Levelling Up: Physics workshop hosted by the Institute Of Physics

The Institute Of Physics (IOP) kindly hosted a virtual Levelling Up: Physics workshop on Monday 27 November.

The meeting was chaired by Charles Tracy (IOP) and featured contributions from three participating universities - Birmingham, Durham and Imperial.

Also present were Clare Harvey, CEO Ogden Trust, Lisa Jardine-Wright representing Isaac Physics and staff from six prospective participant universities - Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Hertfordshire, Liverpool, UCL & York.

The broad themes of the event were collaboration between university Physics departments, reaching underserved groups and developing social & science capital.

Birmingham, Durham and Imperial are all delivering Levelling Up: Physics for their third successive year.

If you would be interested in joining the programme, please contact LevellingUp@iop.org.

Below is a transcript of the session.. enjoy!

Levelling Up: Physics workshop Summary Transcript

November 27, 2023

This transcript has been edited from the original audio to make it easier to read.

Charles Tracy, Institute of Physics (IoP)

Welcome once again. I’m Charles Tracy from the Institute of Physics, where I’m the senior advisor for learning and skills. This afternoon we’re hosting this workshop to look at the Levelling Up Physics program. The program originated from Tony Hill’s idea to support math students in their transition to selective universities. The Institute of Physics helped with summer schools starting around 2016, aiming to support students unlikely to apply for a physics course at university.

We supported their applications, boosted their confidence, and ultimately helped them achieve the grades needed for a physics course. By 2018, under Tony’s leadership, we co-founded and expanded the program, maintaining our focus on students from deprived areas who wouldn’t typically consider university physics courses.

We initiated a pilot program in collaboration with three university departments, which runs from the middle of year 12 to the end of year 13. This program combines pastoral and academic support, continuing even after students enter university.

The Institute of Physics managed the initial pilot, and following an evaluation, we collaborated with Birmingham. Dan agreed to oversee the project’s expansion. Our involvement aligns closely with the IOP’s aims to address diversity and inclusion concerns.

The program supports students up to the age of 16 in the A-level group and continues to provide support when they choose physics at university. It has confirmed the choices of many A-level students, helping them feel confident enough to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics. We are proud to be part of this initiative and fully endorse it. Dan would emphasize that this is a collaborative effort, not solely owned by the IOP or by him. While Tony is a key contributor, ownership truly belongs to the participants who engage with it. Our goal is to involve more people, as this will only enhance the program’s impact.

I’ll now hand over to Dan, who will outline the current state of the program.

Dan Cottle, Birmingham University

Thank you very much, Charles. I appreciate the kind words and completely agree. Our work has always been about collaboration among like-minded individuals who are passionate about physics and promoting diversity within the field.

My name is Dan, and I work at the University of Birmingham with a unique role. I divide my time between the School of Physics and the School of Education, leading projects that focus on physics education and broadening participation in the subject. I will provide some background and the rationale for involving Birmingham in the Levelling Up project.

Afterward, I will discuss our approach to running the program, the resources we’ve utilised, and other operational details. Then, my colleagues from Durham and Imperial will address related topics shortly.

Levelling Up Physics is focused on providing online tutorials and mentoring for sixth form students. It serves to enhance diversity in physics within higher education, as well as to improve the knowledge and skills of physics undergraduates. As the program has developed, we’ve realized it not only benefits sixth form students but also provides valuable experience for the tutors and mentors who are our own undergraduate and postgraduate students at Birmingham.

The photograph from our launch event shows some of these students, although not all chose to be on camera. Despite its mainly online nature, we were able to host an in-person launch event.

Birmingham is deeply committed to addressing issues of underrepresentation in physics, including concerns related to gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We’re equally focused on ensuring access to specialized physics teaching for students, particularly those from less advantaged schools.

I’ve noticed in Birmingham and surrounding areas that individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to apply to prestigious universities. Addressing this discrepancy became a focal point for our EDI committee in the School of Physics at Birmingham, where we brainstormed actions to support local and broader UK students in applying to physics courses.

While many are aware of the disparities, it’s worth looking at the statistics. The majority of A-level physics students in England are white – only half a percent are Black Caribbean students.

The homogeneity extends to academic staff in UK physics departments, which are predominantly white. Recent studies have shown girls often have a less positive experience in physics compared to boys. These issues underline the importance of promoting diversity, which has become a high priority for us.

We were thrilled to join the project initiated by Charles and Tony. The collaboration has been enriching, allowing us to work alongside dedicated colleagues from other universities, like Peter from Durham and Savvy from Imperial, who share our commitment to diversity.

Our Levelling Up program, which includes physics, chemistry, and maths, has begun to positively influence our undergraduate population’s diversity. Last year, 14 participants from our workshops enrolled at Birmingham, coming from a wide range of backgrounds, and choosing various subjects, not just physics.

This program’s impact extends beyond the students; our own undergraduates and postgraduates have enhanced their communication and teaching skills through their roles in providing online tutoring. This has also increased their employability and passion for diversity in physics.

The program’s success was reflected in an evaluation by the University of Durham, affirming that it met its initial goals. Our approach involves online tuition and mentoring, with students meeting weekly to discuss physics problems, A-level content, and university application processes.

We run the program from the spring of Year 12 to Year 13, a critical period for students as they make university and degree choices. We’ve found that starting with an in-person event, despite the program’s online nature, sets a positive tone for the relationships between pupils and their mentors and tutors.

Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge Isaac Physics and Lisa, who are on the call, for their collaboration this year. Their resources have been a valuable addition to our program.

Lisa Jardine-Wright, Isaac Physics

Thank you, Dan, for the introduction. Isaac Physics automatically grades student responses, providing tailored feedback and generating a results sheet for the tutors. If there’s interest, I’d be glad to share more.

I also want to mention that Isaac Physics doesn’t only offer multiple-choice questions. We’ve worked with Catherine at York a lot as well.

Thanks Dan.

Dan Cottle, Birmingham University

Thank you so much. We’ve found it incredibly beneficial to have real-time feedback during the tutorials, which fosters engaging discussions. In running these online tutorials, we often encounter a balancing act between what the participants are looking for, mainly A-level preparation, and what we, as university tutors, believe they need, which includes bridging the gap to undergraduate physics with a strong emphasis on problem-solving.

As you review the support materials, you’ll be able to form your own judgment about how well we’ve managed this balance. It’s perfectly okay to have different views on this. The beauty of this project lies in its collaborative nature. In our meetings, we regularly discuss and deliberate on various aspects of the program, always with the goal of continuous improvement.

Please do take a moment to look through the materials.

I’ll now hand over to Charles, who will introduce the next speaker.

Charles Tracy, IoP

Next, we have Peter from Durham, who will elaborate on the structure of the tutorials and mentoring and how they function. Peter, the floor is yours.

Peter Swift, Durham University

As an associate professor at Durham, where I’ve also served as vice principal in the physics department, I’ve overseen various roles including coordinating outreach and running first-year labs. From the outset, we’ve been part of the problem-solving program initiative discussed at our initial meeting.

At Durham, we’re invested in fostering skills in physics, working in tandem with our mathematics colleagues who collaborate with the London Maths Society, and our chemistry team, notably Jackie Robinson, who have been instrumental in outreach efforts. Collectively, we run STEM strands across chemistry, maths, and physics, echoing the program Dan described, with slight variations but maintaining a focus on problem-solving, further study, and mentoring.

Our program dovetails with our summer schools, aiding progression and making connections with the Sutton Trust, especially for BAME students from the sales region. We aim to make this a pathway to guaranteed contextual offers for university admission.

We’ve structured our physics curriculum into a three-week cycle. In the first week, students receive a home learning pack to self-study, including reading and practical tasks like exploring the inverse square law. The following week, they join a tutorial to delve deeper into the subject with a small group, similar to the Isaac Physics approach. The third week is dedicated to mentoring sessions with undergraduate mentors, which is crucial for students to see relatable role models and envision themselves at the university.

Our academic curriculum spans 12 sessions that align with the A-level syllabus, designed to bolster student confidence, and introduce advanced problem-solving techniques. This approach also ties into broader research applications and contextual learning.

Looking ahead, we’re adapting our model to enhance student engagement and understanding. For example, students will start with tutorials before tackling more complex material. Tutors encourage active participation, and we record attendance to ensure students are getting the most out of the program. We also provide pre-reading and problem-solving tasks, with solutions offered for challenging problems.

We emphasize the importance of preparation, punctuality, and conducive learning environments, although we understand the challenges some face with accessing resources. To maximize benefits, students are encouraged to attempt all tasks and document their efforts. Additionally, we guide them to create personal development plans to track their progress.

Our resources include tablets for physics and maths students to facilitate interactive learning. Our tutors and mentors, who are mainly postgraduate researchers, are expected to be kind, approachable, and to adhere to the curriculum set by the IOP.

Lastly, we’ve seen tangible outcomes, with several students who participated in the program now studying at Durham, a testament to the program’s effectiveness.