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Making outreach work

Lisa Jardine-Wright offers some advice on ensuring that physics outreach is more than just a "fun day out" for students, volunteers and academics.

Schoolchildren at Cavendish Laboratory

The word "outreach" can mean many things. On one level, it is simply a way of getting a message out, and it often conjures up the image of a scientist speaking to the public about his or her research. 

Increasingly, though, outreach is about more than just public relations or science communication; it is also about raising the aspirations of secondary-school children and widening participation in higher education. 

This type of outreach is becoming increasingly important, especially in England, where universities that wish to charge the maximum tuition fee of £9000 per year must demonstrate a commitment to improving access for students who are under-represented in higher education. 

In the light of these developments, it is no longer sufficient for schoolchildren to visit a department and have an enjoyable time; instead, people involved in planning activities will have to prove that, thanks to their intervention, awareness has been raised and interest widened. 

The result is that increasing numbers of researchers will be asked to make outreach activities part of their careers.

Many find this a daunting prospect. After all, there are so many possible types of outreach programme that it can be hard to know where to start. 

One challenge is selecting your target age group: a programme designed to get primary-school pupils excited about science will look very different from one that helps 16 year olds choose between physics and engineering at university. 

Another variable is the activity's structure. Some events are huge affairs that make a big splash with a lot of participants, while others are more low key and concentrated, offering greater contact time for a smaller number of people.

The University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, where I work as an education outreach officer, has had physics education and outreach programmes in place for more than 30 years. 

Over time, our take on these possibilities has shifted in line with the changing requirements of our visitors and our department. We have enjoyed some great successes but, just as importantly, we have learned some things to avoid. 

The following case studies illustrate three different ways of approaching outreach, and the lessons we have taken from each.

The big physics exhibition
One of the first outreach programmes at the Cavendish was an interactive exhibition called Physics at Work, which has now been running for nearly 30 years. 

Physics at Work aims to introduce 14–16 year olds to the wide variety of careers available to people who study physics. 

Exhibits are staffed not just by our own research groups, but also by a range of national, international and local companies, with 25 such exhibits stationed throughout the Cavendish during the three-day event. 

For example, the 2011 Rolls-Royce exhibit had students piece together small jet engines (see photograph above), while representatives from the Atomic Weapons Establishment illustrated the importance of shock waves by using a Rubens tube to create a wave of flames.

The success of this event is partly down to a number of seemingly mundane factors. Schools attend the exhibition for three hours, which means that those from further afield can visit us and return within a single school day. 

Teachers can bring a whole year group, if they wish, which simplifies the school timetable. Finally, the exhibition is always held in the same week of the year, and therefore has a regular slot in the school calendar. 

Another selling point is that the exhibition introduces students to people who can actively engage with questions about everyday applications of physics and cutting-edge research. This expert contact is something that teachers would otherwise find difficult to access.

To make an event like this work in the long term, the list of beneficiaries must extend beyond teachers and students to include the presenters themselves. 

Fortunately, many of the attributes required to participate in Physics at Work – such as leadership, team-working and the ability to explain sophisticated concepts in physics – are also valued in the workplace. 

Our industry exhibitors continue to participate because they get an opportunity to hone these skills, while also publicizing their company's work and gaining access to potential future employees.

So what can a programme like this teach us? One of the most important lessons is to understand your audience's needs and constraints. 

Another is that when you bring in external contributors, you must make the benefits clear to them and do most of the legwork for them. Finally, make sure they know their work is appreciated. 

For example, we now award an Exhibitor of the Year trophy to the group that gets the most votes from students.

Addressing misconceptions
Another programme at the Cavendish began six years ago, when two theoretical physicists with a keen interest in undergraduate recruitment, Mark Warner and Anson Cheung, developed a residential course for students aged 16 to 17 to help address their misconceptions about university-level physics. 

The Senior Physics Challenge aims to give students a clearer idea of what to expect, while also helping them prepare for the transition from school to university physics. 

Teachers from all over the UK are asked to recommend up to two students per school, and we select 66 of these students to attend a five-day course of subject workshops, practical sessions and public lectures. Students stay in a Cambridge college, participate in some social activities (such as punting on the river and firing water rockets) during their free time, and get the chance to mix with other pupils.

The course's practical sessions are designed to excite the imagination rather than fulfil a curriculum requirement. 

In some cases, they also strengthen the connection between experimental physics and mathematics. 

On the workshop side, the first five years of the course focused on mechanics and special relativity, but in 2011, after students requested more sophisticated applications of mathematics within physics, quantum mechanics replaced special relativity on the menu.

When planning and piloting this course, some educationalists were concerned that it could actually turn students away from physics as a result of its mathematical approach and the deliberate inclusion of new concepts. 

In response to such concerns, and with the help of experienced teachers, the level of material was carefully calibrated to ensure that the students gained confidence by assimilating new concepts in small steps. Student feedback indicates that they leave the course feeling highly engaged and motivated.

Our experience with running the Senior Physics Challenge has taught us the importance of being open-minded, and that one should not be easily put off when beginning a new programme. 

We also learned to embrace unintended positive consequences. For example, we did not predict the huge benefit that would come from simply allowing students to meet with like-minded others in a setting where excellence is rewarded, but this is among the most valuable aspects of the course.

Into the classroom
Once students are enrolled at university, their role in outreach can shift from "recipient" to "participant". 

In 2004 the Cavendish began offering an optional unit of work called Physics Education for third-year undergraduates. 

Students taking this module spend half a day a week, for one term, in the physics classroom of a local school. 

Over the term, their participation gradually increases until they are ready to prepare, deliver and evaluate their own physics lesson. 

The programme currently works with a diverse group of 12 schools in the Cambridge area, including both state-funded and independent schools for children aged 11 to 19.

This kind of programme has some obvious benefits for both parties. 

Schools enjoy an influx of young, enthusiastic physicists, while undergraduates get hands-on experience that can be invaluable for their future careers. Yet it can also be easy to get it wrong. For example, if already overburdened teachers and schools end up regarding the undergraduates as just another responsibility, they will be much less willing to participate. 

Therefore, it is important to select undergraduates with good communication skills, a strong ability in physics and a genuine interest in teaching. With these safeguards in place, we find that schools avidly support our programme, and each year a significant fraction of the undergraduates (usually 30–50%, though the total numbers are small) go on to train as teachers.

Lessons learned
While some of the lessons we have learned at the Cavendish are programme-specific, others are nearly universal, such as the importance of working closely with teachers and understanding their needs. 

Another overarching lesson is to get good support from the university or department. 

Ironically, it can be easier to find external start-up funds for new, unproven initiatives than it is to obtain such support for a well-established, successful programme that delivers something that teachers want.

Some programmes elect to cover their costs by charging schools to attend events. 

However, at the Cavendish we avoid this approach, as it would hurt our overall aim of widening access and participation in physics. 

Fortunately, we have excellent support from the Cavendish, including my own post – which, like the programmes, is underwritten by the department. 

Ultimately, the stability and confidence that this financial security delivers is as significant to a project's success as the collaboration of the department's academic community. 

The new buzzword in research and outreach alike is "impact", and connecting future physicists with those at the cutting edge today will help to maintain a strong future for physics at university level.

Quick tips for outreach success

  • Know your audience: Find out what is already available in your area and how you could fill a gap. Also, understand how your local school system works and the constraints it places on visits
  • Start small: Have a clear and manageable strategy and audience in mind. As the programme becomes established, you can broaden your mission
  • Keep the troops happy: Volunteers are essential, so make sure to support them properly. One first-time volunteer told us the experience was "a bit like sky-diving – you're not sure what's going to happen, but afterwards you feel a real buzz"
  • Make it measurable: To ensure that a project lasts, you have to be able to show that it is effective, with realistic and measurable aims and objectives
  • Phone a friend: When starting out, collaborate with others who are more experienced. This spreads the load and individual responsibility, increasing productivity and your chances of success

Lisa Jardine-Wright is an education outreach officer at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, e-mail

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Physics World

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