“SOPHia is trying to overcome and suggest ways that we can move past the stereotypes about Physics” – Gráinne Walshe, Science Learning Centre Director and founder of the SOPHia Project.
It all started a few years back when UL Physics student, Elora McFall noticed the gender imbalance in her program. There was an obvious lack of female representation in the entirety of the department and she felt the call to use her passion about the life science to help encourage young girls to join the field. After discussing it with Science Learning Centre Director, Gráinne Walshe, they recruited fellow students who shared a mutual interest in challenging the stereotypes around Physics and the SOPHia Project was born, with the encouragement and backing of the Head of the Department of Physics, Dr David Corcoran. This support was critical in allowing the pilot project to get off the ground.
Together, they comprised a one-hour presentation for Transition Year and Junior Certificate students that aimed to convey Physics in a matter that was fun and exciting while also destigmatizing. This included discussions around the careers associated with Physics outside of a laboratory, the key and exciting people (both male and female) in Physics who break the typical nerdy “Big Bang Theory” stereotypes, and even some funny stories. With the addition of a few fun demonstrations, they hoped to break the unconscious bias surrounding Physics and encourage students to take the subject for their Leaving Certificate.
Even though these undergrads had just three presentations to local schools to begin with, the feedback from both students and teachers was extremely positive. This encouraged Gráinne and her team to apply for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Discover funding which they were subsequently awarded, allowing the program to expand and grow. With a second round of SFI funding secured in 2019, what began as school presentations has now grown to a multi-faceted project encompassing a national student competition, teacher showcases, an interactive educational website and even a beehive project!
But how do bees fit into the equation you may ask? Well, first of all they gain the attention of budding young environmentalists, a trend seen worldwide, inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg. More importantly however, Physics plays an integral part in maintaining the hives; utilizing specialized sensors and equipment to monitor their temperature and weight! Furthermore, SOPHia delves into the physics of how a bee flies and communicates with fun and exciting educational activities on their website.
This year, like the rest of us, SOPHia has been hit with the challenges of COVID-19. They had just completed their initiatives of partnering with IT Carlow and TAIT House Limerick (a community outreach organization aimed at promoting access to educational projects in underprivileged areas) when the pandemic hit. While workshops, the student science competition and teacher showcases can no longer take place in a physical setting, SOPHia has adapted well by moving them to online platforms. Currently, they are now accepting submissions for the 2020 Science Competition with hopes of having a finalist exhibition event at University of Limerick in 2021, if restrictions permit. They streamed their newly adapted school workshop live online to approximately 2800 primary and secondary students during Science Week 2020, as part of the Limerick Festival of Science. Either way, the SOPHia Project has no intentions of decelerating their quest to change the conversation and change the vibe around Physics.