Inspiring the next generation of photonics researchers and engineers

Sparking a passion for photonics  

The Future Photonics Hub is inspiring the next generation of photonics researchers and engineers through a range of outreach activities, with the aim of attracting a more diverse workforce to the sector.  

Developing a pipeline for the UK photonics workforce 

There is a well-recognised need to expand the pipeline of talent coming into the UK photonics sector. But there is also a continuing perception,  among girls and young people from minority ethnic and disadvantaged backgrounds, that STEM subjects are not for them – for example, women account for only 20 to 25 per cent of the intake into university-level physics nationally.  

PHABLABS 4.0 and Lightwave are two outreach initiatives supported by The Future Photonics Hub that aim to turn that perception around.   

The benefits of diversity  

It’s not just about promoting inclusion for inclusion’s sake. As well as enabling more young people to enter rewarding and fulfilling careers in photonics, encouraging diversity makes good commercial sense – research shows that diverse teams are more profitable and more effective. “Different perspectives are important for creativity and innovation, and for understanding what customers need,” says Pearl John, Public Engagement Leader.  

PHABLABS 4.0 – making photonics more female-friendly  

Pearl is the University of Southampton’s lead in the hugely successful PHABLABS 4.0 initiative. This Europe-wide programme has developed and piloted 33 different photonics workshops and 11 ‘Photonics Challenger Projects’, with a particular focus on making them attractive and accessible to girls and young women. The workshops and challenges, and accompanying photonics toolkits, are now being rolled out for delivery in fabrication or ‘makers’ laboratories (known as Fab Labs), a European network of labs that provide public access to equipment and software in order to encourage technological education, innovation and invention.  

Pearl says: “We partnered with Green Lab in London (a Fab Lab with a focus on environmentally sustainable projects) to create our own workshops, and also to pilot some of our European partners’ workshops. In total we hosted six workshops and two challenges for over 90 participants.” Across Europe, PHABLABS 4.0 engaged over 3,000 people, including 1,200 girls.  

The workshops were aimed at three age groups – Young Minds (10-14 years), Students (15-18 years) and Young Professionals and Technicians (18 plus) – and gave participants the chance to build an experiment or technological device from scratch, analyse the results, and determine conclusions from their findings. 

“For example, one of the workshops we ran, created by one of our EU partners, involved building animated light boards,” says Pearl. “Students learned how laser cutting works and programmed arduinos (open-source electronics) to control LEDs to light up their image.” Other activities included making holograms, smart lamps and indoor greenhouses. 

Creating photonics workshops that appeal to girls and young women 

The team behind PHABLABS was mindful that the activities themselves, and the way they were delivered, needed to engage with a female audience, and one of the project’s outcomes is a guide to running gender-balanced workshops for anyone organising photonics outreach activities.  

“Most of the groups we ran were mixed sex,” says Pearl, “but one of the practical things PHABLABS did was to say to schools that they could bring as many boys as girls to the workshops to a maximum of 20 – otherwise we were concerned that girls wouldn’t buy into it as they might think it was going to be an all-male environment.  

“The language we used was also an important element. For example, a project called People Like Me, run by WISE (a campaign to get more women into science, technology and engineering), cited research that showed that at around Year 8, girls and boys start to differ in the language they use about themselves. If you ask a girl to describe herself, she will talk about qualities – ‘I am creative’ or ‘I am sporty’, whereas boys use verbs – ‘I play football’. So it’s important to acknowledge this difference and talk about science and research in a way girls can identify with – for example, what sort of person you need to be to become an engineer.” 

Lightwave – introducing photonics to underserved audiences, including children from black and Asian minority ethnic groups and economically disadvantaged backgrounds 

Another outreach initiative supported by The Future Photonics Hub is Lightwave, a longstanding and award-winning programme led and run by Southampton PhD students. Its aim is to introduce photonics to children and the wider public through workshops and demonstrations, which it runs in schools, at the University and at community events.  

Andrei Donko has been involved in Lightwave since starting his photonics PhD with the Hub in 2016. More recently he won a Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) grant for outreach in schools targeting underserved audiences (girls and young women, pupils from black and Asian minority ethnic groups, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds). The funding enabled him and fellow Lightwave students to develop and run photonics workshops, and build demonstration devices including an LED harp, a voice modulator and a ‘Pepper’s ghost’ 3D projector.  

During the RAEng project, Lightwave delivered 19 one-hour workshops at four schools, with over 85 per cent of the participants fulfilling the ‘underserved’ criteria. Andrei says: “The University’s Widening Participation team was key in helping me reach the right audiences. They have a list of affiliate schools that they have identified as fitting the underserved criteria, making it much easier for us to find schools to work with.” 

Delivering effective outreach  

Pearl shares her outreach experience and expertise to help the Lightwave team think about the desired objectives for their workshops, and to evaluate them afterwards. “When you’re standing in front of lots of children, it’s easy to forget about what’s effective,” says Andrei. “Pearl’s advice helps us to make sure what we are doing will have impact.”  

One way in which Lightwave maximised the impact of its schools project was through the delivery of multiple sessions with the same students. “It has been proven that a one-off activity has little or no impact,” says Pearl. “Students might enjoy it, but they won’t remember the content and it is highly unlikely to have a long-term impact.”  

Andrei adds: “Because outreach has become really popular, schools are now questioning the impact of all the activities on offer, and at first I struggled to get into schools because I was only offering a one-day event. When I changed my approach and said I’d work with the same children over a number of weeks, schools instantly grabbed the opportunity. That’s one way in which things are changing in the outreach landscape.”  

Introducing schoolchildren to practical electronics and programming skills  

One gap that The Future Photonics Hub’s outreach programmes are helping to fill is the lack of equipment and expertise for practical science activities in schools. “One of the benefits of our outreach sessions is that they upskill participants in basic electronics and programming, and practical skills such as soldering, that they just don’t get anywhere else,” says Pearl.  

“The school environment tends to lack the element of ‘play’ and working with your hands,” comments Andrei. “We’re able to go into schools and tell children that we’re not going to just stand and talk to them, we’re going to build stuff together. Because that’s essentially what we do in photonics research.”  

Engaging with the wider community  

As well as working in schools, Lightwave takes its workshops and demonstrations out to the wider public at community events. It recently took part in the Photon Shop at the Light Up Poole digital arts festival, reaching over 2,000 participants.  

“We wanted to get an audience who do not usually engage with science activities, and that worked really well,” says Pearl. “The Lightwave demonstrations included Andrei’s laser harp and the infinity mirror, which we use to explain the principles behind optical fibre technology. The infinity mirror is great for young children – it’s quite difficult to explain your research to a four-year-old, so we have activities that are made to inspire, delight and fascinate at any age.” 

University-wide approach to diversity and inclusion 

The Hub’s outreach work is one element of a University-wide drive towards greater diversity and inclusion within its staff and student community. “As with all universities, Southampton is required to encourage students from as broad a range of backgrounds as possible as part of its government funding arrangements,” Pearl explains. “The University as a whole has to demonstrate that the work it is doing in this area has long-term impact, which it does through the Widening Participation team.” 

In addition, Southampton is one of the founding universities of the Athena SWAN initiative, which aims to remove barriers for women in STEM academic careers. It is also currently undertaking a programme of self-assessment as part of its commitment to the Race Equality Charter to identify ways in which it can improve inclusivity for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.  

Accessibility for people with disabilities – a focus for future inclusion work  

More recently, Pearl and her colleagues have been starting to look at accessibility for people with disabilities. “We have had some training in how to work with people with autism, and that’s something we’ll be considering more in future. It’s so relevant, because we have staff and students with autism, and learning to communicate more effectively benefits everyone.” 

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