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Northumbria University researcher inspires physics students

A series of lectures by one of Northumbria University’s researchers has inspired sixth-form students and helped improve their AS-level grades in physics.

Dr James McLaughlin, who researches problems in magnetic fluid dynamics and mathematical modelling of astrophysical processes, developed his programme of public engagement activity after presenting his work at the Newcastle Science Festival.

“Translating my work for the general public was challenging, but when I saw the impact just one lecture had on some of the audience, I was inspired to do more,” said McLaughlin. “While my one-off presentation did influence audience members, I wanted to embed a lasting benefit and realised that I had to develop a sustained programme and work multiple times with the same group of people to get the knowledge to ‘sink in’.”

He worked with two sixth-form colleges in the region– Newcastle College and Gosforth Academy. In the 2012/2013 school year, McLaughlin visited these two colleges on multiple occasions and delivered individual presentations, of increasing complexity, on topics such as the Sun, electromagnetism, special relativity and Mars.

“The response I had was fantastic,” said McLaughlin. “The students’ enthusiasm and natural curiosity were infectious! They gave me new-found enthusiasm for my work and, from the feedback I’ve been given, it is clear that I have inspired them too.”

More than half of the students said that they are now more interested in science than before, and 34 per cent said they were now more likely to study science at university, as a direct result of McLaughlin’s public engagement. Newcastle College also reported an improvement in AS-level physics grades when compared with predicted grades, while Gosforth Academy reported an increase in the number of students continuing from AS level to A2 level physics.


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