Astrophysics
Ongoing Project

Widening Participation through Astrophysics

Using the lure of space to engage the public, schoolchildren and teachers, targeting under-represented groups and socio-economically disadvantaged regions.

Project summary

The Challenge

Take up of Physics amongst women is just 22% nationally, and even lower in Hull, a high deprivation area.

The Approach

The outreach programme of the Milne Centre engages audiences, sparks their curiosity and inspires potential students to opt for education into STEM.

The Outcome

A doubling in the number of women and of students overall taking Physics at the University of Hull – even higher for students from the region.

Lead researchers

The Challenge

Hull and its region are a nationally recognised zone of high deprivation. The national baseline for women entering 1st year Physics programmes at University is 22%, and the demographics and socio-economics of Hull produced an even lower uptake of 10-14% in the pre-2016 period.

The full research team

The Approach

Based at the University of Hull, the Milne Centre for Astrophysics is an academic research, teaching and outreach centre that has widening participation at its heart. It uses the lure of space to engage and build sustainable partnerships with the public, schoolchildren and teachers, targeting under-represented groups (including females) and socio-economically disadvantaged regions. The Centre delivers regular events including specialist lectures, school visits, hands-on activities, and demonstrations from a mobile planetarium. Researchers present at science outreach events and science festivals, have a monthly slot on BBC Radio, and offer summer placements and internships for pupils and students.

The Milne Centre has three objectives:

1. To widen participation in the Hull region by engaging students with the research

2. To upskill students’ coding ability and data science literacy through participation in computational physics problems, introducing students to the possibilities of careers in STEM-related occupations

3. To pioneer the inclusion of women in Physics in Higher Education.

In total, the Milne Centre has run more than 500 Education and Public Outreach events, creating long-term relationships across and beyond Northern England. This activity contributes to the UK’s Industrial Strategy by inspiring, engaging and, for some, training a STEM- and digitally-literate workforce. The Centre’s science communication has reached nearly 3,000,000 people, including 40,000 students, with influence designed to stretch long into the future.

Nationally, the Milne Centre has delivered outreach at venues such as the Royal Institution, the British Science Festival, the Cheltenham Science Festival, Pint of Science, TEDx, the National Media Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Milne members have presented Award Lectures including the IOP’s John Porter Memorial Lecture, Hampshire’s Ray Boot land Memorial Lecture, Glasgow’s Leon Davies Lecture, and Manchester’s Bewile Lecture.

Alien worlds and extraterrestrial life – where are they?! | Brad Gibson | TEDxHull

The Milne Centre provides Career Professional Development (CPD) training to both regional (100+) and international (20+) school teachers, via the RCUK Teachers scheme, IOP Regional Days, and a strong relationship with East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Education Team. The mobile planetarium supplements these CPD events and the Centre demonstrates how our research can be used to enhance curriculum provision.

The Centre has provided 30+ work experience opportunities to under-represented groups from the region: they engage with data-mining simulation suites - providing a powerful added value to their career development.

In a region where girls can be diverted from STEM subjects, the Milne Centre is working with schools to change preconceived images of Physics and to redress the gender balance in the discipline. The Centre has linked with regional colleges to recruit girls from the lower IMD quintiles into intensive work experience opportunities; over 30 girls from across the region have benefitted from this opportunity.

Can I just say on behalf of everyone at [our] Primary School a huge thank you. This afternoon was amazing. The children really enjoyed your talk and were really buzzing back in class. We would definitely like to invite you back again next year.

The Impact

Widening participation

Thanks to the work of the Milne Centre in widening participation and raising aspirations, there has been a doubling of students arriving to study astrophysics at the University of Hull, with numbers from the HU postcode tripling. The feedback from schools includes the following.

The University of Hull’s outreach activities have had such a hugely positive and very valuable impact at our school in encouraging an interest in space and science. [The focus on] ‘Extreme astrophysics’ has encouraged far greater enthusiasm for STEM fields and changed career ambitions for many. […] Many of the pupils do not have a chance to attend museums or have much discussion of an educational nature at home. Children have therefore benefited hugely with a positive and lasting effect on their mind-set, attitude, attainment and ambition.
You have done more in this region than you realise: Research challenges the way we think about a specific subject. Your approach is challenging the way many will think across a broad range of subjects in your field...AND MAKING IT ACCESSIBLE FOR WOMEN. Keep shining a light, I've seen the ripples you make with the younger children I've worked with. Sparks take a while to catch.
I absolutely loved your talk so much. Especially your recognition that it's not all about the 'A' students, but how you empower those with lower grades to realise they have opportunities in STEM. […] I honestly can't tell you how great it is to see someone doing something with real impact for real people.

The Centre has built lasting partnerships with schools, teachers and other regional bodies. The Hull and East Riding Astronomical Society has seen a 25% increase in attendance and membership since 2014.

Training in computational skills and STEM literacy

The impact extends beyond school children. One teacher (whose school works with the Centre) is now doing a part-time PhD as a direct offshoot of our engagement. Likewise, several students have chosen to study PGCE Physics to become teachers (aligning with the ethos of the UK Industrial Strategy).

The Centre has extended its outreach internationally with CPD workshops for 20 Thai teachers and 60 schoolchildren through the Python Workshops project.

The Science Leaders across the region were unanimous in their praise for the support you provide and the inspirational job you are doing. Thank you for being passionate enough to want to make a difference in the region. You are doing it!

East Riding of Yorkshire Council Teaching and Learning Officer

Women in Physics

Our award-winning Changing the Face of Physics initiative doubled the number of women studying Physics at Hull.

The campaign was named “Best Practice in the UK” by the UK Equality Challenge Unit and resulted in an Athena Swan Award.

Through the events that I have had the pleasure of participating in at Hull, including the Space link Schools Day with 150+ students from a dozen regional schools and colleges, I have experienced first-hand how the Milne Centre approach to outreach really creates a long-term impact on the participants. In particular, the focus on raising aspirations in the most deprived regional areas and work towards redressing the gender balance in the UK Physics and STEM landscape is of prime importance and echoes both national and international priorities.

Helen Sharman (CMG, OBE)

Western European woman in space and a public engagement champion

Future Impact

Plans are afoot to build on the success of the STFC Thai PASS programme and pursue a parallel model in the UK with KS4/5 students from the lower two quintiles of the IMD scale to increase the uptake of computing-focussed STEM careers in the region. The Centre is also working with the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Education Team to extend schools provision across all levels from Early Years to KS5.

Our follow-up campaign - “Breaking Barriers”- aims to widen participation with a focus on LGBTQ+, racial, religious, and socio-economic diversity.

Publications and Outputs

Miranda, M.S., Pilkington, K., Gibson, B.K., et al. 2016, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Volume 587

Ruiz-Lara, T, Few, C.G., Gibson, B.K., et al. 2016, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Volume 586

Pignatari, M., et al. 2016, Apish, The Astrophysical Journal

Gordon, Y.A., Owners, M.S., Pimbblet, K.A., et al. 2018, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 465

Pignatari, M., …, Gibson, B.K., et al. 2015, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 808

Mulla, M., et al. 2015, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 451