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Applied knowledge

Jennifer King explains how group industrial projects can help physics students to build real-world skills within a university environment.

Physics students from Durham University get stuck in to a group project at PII Pipeline Solutions.
(Courtesy: Durham University)

When Ian Mullin began his undergraduate physics degree at Durham University, he did so hoping that he would eventually be able to apply his knowledge to practical problems. Soon, however, he realized that it was not always easy to see a route from learning to application. Fortunately, a solution was at hand: as part of his degree, Mullin did a team-based project with PII Pipeline Solutions, a pipeline-inspection firm that is part of the General Electric group of companies. The work he did as part of the project was "no longer theory", he says. "It wasn't even just a linear process of 'learn and apply' but a very creative process. The challenge of having control over the project - of having to interpret a brief and work towards the customer's goals - was very different to the normal part of the degree."

Participating in the project had a direct impact on Mullin's career: at the end of the project, PII invited the students to apply for a job with the firm. Mullin took them up on the offer, and he has now come full circle by serving as the company's industrial contact for projects with current Durham students. "It's still career development for me," he explains.

Building soft skills
Securing good employment after graduation has long been a motivating factor for students, but the global recession and the rise in tuition fees at English universities have increased the focus on employability. One of the ways that the UK physics community has responded is through projects like Mullin's, which was created under the auspices of the Group Industrial Project scheme - a programme that aims to help students develop "soft skills" while also training them to apply their physics knowledge. Backed by the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, and using funding from the National Higher Education STEM Programme, the scheme is modelled on one that the physics department at Durham has run successfully for 20 years, and is now available at more than 20 physics departments across the country.

Projects in the scheme have involved a wide variety of external partners, ranging from small- and medium-sized businesses to multinationals and including not only government organizations but also more unusual partners, such as zoos and bee-keeping associations. With such a wide range of external partners, students can often be given experience that is directly relevant to their career aspirations. At Cardiff University, for example, students with an interest in teaching participated in a project with eChalk, a Wales-based company that provides online education resources.

Benefits to employers
Undergraduates who get involved in projects associated with the scheme work in a small team and undertake research in conjunction with an industrial or other non-university partner. For example, a group of students at the University of York worked with the multinational firm Reckitt Benckiser (makers of products such as Lemsip and Cillit Bang) on a project related to understanding the physical characteristics of a surface, a liquid undergoing evaporation and the air surrounding the two. While the exact details of the students' work cannot be disclosed for commercial reasons, the Reckitt Benckiser employees who worked with them say they were impressed with the students' ingenuity as well as their hard work and dedication.

The opportunity to get some research done is not the only attraction for external partners. Grace Bramer, an illumination engineer at the automotive engineering firm Visteon, collaborates with the University of Bath, and she notes that industrial projects are also an opportunity to get to know an institution. This can be useful when looking to recruit staff or placement students and to expand into larger research partnerships in the future. James Benstead, a nuclear data physicist at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) who worked on a project with students at University College London (UCL), agrees. In their case, the initial link made by the project has since developed into a wider collaboration, with AWE sponsoring multiple PhD studentships at UCL and becoming involved in longer final-year projects for undergraduates.

Another benefit for external staff is, as Mullin suggested, the chance to develop their own careers. Employees who participate in projects gain experience of directing research, and may also sharpen their recruiting skills. Stephen Penney of Tyco Fire Protection found that he learned how the Lancaster University students he worked with developed their skills as the project progressed - something that he says gave him new insight into what to look for when recruiting science graduates.

Benefits for students
The fact that the projects involve research on real problems provided by the external partner, rather than a well-worn laboratory exercise, is one that students frequently cite as one of the scheme's most positive aspects. Working on a project often allows students who have lost enthusiasm for their courses to rediscover (or even to discover for the first time) why they decided to study physics. They realize that there is a point to what they have been learning and that real people are actually interested in the outcome. As a consequence, many middle-ranking students do better than expected in their projects. One institution was pleased to note that all of the project students had gone into graduate employment, despite some of them "not being the high-fliers" - a description that surprised the industrial partner involved, who had been impressed by the ability of the students he worked with.

At the beginning of projects, students often find the teamwork aspect of their work off-putting. This is true even though survey data shows that students invariably think that they are good at working in a team before they start out. Perhaps surprisingly, their assessment of their team-working abilities actually declines by the end of the project, which may indicate a more realistic view of the challenges involved. In any case, it does not appear to put them off, since exit surveys also show an increased enthusiasm for team working.

But the biggest benefit seems to be that by working on an industrial project, students develop a much broader set of skills than they might have done if they had taken only the more traditional academic components of a physics degree. Skills in project management, communication, teamwork and budgeting are highly valued by employers, says Graham Wynn, a physicist at the University of Leicester who directs the group industrial projects there. "There are signs that the projects have had a significant impact on the employability skills, business awareness and confidence of the students taking part," he adds, pointing out that students often make their project experience a highlight of their CVs. As one student enthused to me during a visit to Leicester, "I am using the project for just about every question in job applications."

A student from the University of Exeter agrees. "From an employability point of view, it's nice to have a module that provides an evidence base of your skill development," the student wrote in an end-of-project assessment. "You can go to interview and you can say...I did this...we achieved this...and because it's already tied in to industry it shows you can abstract the skills from your degree and put them into the real world."

Jennifer King is a research associate in the physics department at Durham University, UK, e-mail

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