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Against the odds

“My child is now absolutely buzzing about physics, but I also hope the scheme inspires more groups and organisations to continue working on representation and to appreciate the benefits of broader diversity.”

Published: 2 August 2023

A group of Black scientists have come together and volunteered to spur on London students of Black heritage to pursue further study of physics, to increase diversity at higher education where they are classed as severely underrepresented. Completely free to attend, the three-day ‘Representing Physics’ event brought together 32 Year 11 and Year 12 students from across London for lectures on quantum mechanics, experiments in undergraduate labs and careers talks.

“My child is now absolutely buzzing about physics, but I also hope the scheme inspires more groups and organisations to continue working on representation and to appreciate the benefits of broader diversity.”
Mr Dejen Anssa, parent of participant

“Physics has huge importance in the world today and is a fantastic subject which opens doors to so many professions and pathways,” says Clare Harvey, Chief Executive of The Ogden Trust. “We want to ensure that no one feels excluded from taking physics further and we are delighted to support the Blackett Lab Family. Their work in providing role models and opportunities for young Black physicists will help more people to see that physics can be for them and will encourage more people to explore where their physics journey might take them.”

Black students are seared in a lecture hall - at the forefront a female Black physicist is pictured in a head scarf

Black ethnic groups are the most underrepresented group at physics A-Level and Black Caribbean students make up just 0.5% of the physics A-level cohort1. The numbers decline even more drastically after A-level, so much so that Black students on undergraduate physics courses are classed as severely underrepresented and reduce to zero in British research laboratories2.

The country risks falling behind in the global race to modernise economies based on industry and technology if this technical skills gap is not urgently addressed. This is particularly acute for the 2 million jobs needing physics-related skills – and this shortage is holding back businesses. Two-thirds of this sector have been forced to suspend or delay research, development and innovation between 2016 and 2021 due to lack of skilled workers3.

To address the issue, The Blackett Lab Family – a social enterprise made up of UK Black physicists and volunteers – together with the Institute of Physics and The Ogden Trust, have teamed up to develop a new scheme that gives Black students a chance to engage with real physics in ways that challenge outdated perceptions of the chalk-and-blackboard stereotype.

We occupy a unique position to increase the likelihood of Black students opting to choose physics, because we’ve been where they have, and they can see themselves in us,” explains Jon Lansley-Gordon, co-founder and Managing Director of The Blackett Lab Family. “We know that studying physics opens doors to a range of prosperous careers, from banking to the public sector – so as a group of Black physicists ourselves, we bring nuance to the dialogue, both within and outside of our own community. Engaging both students and parents in this way is fundamental to our scheme.”

Two Black male students seated at a lab desk; a male Black physicist is standing between them - Blackett Lab Family

 

References

  1. IOP, Support Young People to Change the World, 2020.
  2. Described by the IOP using data from HESA (IOP: Physics Students in UK Universities, 2018-19). Ethnicity STEM data for students and academic staff in higher education 2007/08 to 2018/19
  3. Solving skills: Powering growth through physics-related apprenticeships, IOP, 2023

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