I'm a Scientist: Physics Zone

20 July 2020

As part of the I’m a Scientist programme of online school engagement, a new Physics Zone was launched during lockdown with funding support from The Ogden Trust.

Available for the summer term, the Physics Zone was an online, student-led science enrichment activity which connected students with physicists working in a range of roles. In total, more than 1,100 students from 47 schools logged into the Physics Zone and classes took part in 97 online chats with the 124 physicists from across academia, the public sector and industry.

Teachers were able to book moderated text-based chat sessions with groups of real physicists. Students joined the chat from home or school and asked the physicists whatever they wanted over 40 minutes.

Taking part in the I’m a Scientist Physics Zone helped students to get a better understanding of what physics is, and who it is for (answer anyone!); they gained confidence in asking questions and they interacted with real-life physicists. The Physics Zone helped students to stay connected with teachers and with classmates and kept them engaged in the wonders of physics.

“Live chats have been busy with so many questions for our scientists,” explains Project Wrangler, Antony Poveda. “Over the 13 weeks, students asked questions on a huge range of topics related to physics and the work of the physicists; students were also interested in the physicists as people, including how they were coping with the pandemic. Being a student-led activity, students could ask the physicists questions that were personally relevant to them. They could develop a rapport with the physicists, who listened, elicited and valued the students’ opinions, in turn supporting their science capital.”

How will your lasers allow you to see into people’s heads?
What safety precautions do you take in your job?
What kind of programming languages do you use?
What are your thoughts on the plastic in the ocean?
How have your jobs changed due to covid-19?
Were you inspired by sci-fi like Star Wars?
What did you want to become as a teenager?
What books are you reading?
What would you recommend for someone deciding to do physics in life?

Students could also read profiles about the physicists, and send them questions directly, learning more about their work in physics, their career journeys, and who they were as people. Importantly for teachers, organisation was simple and flexible, with most of the logistics handled by the I’m a Scientist team - no pre-vetting scientists, no video or audio to set up and test.

Students were also able to cast their vote for a Physicist of the Week. The physicist with the most votes overall was Ry Cutter, astrophysicist at the University of Warwick.
Students were also able to cast their vote for a Physicist of the Week. The physicist with the most votes overall was Ry Cutter, astrophysicist at the University of Warwick.

“Many students said they really enjoyed their chats in the Physics Zone,” says one of the teachers who took part with their class. “They learned about things they didn't know you could do as a scientist and found it really interesting… it's been a great experience.” The students agreed:

“I think I want to be a scientist when I grow up now!!!”
“You can find the most fun scientists on here, you’re all very cool”
“I wish I could do this chat all day :)” “same dude” “same!” [students in chat]

“The platform has been a fantastic way to reach out to students of all ages,” says Dipendra, a physicist who took part in the programme. “As an active STEM ambassador, I am always looking for ways to give back, and given the current COVID situation, it appears to me that this platform works really well.”

The Physics Zone will remain online with all the answers to questions about physics and working as a physicist. Take a look at the physicists who took part and some of the student questions in the Ask Section.

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