We spoke to winner of the 2018 Daphne Jackson Medal, Dr Jess Wade on why she feels it is important, as an academic researcher, to engage in outreach with schools and especially with girls.
Your career is clearly in academic physics – how have you become so involved in outreach work to schools?
I started working with schools during my PhD. Imperial College has an outreach ambassador scheme for postgraduate students to take part in outreach activities, where schools in London and the surrounding area can request a visit from a scientist or arrange a trip to campus. As I visited more and more schools I realised how challenged science departments were; short on subject-specialist staff and bored of an endlessly changing curriculum.
The gender imbalance in physics was something I’d been aware of increasingly throughout my undergraduate degree, but coming from an all-girls school, I hadn’t appreciated the mess we were in. Instead of physics being the exciting, dynamic and rewarding subject I knew it was, it was the “hard” subject you’d have to be a genius to take for A-Level, and it was only really worth taking if you were going to study physics at university.
I was lucky enough to meet Jessica Rowson, Jess Hamer and Charles Tracy of the IOP Education and Improving Gender Balance team, who introduced me to their work in classrooms and the Stimulating Physics Network. I like to be busy (and am exceptionally rubbish at free time), so I started working with the IGB team more and more, helping them where I could and working with directly with schools to do talks, arrange lab tours and summer schools at Imperial.
In 2015 I took part in I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! – a two-week online battle where five scientists connect with classrooms and answer their questions. It made me incredibly competitive and taught me how to prepare, explain concepts clearly and how to best support children and teachers. I can honestly say those two weeks were a highlight of my PhD – I’d sit at my laptop for hours desperately trying to think of secondary school ways to explain rainbows, consciousness and experimental techniques. As I gained confidence I started to run my own events, applying for money from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Biochemical Society. I’m a keen artist and feel it’s important that young people see the creative side of physics and science. Over the last year I’ve spoken with hundreds of people in countries all over the world about physics education and am always learning new ways to up my game. My ultimate aim is doing a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture.
In your experience, what is the best way to engage young people in physics?
We all need to do a better job of making physics relevant, achievable and evolving. We need to make sure demonstrations and experiments are appropriate and well-explained – not just thinking a pendulum or an explosion will convert a class of teenagers to a career in engineering.
I think we also need to celebrate diverse role models; people from all over the world that use physics in their careers but maybe not working in universities or research. This is where school visits can be really useful – to reach out to recent school leavers, local engineering or tech services. We need more university departments and big industry supporting school teachers and school students’ parents, instead of blowing their budgets on expensive (and unnecessary) demonstrations, competitions and festivals. The Royal Academy of Engineering STEM education landscape stopped me in my tracks: the UK invests so much in outreach / engagement activities, and (other than the IOP’s Improving Gender Balance project) so far, nothing has worked. People going in to schools should be relatable and approachable, not just industry employees who want a few days off work for volunteering – they need basic training on the IGB work (unconscious bias is a big problem for physicists, too) and to practice how to explain their work to young audiences. When it comes to what age needs the engagement, I love the IGB ambassador program – which trains year 9 and 10 students to act as physics ambassadors in primary schools. Sending a professor to a primary school might not captivate a four year old – a thirteen or fourteen year old might.
You have done lots of work getting girls involved in physics. Did you face any barriers or have any doubts that physics was a subject for you at A-level?
I had wonderful teachers at South Hampstead High School and an incredibly supportive family. My parents are both medical doctors, so whilst physics wasn’t their thing, science was. I’m incredibly determined, so if anyone had tried to tell me not to do physics that would have probably made me want to do it more. I can’t emphasise enough how fab I think the IGB team are – if I hadn’t met them I’d probably still be travelling around London doing talks during lunch breaks. Physics outreach can be incredibly effective if it is targeted and considered – you have to make sure you work with the adults as much as the young people, and make it long-term not just a one off.