School students explore university physics with King’s first Optics Summer School

Twenty-three Year 12 students keen to explore physics beyond the classroom joined the first King’s Optics Summer School, which gave them insight into studying physics at university as well as a deeper understanding of optics in the lab and in life.

Dr Eva Philippaki, Senior Lecturer in Experimental Physics Education in the Department of Physics at King’s and Dr Richard Brock, Lecturer in Science Education in the School of Education, Communication & Society, organised and ran the summer school for local state school students to encourage them to apply to study physics at university. By supporting a diverse group of young people to take this next step, the programme aims to diversify physics as well as the wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sector.

Through sharing stories from the history of optics as well as practical applications of optics in daily life, the lecturers contextualised physics and made it relevant to the students. One participant said that “learning why the sky is blue, for example, is not something we would usually learn in secondary school, so it has been an amazing opportunity to be able to go deeper into the uses of physics during the summer school.”

The intimate nature of the summer school also meant having direct access to the lecturers and gaining a deeper understanding from them of what it means to study physics at university.

“By speaking with academics who are at the top of their field,” said one student, “I got an insight into what it’s really like to pursue physics and become a physicist. As a student aspiring to apply to the top universities, it has been invaluable to meet people who are on the same journey as us, and people who have already done that journey, and learn from them; hearing what advice they have to give is golden for us.”

For another participant, “Apart from the in-depth introduction and talks about optics, I think being in an atmosphere that I want to go to in the future – ie, university – has really helped me and given me an insight as to what I will be doing and how I will be learning. It’s made me realise how much I really like taking part in small group discussions, listening to a lecturer and then discussing an idea.”

Alongside lab-based practical sessions, the Optics Summer School featured a range of talks including a lecture from Dr Emilio Pisanty on his research into the directionality of light, and a seminar on how to apply to university. At the end of the programme, each participant was given a kit containing lenses, light sources and more, to allow them to repeat some of the practicals in their own time and share their new-found appreciation of optics with their peers and beyond.

Dr Eva Philippaki said: “The King’s Department of Physics has a vast heritage and a world leading role in Optics and Photonics research. It’s been brilliant to run an Optics Summer School that has supported and inspired loads of young women and people from under-represented backgrounds. If these are the next generation of physicists, then I think the future of Optics is in safe hands!

Dr Kathryn Boast, Faculty Outreach Manager in the Faculty of Natural, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences at King’s, said: “King’s has a long history of excellence in optics, from Maxwell determining his famous equations to today’s outstanding teaching and research. It is very exciting for the facilities and opportunities we have at King’s to be opened up to the physicists of tomorrow.”

Professor Anatoly Zayats, co-director of London Light and head of the Photonics & Nanotechnology Group at King’s, said: “It is really inspiring to see so much enthusiasm and interest in optics from young people. Even if not every attendee will become a scientist, I hope they have developed passion for optics and understood its importance in every aspect of our life. I hope together with our sponsors we can make this summer school an annual event.”

The King’s Optics Summer School was funded by the Ogden Trust and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and supported by the Photonics & Nanotechnology group in the Department of Physics.

The young people were from state-funded schools in and around London, and priority was given to students at non-selective schools who would be the first in their family to attend university, or who identified as being from a low-income family. Over half of the attendees were female, and over two-thirds were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

 A version of the article first appeared on the King’s website.