Inspiring future physicists by collaborating with schools on space research
A highly successful schools partnership programme co-founded by UCL’s Professor Jonathan Tennyson and Dr William Dunn is igniting an interest in science in groups underrepresented in physics.
12 April 2022
UK physics is dominated by men, often from middle-class backgrounds. Furthermore, there are not enough subject-specialist science teachers to meet demand, and 20% fewer students today take physics A-Level than students did in the 1980s.
To help redress the balance, UCL Physics Professor Jonathan Tennyson and his colleagues have devised and run the Original Research By Young Twinkle Scientists (ORBYTS) programme. This forms partnerships between UCL research scientists and schools, involving children in inspiring, real-world research relating to the Twinkle Spacecraft.
Bringing physics to life
As an example, one of the ORBYTS projects, Twinkle, due to launch in the mid-2020s, will use infrared spectroscopy to gain insights into the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system as well as brown dwarfs and stellar discs. Children and researchers working on ORBYTS process high accuracy laboratory spectroscopy data which will be used to analyse results from the Twinkle and other missions.
For each project, a researcher visits a school every week or fortnight for two terms, acting as a mentor and doing active research with the students. Students pay return visits to UCL for workshops and to give talks at an end-of-project ORBYTS conference, and are trained in the science, tools and coding and data analysis needed to carry out the research.
Redressing the balance
Since 2016, ORBYTS has grown from one to 30 school-researcher partnerships, 75% of which involve groups of children who are traditionally under-represented in science such as those eligible for free school meals, refugees, or children in care. Only half were boys, even though the national picture is that 80% of the UK’s A-Level physics students are male. Ten research papers co-authored by school children have been published as a result of the projects.
ORBYTS has directly led to more students applying for A-level and university science courses; in fact, in one participating school, every student taking part in the programme during their final GCSE year went on to take physics A-Level. Pupils’ science attainment, aspirations and perceptions of science have improved, as evidenced by testimonials from teachers involved in the project.
Inspiring teachers and students
Teachers have been particularly impressed with the skills that ORBYTS has given children, with one commenting: “It is the set of skills they are learning that really sets this apart – advanced algebra, python programming, applying neural network and artificial intelligence principles, intense teamwork and friendly competition.”
The project has also given a shot in the arm to teachers’ motivation and enthusiasm, with one saying: “ORBYTS is definitely one of the coolest things I’ve been exposed to in my 15-year career” and another “this has been a real ‘get me out of bed in the morning’ kind of project.”
ORBYTS projects are now being run or piloted at Harvard, Lancaster, and Northumbria Universities – and discussions are underway about running further pilots at universities in Australia, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Austria, bringing its benefits to an ever-widening group.
Since the submission of the impact case study, the ORBYTS team were awarded the 2021 National Education Opportunities Network Widening Access Initiative (Outreach) Award.
ORBYTS (Original Research by Young Twinkle Scientists): improving student attainment and teacher motivation in physics.
School children have carried out original research on planets beyond our solar system with UCL scientists, thanks to a highly successful schools partnership programme co-founded by UCL’s Professor Jonathan Tennyson and Dr William Dunn. The ORBYTS programme is igniting an interest in science in groups who have been under-represented in physics, equipping them with transferable skills, improving science literacy and motivating teachers.
- Professor Jonathan Tennyson's academic profile
- Dr William Dunn's academic profile
- Professor Sergey Yurchenko's academic profile
- Professor Giovanna Tinetti's academic profile
- Professor Nick Achilleos' academic profile
- Professor Graziella Branduardi-Raymont's academic profile
- ORBYTS programme
- Department of Physics & Astronomy
- UCL Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences
- UCL Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences REF 21
- Image credit: iStock Enot-poloskun