interest, and engagement. Conditions vary, though - it may be harder for students to keep their attention up at the end of the morning, e.g., while it is usually easier if the time of the lecture is in the mid of the afternoon.
In the case of yesterday's lecture, this was scheduled at the end of the morning classes, when students are hungry and tired. Also, the audience included several classes from the third year: 16 year old students who objectively have a harder time understanding the lecture, because of lack of background information (usually the lectures target last-year students, who are 18 and already thinking about their University enrolment). I try to make my lectures accessible to everybody, but of course if you know from school studies what is the effect of a magnetic field on a moving electric charge, it will be easier for you to grasp the concept of a circular particle accelerator.
Overall, my experience yesterday was underwhelming. No questions during the lecture, except one which concerned the background picture on my laptop ("Is it Uranus?" "No, it is an amateur picture of Jupiter. It shows the red spot, which is a long-lasting storm bla bla convective motions bla bla Shoemaker-Levy bla".... BTW, no, in Italian the joke on Uranus does not work). And at the end of my lecture, they stood up and started to leave without even allowing me to ask if there were outstanding questions. Only a few (3-4) students lingered around and asked some things before leaving.
What is my take of the above data? Well, I am a bit worried. Or rather, disillusioned. Over the past few decades the calls for an increased commitment to science outreach has come from all sides, and I, having been for almost 20 years a pioneer of scientific blogging (thanks to this site, and to a previous endeavour), could only nod in agreement, and bring in my personal experience in workshops where the matter was discussed and plans were laid out to increase the participation of the general public to the activities in scientific research.
But what do we have to show as the outcome of all these concerns and activities, after all? I feel we are rather losing ground than breaking new ground. The new generations truly seem less interested than the old ones in learning about basic science, the origin of the universe, what the world is made of, and the other big questions that fundamental science is poised to answer. While this is not true for all, I do see a distinct decrease in the interest of youngsters in these matters.
Having been in touch with about 2000 students in these conferences and events over the past 20 years, I do see a statistically significant decreasing trend in interest indicators. I could add that this very blog, while overall successful and highly visited (over 15 million views overall), betrays a decrease in engagement - there are fewer comments from youngsters here than there used to be 10 years ago, despite my generally consistent effort at keeping the level of my pieces constant.
Perhaps the conclusion we should take is that we were delusional in believing that we could engage a larger fraction of society in a love and an interest for fundamental science. Perhaps we should ponder on the fact that that engagement ultimately comes from factors we have no control on - societal, cultural, political ones which are hardly modifiable by vigorous outreach action. Or perhaps, Homo Sapiens is naturally divided into beings who are inquisitive about the higher philosophical questions of life itself, our place in the universe, and the organization and nature of things, and beings that are more involved with living their life in the conditions they find, without an ambition to question them or understand them. And the latter are probably better equipped to live longer, better lifes!
I come to think about the reasons why this blog is titled "A Quantum Diaries Survivor". The original reasons for calling it this way was the dismissal of the original blogging site I was engaged in, "Quantum Diaries". When that happened and I shily opened my own site on wordpress I felt like a survivor of that terminated endeavour, and indeed time has proven that feeling right. But are we, as scientists, the true example of survivors in our society? Does thinking hard on the origins of the universe and the fabric of matter make us better human being, or just losers who do not concentrate on the "here, now" demands of our life conditions, as true survivors would do?
In cathastrophe movies, the scientist is not usually the one who survives. Perhaps the youth of today are better geared for the impending catastrophes of our time, and they do well in paying little attention to the aimless urge to understand why things are the way they are - they just are, so let's find a way around them.