Faculty of Technology


Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Public or community group

Primary, junior and secondary schools in Portsmouth

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Project introduction

A new longitudinal schools outreach programme was introduced by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) in 2017, focusing on engagement with three secondary schools in Portsmouth and the primary/junior schools that feed into those secondary schools.

The secondary schools were selected from the University of Portsmouth’s widening participation (WP) schools list so had already been identified as schools that the university wished to target for WP work. Additional information from the Institute of Physics stimulating physics network was used to assess the need for physics-specific interventions in these schools, and our experience of engaging with different schools in Portsmouth in the preceding years was also taken into consideration.

The need for a longitudinal schools outreach programme, where we engage with the same school pupils over the course of several years, was identified from our own experience and emerging evidence from the physics outreach sector, which shows that one-off outreach interventions have limited long-term impact on the school pupils.

The decision to begin the programme with year 5 pupils (age 9/10) was influenced by the ASPIRES research project which shows that children have decided whether ‘science is for them’ by the age of 11, and because there is a demand for astronomy outreach activities for this year group as it is when they do their ‘space’ topic. The rest of the programme was put together based on our experience and that of others in the sector, and was then finalised in collaboration with teachers at the partner schools.

Project staff

  • Dr Jen Gupta, Public Engagement and Outreach Manager, Sept 2017-present

Engaging with the target group

Building a relationship with teachers at the partner secondary schools has been key to their engagement with us. Once the outline of the programme’s activities had been put together, I visited each of the three secondary schools to present the proposed programme to their Head of Science or Head of Physics. This allowed us to talk through the activities in details so I could explain the reasoning behind each one and they could ask any questions they had about the content.

We have then tried to have in-person meetings at the end of each school year to debrief and set dates for the following school year. Doing this in-person instead of by email or over the phone has maintained and strengthened their relationship with us and I think has played a big role in their continuing engagement with the programme.

Support for the project

The schools outreach programme activities are delivered by members of the ICG outreach and public engagement team, with support from physics undergraduate student ‘outreach demonstrators’.

Until recently, the majority of activity delivery was carried out by the Public Engagement and Outreach Manager. In March 2020 the ICG received internal funding for a part-time Outreach Officer to take over this work (until July 2020) so that I could focus more on REF-related work.

Each school visit or event is usually supported by one of two physics undergraduate students, working as ‘outreach demonstrators’.

The ICG outreach and public engagement programme is supported by a £15k budget which is allocated from internal funding as part of our South East Physics Network (SEPnet) membership agreement. About half of this is spent on the schools outreach programme each year, with the majority of the budget being spent on paying the outreach demonstrators as casual employees.

The ICG outreach and public engagement programme is more widely supported by the SEPnet outreach and public engagement team and The Ogden Trust.

Examples of the activities delivered

The schools outreach programme delivers activities to school pupils in years 5, 7, 8 and 9. By visiting the same schools every year, the intention is to engage with the same children over the course of 5 years as they progress through school.

The activities delivered are mostly ones that have been offered by the ICG for a number of years. In years 5, 7, and 8 we visit the schools to run the activities, which include workshops on the solar system, shows in our inflatable planetarium, and a set of workshops that place physics in context. This allows us to interact with large numbers of students in each year group (the entire year group if possible) so that all students are able to participate in the project (this would not be possible if we held activities on campus at UoP). In year 9 we switch this and the schools bring pupils to the university for a ‘Discover Astrophysics’ half day of talks and activities.

The school decides how many pupils to bring to Discover Astrophysics, and who to target, but we suggest that they target the event at pupils who would be capable of doing physics at A-level (and beyond) but may not be considering it, i.e. not just their top set/gifted and talented students.

How the activities met the identified needs

Having the relationship with the secondary school teachers means that they feel more comfortable providing feedback to us about the suitability of the activities and events. This is also one of the reasons for the debrief with each secondary school at the end of the year. A more formal evaluation is in the process of being put in place, but has been delayed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Evaluating activities against project objectives

A formal evaluation of the activities has not yet been put in place. However, the Connect Physics (year 8) workshops are being evaluated by SEPnet as a whole, through the use of evaluation forms that the participants fill out before each workshop (with the same questions to measure any changes across the year) and planned focus groups.

Learnings from the project

The approach we have taken to schools engagement (multiple interactions instead of one-off) is something that we will be applying to all future activity. Several physics departments in other universities have also adopted this style of school outreach programme.