Girls in Physics 018 compressedThe National Space Academy's Kierann Shah and Sophie Allan attended an event organised by Lead Educator Ruth Rowsell designed to get year 11 girls thinking about studying physics at A Level and beyond.  The event was supported by The Ogden Trust and The Institute of Physics and invited five schools to bring a team of four capable female science pupils to design and test a thermal protection system, or 'heat shield', for a vehicle re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

The afternoon kicked off with a workshop led by Mrs Rowsell on the problems of getting payloads into space and the energies involved.  Although the girls were initially quiet and shy of answering questions their confidence soon increased when they were told the calculations they were ably tackling featured equations from the A Level physics syllabus.  Sophie Allan, the National Space Academy's Physics Teacher, summed it up, saying "some of these students are more confident with the ideas in science, and others with the maths involved, but what all these girls are realising is that they are more than capable of understanding both".  Throughout the day the girls not only had the chance to talk about physics with Mrs Rowsell and the National Space Academy and IoP representatives, but also with female Year 13 students currently studying for their A Level in physics, and two female ex-students of Mrs Rowsell's who are both enrolled to study physics at university starting this Autumn.

After the initial workshop, the challenge for the competition was set: each team had to design and test a heat shield built with the materials provided.  They had time to test a variety of designs but the winners would be the ones whose final design lasted the longest under simulated re-entry conditions - being blasted with a blowtorch.  There would also be a prize for the best design sheet, featuring a design diagram, the required calculations, and a strong argument for the chosen final design.

The girls approached the challenge thoughtfully, exploring a wide variety of design options before the testing began in earnest.  Helen Pollard, attending to present both The Ogden Trust and the IoP as a Physics Network Co-ordinator, pointed out that the key to engaging the students with the subject was the set up, saying "I've seen practicals like this before but what matters most is the context.  It's the context that is bringing the subject to life".

Girls in Physics 031 compressedMrs Rowsell had wanted to organise a day where girls who were about to choose their A Level options would get to do an activity and speak to other girls and women engaged with physics.  She chose the activity, developed by fellow Lead Educator Mike Grocott, as it involved teamwork and a problem that still challenges space engineers.  As well as the support from outside organisations, Mrs Rowsell was supported by her own school, The Priory Academy Lincoln School of Science and Technology, who hosted the event.

The final test round was tense, however in the end there was a resounding victory for one team whose shield robustly lasted for over 15 minutes, using a design built to take advantage of one of the best insulators.  Another team won for the best design sheet due to the completeness of information.  By the end of the competition the girls were lively and enthused, and ready for one more challenge: the National Space Academy has offered an individual prize for the best blog post based on an experience of the day, which will be appearing in just over a fortnight's time on the National Space Academy website.