By Teo Bulichi (Year 3, MPhys Astrophysics)
The Sutton Trust Summer School is a long-established programme at the University of Edinburgh, offering students in the last two years of secondary school an experience of University life. This year, it will take place online between 12-16 July.
Secondary school students take part in activities run by several departments. For the physics activities, students first watch a video where current UoE students and staff answer questions about why they became physicists and what they enjoy about studying physics. The students then take part in activities on the topics of particle physics and astrobiology and have the chance to spend a day working on a project about one of these topics.
Last year, undergraduate students and Physics Outreach Team volunteers Cristina Cortes (Year 3 Astrophysics), Robbie Peal (Year 3 Physics with Meteorology) and Fedra Antoniadou (Year 3 Computational Physics) were involved in the summer school (the Physics summer school contribution is led by Physics Outreach Team leader, Dr JC Denis), along with other students and members of staff. They hosted a live session for each topic and sent some resources for the secondary school students to work on at home. Choosing topic areas and creating activities was a big challenge of designing the activities, as they had to maintain a suitable difficulty level for the students to be able to engage with.
Robbie was involved in the special relativity section and confessed they chose this topic because not only is it an important part of modern physics, but it is also notorious for producing scenarios like the twins’ paradox that feel more like science fiction than science fact. However, the main tool in these calculations, the Lorentz factor, arises from some reasonably straightforward maths. Therefore they were confident that even though special relativity can seem to be difficult to get your head round, by carefully choosing how to present the topic to the students, they should be able to get them up to speed and introduce them to a really fascinating idea in modern physics.
The School of Physics and Astronomy team wanted to give secondary school students an authentic experience of university teaching, so they decided to use a format like many undergraduate courses. Firstly, students watched part of a lecture series by Prof. Arjun Berera that covered some introductory topics in special relativity, including the Michelson and Morley experiment, Einstein’s postulates of SR, and some basic ideas about time dilation. They made a prompt sheet for students to look at while watching the lectures, to help them identify the most important ideas. After that, students attempted some workshop questions. They based the questions on problems from the second-year course at UoE but they broke the questions down into smaller parts to make it easier for the secondary students to follow them. Finally, they hosted a live session on Blackboard Collaborate where they went through the problem sheet and students asked questions about the topic. Despite the challenge of working on their own on a difficult new topic, most of the students had attempted most of the questions. The students asked some really probing questions that showed they had really engaged well with the topic and enjoyed learning about some new ideas in physics. Elizabeth Leason, a PhD student at UoE also provided really useful insight on designing the activities and gave very fascinating answers in the live sessions.
Astrobiology and dark matter projects
Despite the technical challenges, Fedra, Cristina and Robbie managed to keep the participants engaged and are confident that the school this year will be a great success again, especially since everyone is more used to work in an online environment! Moreover, a new addition to the school this year is to offer day-long projects for students to work on at home. Cristina and JC developed two projects, one on astrobiology (related to the “Life Beyond” activities developed by Charles Cockell) and based on measuring data using an app called PhyPhox. School researcher Dr XinRan Liu developed a project on dark matter physics.
In addition to the academic programme which secondary school students undertake, students take part in a wide variety of social activities to help them get to know fellow students, and have the opportunity to learn key aspects of the university experience – including student life, career opportunities and accommodation.
We are all looking forward to meeting this year’s cohort of secondary school students and running these exciting projects!