All posts by Olivia Keenan

20Jun/19

SEPnet Public Engagement Leader involved in Europe-wide photonics project getting thousands of girls in STEM

Thousands of young women and girls have had the chance to explore the world of science, engineering, and light technologies thanks to a European photonics research consortium that has created their girls in STEM ecosystem, a series of 33 workshops and 11 Photonics Challenger projects across 10 European countries in a bid to tackle the underrepresentation of women in science.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

However, a new outreach project has been tackling this underrepresentation by engaging young female minds with STEM, in the hope that they will pursue a career within the photonics, science or engineering industries.

Staged in ten countries across Europe, a total of 1221 girls have attended the ‘Phablabs 4.0’ initiatives since last year. The workshops have created novel and innovative problems for students to solve using lasers and photonics, the technology around the emission, manipulation and detection of light.

Combining a ‘Fab Lab’ – or a fabrication laboratory – with the world of photonics, the workshops and Challenger Projects offer a glimpse into careers in photonics, engineering, computer coding, and robotics.

Pearl John, SEPnet Public Engagement Leader at the University of Southampton, has led the UK element of the project. Partnering with the Green Lab agri-tech laboratory in Bermondsey Pearl and her team have delivered a series of hands on photonics workshops, reaching audiences who would not otherwise have the opportunity to access hands on physics experiences.

Pearl John and the team from Southampton University.

Hands-on Opportunities

Students have been exploring tasks as varied as creating an artwork made from lasers, modifying a cuddly toy with photonics, or building an infrared glove that acts as a remote control where touching two fingers creates a signal.

The more advanced Challenger Projects have tasked students with building an Invisibility Cloak or creating their own hologram. Some students, like Ester Muylaert, 18, from Halle, Belgium, are really excited to discover material they would not learn anywhere else.

“Phablabs is amazing and interesting. We’ve learned lots of new skills that we wouldn’t have picked up in school. To see the job in front of me and to meet the person who does that job has given me loads of ideas about what I can do in the future. It’s really made me want to work with photonics.”

The researchers have targeted three age categories with workshops aimed at high school girls (Young Minds), female university students (Students) and women who may have already started their careers (Young Professionals 18+).

Gender Balanced Resources

One of the results of the PhabLabs 4.0 project has been the publication of a new booklet, A Gender Balanced Approach. The booklet acts as a guide to future Fabrication Laboratories so that organisers in schools or universities can use it as a reference to gain the interest of girls and young women in science and technology.

By creating gender-sensitive material for the workshops and “Photonics Challenger Projects” the organisers have garnered the interest of girls and young women in science, to generate a lasting impact on their personal relation to STEM and Fab Labs.

Supported by the Gender Action Team, the developers have had the backing of the European Commission with funding from Horizon 2020, and support from a number of professionals such as Professor Averil MacDonald from WISE (Women in Science and Engineering).

“We are delighted to be able to open a door into a world of science that some girls and young women may feel is closed,” Professor MacDonald said. “Girls and young women are more likely to consider studying STEM subjects beyond age 16 if they see that the subject keeps their options open.”

“The STEM sectors can only benefit from the talents of these young women. More girls and young women deserve the chance to have successful and satisfying careers in science, technology, engineering, manufacturing, mathematics and construction,” said Professor MacDonald.

The resources are available as an open resource toolkit for educators to use with their students.

For more details contact phablabs4.0@gmail.com.

13Mar/19

Enfield Council International Women’s Day Conference

Friday 8th March was International Women’s Day, a day where we celebrate the achievements of women and highlight the barriers which still exist to achieving gender equality. Our Director of Outreach and Public Engagement, Dr Olivia Keenan, was invited to speak at the International Women’s Day Conference organised by Enfield council on the subject of Women in Physics. Olivia used the opportunity to highlight the problems we have in physics around gender equality and to highlight some programmes and schemes working to counter this.

Only around 20% of A-level physics students are currently female, in spite of the fact that all genders perform equally well at GCSE level (IOP ‘Why not Physics?’ report, 2018). Similarly, around 20% of Physics undergraduates and postdoctoral students are female. However, in academia it gets worse as women progress to more senior positions, with only 11% of Physics professors in the UK being women (IOP ‘Academic Staff in UK Physics Departments’, 2017). These figures get even worse when we look at the ethnicity of physics academic staff. Overall, for all genders, 94.2% of UK national academic staff in physics are white, 2.4% are Asian, 1.5% are Chinese and 0.1% are black (IOP ‘Academic Staff in UK Higher Education Institutions, 2012). All women face significant barriers in physics academia, with non-white women being currently barely represented at all.

The picture is similar when we look at industry. WISE’s 2018 Workforce Statistics show that currently only 22% of the core STEM workforce are women. For engineering, a career route particularly relevant for those with physics degrees, this proportion falls to 12%.

The good news is that multiple organisations are working on programmes to help turn the tide, and increase the gender diversity in physics. In 2013 the IOP published the report Closing Doors which explores gender and subject choices at school across six subjects. It found that nearly half of schools were making the gender imbalance worse, however in schools that were sending more girls to do A-level physics the gender imbalance was also smaller in other subjects. This was followed by the Opening Doors report in 2015. It highlighted the issues schools deal with when it comes to gender balance and makes recommendations on how schools can address gender balance. These recommendations include appointing gender champions on senior leadership teams, ensuring that sexist language is unacceptable and presenting all subjects equally to students in terms of relative difficulty.

University College London is leading the ASPIRES/ ASPIRES 2 project, which is a longitudinal study of young people’s science and career aspirations from ages 10-19. They have coined the term science capital, which is a measure of how likely someone is to see science as for them. Science capital can be influenced by multiple factors including whether there is a scientist in the family, if science is discussed in the home and whether someone has visited science spaces outside of formal education. They also find that girls pursuing the physical sciences post-16 are ‘exceptional’ in many ways, including having high science capital and tailoring their performances of femininity when in a science environment.

SEPnet piloted the Shattering Stereotypes project in the academic year 2016/17 with the aim of determining the best role physics Outreach Officers can play in tackling and improving the gender stereotyping problem in schools. Workshops were held with year 8 students around understanding and countering the stereotypical perceptions of gender, with year 12s involved in leadership roles. This was evaluated and is now running in schools during the 2018/19 academic year. Shattering stereotypes incorporates the People Like Me quiz developed by WISE which highlights scientific careers routes to girls based on the traits and skills which they identify with.

The strong message from all of the research and projects happening around gender and physics show that there are many issues compounding to mean fewer girls go on to take physics. Science capital is a key theme, with the need to work towards increasing science capital being paramount. Another common negative factor is the use of gender stereotyping and gendered language in our society. We need to work on ways to counter these problems to help lower the barriers to more girls and women identifying with, and participating in, the physical sciences.

13Feb/19

Director of Outreach and Public Engagement speaking at the IOP

Olivia Keenan, our Director of Outreach and Public Engagement, is giving a talk on her PhD work at the Institute of Physics on the 20th of March. The talk is free and open to all. Refreshments will be served from 6pm, with the talk starting at 6:30.

Location: Institute of Physics, 37 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9BU


Image Credit & Copyright: Malcolm Park (North York Astronomical Association)

Where are all the Galaxies? The Missing Satellite Problem

State of the art computer simulations of our Universe currently over predict the number of dwarf galaxies by a factor of 10. As astronomers, we need to understand why this discrepancy has come about, and whether it is due to problems with simulations, observations, or both. One potential solution is that these galaxies could be hidden, ‘dark galaxies’. Dark galaxies are galaxies which are gas dominated, with few to no stars. There have been many dark galaxy candidates, however, so far none of these has been confirmed. Another solution is that the galaxies are star dominated but extremely faint and hard to detect in crowded, large field surveys. If so these galaxies could be detected using a combination of their physical properties to separate them from background field galaxies. In this talk I will discuss work on this topic, and how this has contributed to understanding the missing satellite problem.