Emma Nichols

by | Feb 16, 2022

Public engagement manager, Department of Physics and Astronomy

I work with physics staff and students to communicate their research and their enthusiasm for physics to public audiences including schools, teachers, families and non-specialist adults.

I oversee a programme of activities and events throughout the year, including science festivals, community events, and schools workshops (primary through to KS5, both on campus and in schools), and I’m the point of contact for other ad hoc requests from teachers and parents.

I’m responsible for setting a public engagement agenda aligned with the University’s wider strategies and goals, and for creating, planning, delivering and evaluating events and activities.

Before deciding to pursue a career in science engagement, I completed an MSci in physics with astrophysics, a PhD in fire safety engineering and a postdoctoral research position studying UK wildland fires.

Public engagement highlights

My focus is on expanding physics engagement beyond talks to A-Level students – particularly in engaging primary school audiences in order to tackle the inequalities in who ends up studying and working in physics, which start to appear before age 10.

I run a Y12 astrophysics work experience week which frequently gets well over 100 applications for 12 places. I’ve created activities and resources for one-off requests including electricity demos to be run in a field with no electricity, support for the Brownies Aviation badge, and games and crafts exploring the physics of bees.

My work with undergraduates has led to the development of schools workshops in medical physics, practical skills and robotics, a cuddly ‘particle zoo’ for blind and visually impaired children, and the establishment of a 150+ member student volunteering group that is now in its fourth year and has engaged thousands of local children and families.

Best public engagement advice

Early on in my career, someone pulled me up on using the terms ‘outreach’ and ‘public engagement’ interchangeably because, by definition, public engagement has to be a two-way process: it’s not enough for us to just deliver information we think the audience doesn’t already have and assume this improves their life in some way.

We have to think about what’s valuable to them and what they’re bringing to this interaction.

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