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Inspiring young scientists

Kingsbridge Community College hosted a ‘Girls into Physics’ Henrietta Leavitt day.

Published: 14 December 2021

This term, aspiring scientists in Devon schools have been marvelling at the enormity of our universe as they have learnt about the life and work of Henrietta Leavitt who led the way in our understanding of our universe whilst working at Harvard Observatory.

The Devon-based Links to a Life learning collective has been touring the South West with their inspirational Henrietta Leavitt day which links science and the arts.

Kingsbridge Community College hosted a ‘Girls into Physics’ Henrietta Leavitt day. Katie and Islay took part in the day and have reported back.

Our brain power was definitely challenged – we had to complete a number of astronomy-based physics activities, as well as learning more about Miss Leavitt, and working through the Henrietta-inspired student handbook. [We] learnt more about what Henrietta Swan Leavitt did by filling in the same graph she originally used to present her finding, as well as completing some very difficult maths questions!

To finish off the inspiration day, [we] learnt about what opportunities studying physics can give you, and future steps from fellow physicists. The main hope to take from the day is that it encourages more girls from Kingsbridge Community College to study physics beyond GCSE – whatever their plans for the future.

Actors deliver a play about Henrietta Leavitt in a classroom setting

[We applied] maths to Leavitt’s work to better understand her ideas. This was mostly focused on distances and trigonometry using arc seconds and arc minutes (this is used to calculate the distance to a star). We also plotted a graph that described the relationship between the star’s apparent magnitude and period (days). We were literally following in the footsteps of Leavitt – this is what she would have done for her research!

We watched a play about Leavitt’s work and life, [where the actors shared] the key events and challenges in her life, from when she was a baby to her final career. It was incredible! The way they performed it was engaging and allowed us to connect with Leavitt more and understand her life and her work, which was truly inspirational!

We also heard from a lady who came in to talk about her career. Originally, she was an engineer, but then decided to switch to astronomy. She talked about A-level choices and about university options which gave us ideas of what we could go into if we wanted to be a physicist, astrophysicist, astronomer, etc. She was an excellent speaker and gave us useful ideas for our future.

We have learnt loads of things about astronomy and physics! This day has been really interesting and inspirational and gave us insights to the future of astronomy and to the future of the universe!

Students gather around a science experimentThe Henrietta Leavitt programme, delivered by the Devon-based Links to a Life learning collective, aims to inspire Year 9-11 students, especially girls, who have a passion for science and are considering their careers.

Students learn about the history of our understanding of the cosmic distance scale beginning with an overview of the theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus, the work of Kepler and Newton, Leavitt, Hertzsprung and Hubble. They learn about observatories and their purposes; and in particular, Harvard Observatory where Leavitt worked alongside a team of women known as ‘the computers’.

The day is interspersed with games, talks and performance, and includes links to maths and the arts: students practise GCSE maths skills as they carry out calculations involving distances and plotted some of Leavitt’s original data. They watch a biographical play of the life of Leavitt – who died aged just 53, one hundred years ago this year.

Support and funding for the tour has come from a range of local and national bodies including The Ogden Trust, the University of Exeter, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Arts Council England.

You can find out more about Links to a Life on their website.

A group of students in a busy classwork work together

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