Promoting physics: outreach in lockdown

7 October 2020

Screen shot of participants in this year's Department of Physics summer school

Physics can be a hard sell. Just like its stablemate, maths, people can be quick to write it off as not for them – but yet is everything and everywhere. It’s fascinating. It’s life and the universe. And, yes, it is also quite hard. Faced with such an uphill battle, how does the Department of Physics outreach team ‘reach out’ to school children and community groups to convince them otherwise? To encourage different voices into the field? What does the team do to achieve its objectives of increasing diversity in STEM for school children and increasing access for disadvantaged students?

‘Lockdown life has certainly added an extra layer of complexity to our already challenging work!’ confirms Oliver Moore, Outreach Manager. ‘But in some ways, it really has been a huge opportunity. By switching certain events and activities from in-person to online, we have managed to reach a wider audience than we would have ordinarily. This forced experiment has led to us permanently changing how we do certain things and has made us even more ambitious for the future. Ultimately, we want as many people as possible to be interested in the physics of the universe and to engage with the life-changing research that takes place in our department. We will continue to do this any which way we can – lockdown or no lockdown!’

Here is a snapshot of just some of the activities that have taken place over the last 6 months…

Applying to Oxford Physics
Department of Physics masterclass: this all-day workshop for Year 12 students is designed to demystify Oxford and the application process for those who are interested in studying here. The first event on 18 April for 230 students was such a success it was run again on 16 May for 275 students. We have since run a spin out undergraduate Q&A session about applying to study at Oxford for over 100 students. Led by Dr Kathryn Boast the programme goes from strength to strength.

Magnetism poster competition: we expanded our annual quantum materials poster competition to include a broader range of age groups – year 3 to 13 this year. We received 81 applications, with some exceptional entries and awarded the winners on 30 September; winning entries can be found on the Department of Physics YouTube channel.

Quantum Materials seminars
Quantum materials seminars: during July we ran a series of four online seminars for students in years 10-13 exploring the fascinating world of quantum materials. Led by Helena Cotterill, some 640 students attended across the four seminars and all the seminars are on the quantum materials YouTube channel.

Preparing for the PAT: all those wishing to apply to study physics at Oxford must sit the Physics Aptitude Test, or PAT. Each year, we run a study course for 150 A-level students to help them prepare for the Physics Aptitude Test. Mentored by current undergraduate students, supported by Physics teachers and led by Dr Kathryn Boast, this year was no exception and the event took place wholly online.

Local community groups: lockdown has hit local communities hard and we worked with a local community group to provide learning resources for children to supplement the food parcels delivered to them during lockdown. We also supported the community group’s Sunny Smiles summer school to help students in years 4, 5 and 6 catch up on lessons missed during lockdown – many of whom do not have access to computers at home so could not engage in remote learning. We worked with the Department of Education at the University of Oxford to get a trainee teacher (PGCE student) to help with STEM sessions and also funded a qualified teacher to help with language and literacy lessons.

DNA dance-off
Through the medium of dance…: we have been working with KEEN Oxford, a charity supporting disabled people, and the Royal Ballet School to devise dance performances inspired by the DNA self-assembly research of Dr Seham Helmi from the Department of Physics. The video is in the process of being edited and will be available shortly – a DNA dance-off!

IoP public lectures: we ran our first online Institute of Physics lecture for 180 attendees on 29 April when plasma physicist Dr Nick Walkden from Culham Centre for Fusion Energy talked about the MAST upgrade, the UK’s newest fusion device. A second IoP lecture took place for 164 attendees on 22 July when Dr Alexandru Boboc discussed optics for fusion. On 29 September, Dr Katy Clough from Oxford’s Department of Physics talked about gravity’s role in the story of our universe watched by an audience of 239 people (more than the capacity of the Martin Wood lecture theatre)! The talks can be viewed on the Department of Physics YouTube channel.

Particle physics masterclass: on 28 September and 1 October we ran two events to enable 50 A-level students to learn more about Particle Physics with Oxford researchers and gain insight into topics and methods of research relating to matter and forces. Led by Dr Sam Henry, supported by a crack team of Particle Physics graduate students and featuring excellent talks by Prof Daniela Bortoletto and Prof Tony Weidberg, these masterclasses gave the students an opportunity to analyse real data from the ATLAS experiment at CERN.

Summer School: this year, the Summer School (our week-long work experience offering for Y12 students) went online, with six supervisors running projects for pairs of keen local physics students over the course of a week. The students could also attend online talks and lectures running that week (which coincided with the UNIQ summer school), and the event was rounded off with presentations from all of the students discussing the work they had done over the course of the summer school.

Science patron: Alexandra Ramadan from Oxford’s Department of Physics is the new science patron at St Francis School in Oxford. Her role there is to support the students and teachers develop their understanding of physics and possible career paths. This may take the form of a knowledge-exchange programme whereby Alex brings physics subject, application and career knowledge and in exchange the staff and students help the patron develop their understanding of science capital, STEM career aspirations and how people learn. This is a pilot to inform development of a longer-term programme if there is agreement from both St Francis and the Department of Physics. Alongside this we’ll look to include activities from our existing primary school programme to augment the role of the patron.

Find out more about the work that the Department of Physics does with schools, the local community and the public.