I travelled 12,000 miles to share 20 years of insights into diversity in physics

Image: Shutterstock/Kwang Chun Gan

You might recall the two recent stories coming out of New Zealand physics education: they struggle with the same teacher shortages as we do and the same leaky pipeline sees women leaving physics courses and careers.

The IOP was invited to take part in the New Zealand Institute of Physics (NZIP) annual conference, a three-day celebration of teachers, early-career researchers and academics. Recognising this as a brilliant opportunity for their members to represent them on an international stage, the Institute searched for someone who knew their work inside out.

I am a big fan of the Improving Gender Balance project: evidence-based, focused and evaluated, it is one of the only educational initiatives that has seen a substantial increase in the numbers of girls studying A-Level physics. Beyond school, their diversity work is unparalleled: the Juno award for universities and support for LGBTQ+ and disabled students.

After initially thinking they’d got the wrong person, I was beyond honoured to be asked. Only the NZIP conference is in July, in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. The average temperature is 8°C and you’re much closer to the Antarctic than you are to any concept of summer.

On the world’s longest flight from Dubai to Auckland, it surprised me to learn that Dunedin is the Scottish capital of the South Island. Paired with Edinburgh (Dun-Edin), they have their own castle and the roads are all named after places in Scottish sites, there are tartan shops, and men own kilts. New Zealand’s gender equity in physics classrooms situation is quite a different to story to ours. Girls make up about 40 % of Year 12 and Year 13 classes, because physics is a prerequisite for health sciences and medicine at universities.

There are five main universities across New Zealand, and while their physics departments are nowhere near as big as ours, the health courses are heaving. Beyond the first year, there is very little to support or encourage women away from health science and back into physics and awareness of worldwide initiatives is quite low. They don’t have award systems like Athena SWAN or Juno, which means they don’t look at the numbers.

The conference includes three days of keynote talks, lightning insight from postgrads and postdocs and idea-sharing between teachers from across the country. We were joined by two esteemed science communicators, the New Zealand television star Nigel Latta and the Californian You Tube sensation Dianne Cowern (more commonly known as Physics Girl).

There is no theme to the scientific research presented, which seemed bizarre when I first looked at the programme, but actually works really well. Because of New Zealand’s size, the teachers and university teaching fellows are all friends and the discussion in breaks is electric. I was super happy to find researchers working in my area (plastic electronics), and amid academic updates there was even time to plan future collaborations.

My talk covered nearly 20 years of the Institute’s gender-balance work, summarising the important reports and sharing the successes of the most recent stage. It seemed to genuinely make people think and was well received: the audience were eager to start collecting their own data and try out the Opening Doors guidelines. In the few short days since I spoke, I have had several emails asking for the slides. Informally, the NZIP seems to have established their own Stimulating Physics Network – teachers sharing demo ideas, challenges and students’ misconceptions. I still think they could benefit from the forums of TalkPhysics and the brilliant resources from the Institute’s Education team. I was also lucky enough to speak about my research and the UK’s extensive STEM education landscape at the teachers’ professional development course the day after the conference.

I was lucky to speak before the audience discovered the wonders of New Zealand wine and craft beer at the conference dinner, deep within the hills of the Otago peninsula at the Larnach Castle. Dinner included a haggis ceremony (I told you, Scottish remember…) and roast beef – honestly, an 11,852 mile journey and it was like never leaving home!

As The Physics Girl and I made our way back to the hotel, the weather changed from chilly to full-on snowstorm. The chains were out on car tyres and buses, and our taxi driver seemed genuinely concerned for the 100 or more physicists still deeply involved in a ceilidh. The frosty streets and intermittent hail cleared up the physicists’ bleary heads for the final day of the conference, and we exchanged contact details. I may or may not have sneaked off for an albatross and penguin tour while they had their council annual meeting. Oh, and the Cadbury Factory tour that Physics Girl made me do.

I cannot tell you what a big deal this trip was for me. It opened my eyes to research life in another country, reminded me how lucky I am to work in such an exciting and dynamic department and made me feel genuinely proud to call the Girls in Physics team my friends. I am constantly impressed by the efforts of the IOP Education team – whether it is in data analysis, resource production or teacher training, it is a great honour to work alongside such thoughtful people.

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Jessica Wade

Jessica Wade

Jess is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, where she makes circularly polarised organic light emitting diodes.

Throughout her career in research she has been involved in projects to support gender inclusion in science. Jess works with the Institute for Research in Schools and Institute of Physics to try and support teachers and students across the country.
Jessica Wade
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