In 2015, Queen Mary’s Ogden Outreach Officer Dr Martin Archer (now the UKRI Stephen Hawking Fellow in Space Physics and Public Engagement at Imperial College London) launched a pilot initiative to introduce GCSE and A-level students to cutting-edge particle and astro physics: the Physics Research in School Environment (PriSE) programme.
At the heart of PRiSE is a commitment to longer term, sustained outreach interventions; students and teachers receive introductory workshops and school visits from researchers, before undertaking a six-month independent research project. The PRiSE pilot, which ran from 2014 to 2016, involved six schools; by 2020, PRiSE had worked with more than 67 London schools, focusing particularly on those students from backgrounds under-represented in higher education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
The programme builds students’ confidence in STEM, developing skills not typically encountered within school, and has had lasting impacts on their physics experiences and aspirations. It is these impacts that Martin has been monitoring closely.
Martin now has three peer-reviewed papers in the Geoscience Communication journal evaluating the impact and further potential of PRiSE.
The evaluation has shown that school students, teachers, and researchers see great value in initiatives like PRiSE that allow schools to experience authentic scientific research; although the programme requires significant support and investment, the outcomes justify this approach. Teachers are positively affected, with the programme enhancing knowledge, skills, and pedagogy, as well as having advantageous effects across their wider schools.
After the six-month research projects, students reported substantially increased confidence in science, skills development, and increased/confirmed aspirations towards physics and/or STEM subjects at university. These findings were reiterated in longitudinal evaluation three years later which showed these projects had a lasting impact on students, with evidence that they led to increased uptake in physics and STEM degrees.
Additionally, the PRiSE approach has engaged a much more diverse set of schools with significantly more disadvantaged groups than is typical for outreach; the longer term support and engagement for the PRiSE project work contributes to successful outcomes and positive impacts.
“Increasingly we’re realising that more involved approaches to outreach with schools are required to make the real and lasting differences that we hope for,” explains Martin. “However, demonstrating that all the careful consideration that goes into developing such programmes has actually worked is really quite difficult.
“These papers, which have taken years to come together, provide thorough evidence that diverse students and teachers can indeed participate in the exciting cutting-edge research that physicists undertake and that involving them can have profound positive effects on them for years to come. The papers demonstrate the value of in-depth and thoughtful schools engagement, which I hope others can learn from and take advantage of,” concludes Martin.
The Ogden Trust considers this model of working as an example of excellent practice in university outreach. The length of the PRiSE programme means that students have repeat interventions resulting in noticeable changes in attitudes and skills.
“These peer-reviewed papers confirm our belief that repeat and sustained interventions can have an effective, long-term impact on students, teachers and the bigger physics education picture," says Clare Harvey, Chief Executive of The Ogden Trust. "The opportunity to take part in authentic research over a longer period of time, and to present findings to others, enables students to ‘be’ the scientist and develop that as part of who they are. It is great to see the evaluation of this programme published and shared with the wider community, enabling others to learn from Martin’s experience," concludes Clare.
Martin has presented the programme to Ogden Outreach Officers from across the UK and has had interest from others who are considering similar initiatives in their institutions.
The published papers are available online.
- Evaluating participants’ experience of extended interaction with cutting-edge physics research through the PRiSE “research in schools” programme
- “Thanks for helping me find my enthusiasm for physics”: the lasting impacts “research in schools” projects can have on students, teachers, and schools
- Schools of all backgrounds can do physics research – on the accessibility and equity of the Physics Research in School Environments (PRiSE) approach to independent research projects
If you are interested in thinking further about your approach to outreach and evaluation, The Ogden Trust has produced two publications that may be of interest to you: