Broadening access to physics with the Sutton Trust

One hundred high school students recently participated in a week of activities at the University of Edinburgh as part of a summer school organised by the Sutton Trust.

The Sutton Trust identifies and pilots programmes to help non-privileged children; undertakes independent and robust evaluations; and aims to influence Government education policy and education spending to improve educational opportunities for young people from low and middle income homes.

Twenty-four summer students followed the “physics stream” that was organised by researchers from the School of Physics & Astronomy. Each morning, students attended lectures that introduced some of the subjects that are taught at University while in the afternoon a series of workshops allowed them to explore these subjects in more detail.

Physics masterclass

Greig Cowan and Flavia Dias from the School's experimental particle physics group discussed the physics principles that are explored and tested at research laboratories such as CERN. The students were given the chance to analyse some of the data from the ATLAS experiment at CERN during a “physics masterclass”. They were challenged to look through the data to find the characteristic signature of the decay of the Higgs boson, the same particle that was discovered at CERN two years ago! 

Complex systems

Richard Blythe introduced complex interacting systems and the chaotic behaviour they can exhibit. Armed only with dice and pieces of card, the students ran a Monte Carlo model of traders in an economy, and found that even when the rules treated all players equally, a few traders ended up very rich whilst rather more had no money at all. This illustrates the fundamental principle that a physical system is more likely to be in a state with low energy than one with high energy. In turn, this underpins our modern understanding of how structures arise in condensed matter physics.

The impact of supercomputers

David Henty presented an overview of what supercomputers are and their impact on the world. This was followed by a number of practical activities each supervised by a member of EPCC's staff. David showed the students a number of old supercomputer motherboards, indicating the many processors that were previously used to achieve a high performance. Eilidh Troup showed the potential complexity of programming these systems by using a numbered ball sorting algorithm - students were given balls to sort, each of them acting out the part of a different processor. Alistair Grant used a geoboard to show various aspects of networking. Finally Mario Antonioletti had a dinosaur-racing demo where students could configure a model of argentinosaurus, a 4-legged dinosaur. This application shows parallelism being harnessed by running the processing of the configured dinosaur behind the scenes in parallel.

The students were also engaged in the preparation of a poster to present on the last day of the school. All the physics groups were very excited to share their experience with the other participants of the school, which included students interested in a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from informatics to philosophy. 

Find out more

The success of this event bodes well for future participation of the School with the Sutton Trust. More information can be found here: