Inspiring the next generation of Physicists through engagement
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Exeter
Unit of AssessmentPhysics
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Atomic, Molecular, Nuclear, Particle and Plasma Physics, Optical Physics
Summary of the impact
A public engagement campaign based around 15 years of natural photonics
research at Exeter University succeeded in enthusing school-age children
in a science that was suffering declining levels of interest. Professor
Pete Vukusic gave a series of lectures that brought the science of light
and colour to life for 17,000 students and 1,500 teachers across the UK,
Ireland and Africa, and subsequently a global audience of thousands via
YouTube. His work played a central role in the Institute of Physics'
efforts to promote the value of physics in the UK and overseas,
contributing to a marked rise in the number of students taking physics
A-level. In 2013, Vukusic was awarded the distinguished Royal Society Kohn
Award for Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science.
Physics-based businesses contribute 8.5% of the UK's economic output and
employ more than one million people, according to the Institute of Physics
(IOP). However in recent years the supply of highly skilled physics
graduates to support innovation in the sector has come under pressure.
Declining popularity of physics among A-level students was highlighted in
2006 when research revealed that A-level entries fell from 55,728 in 1982
to 27,368 in 2006.
It was against this backdrop that Professor Pete Vukusic (joined Exeter
in 1998) was co-leading research into natural photonics at the University
of Exeter, following a career as a secondary school science teacher.
Working closely with Roy Sambles, Professor of Experimental Physics, he
investigated the mechanisms by which some of the brightest and most vivid
iridescent colours in nature are produced as a result of the interaction
of light with micro- and nano-scale periodic structured surfaces [3.1 - 3.6].
These structures occur in the wings of butterflies, hummingbirds and
a diversity of animals, where a combination of multilayer interference and
optical gratings gives rise to a broad array of colour appearances through
ultra-high reflectance, coherent scattering and (often) narrow-band
spectral purity. Vukusic's analyses of many `living jewel' systems, many
published in Nature and Science journals, revealed how
often unusual periodic and quasi-periodic microstructure can produce
bright iridescence [3.1 - 3.6]. A Science paper in 2005 showed how
the naturally evolved light extraction system on the wing scales of a Papilio
butterfly could be applied to the development of a high efficiency LED
[3.2]. A later paper in Science, in 2007 [3.3], elaborated on how
photonic structures within beetle elytra are providing inspiration for
innovative technological applications.
There are a wealth of complex biological structural designs and optical
effects that mirror many technological photonic system designs. The
physics and morphology of these structures are well understood [3.4];
however, how to replicate these optical structures for commercial use,
such as in cosmetics and anti-counterfeiting technologies, is less clear.
Because of this, more recently Vukusic's research has focussed on
mimicking and fabricating bio-inspired structures using a combination of
layer deposition techniques, including colloidal self-assembly, sol-gel
techniques, sputtering and atomic layer deposition [3.5]. Vukusic has
applied his understanding of natural photonics to the development of a
range of technologies. In 2013 [3.6], he published a paper announcing the
invention of a new fibre that changes colour when stretched. The design
principles were based on the replication of the unique structural elements
that create the bright iridescent blue colour of a tropical plant's fruit.
This body of research, through its exploration of colour and light, was a
natural fit for a public engagement campaign aimed at stimulating interest
in physics among children and young adults. In 2007, Vukusic was selected
by the IOP to give its funded series of schools lectures. He delivered Light
Fantastic: The Science of Colour in an effort to educate and enthuse
students with the wonders of light and colour, based entirely on his
research activity. In 2007, 85 IOP-sponsored lectures at 55 venues across
the UK were delivered to audiences of 14-16 year olds, with Vukusic
drawing on his experience both as a natural photonics research scientist
and a schoolteacher to deliver a series of dynamic outreach lectures,
demonstrations and workshops.
References to the research
References in bold best indicate the quality of the underpinning
3.1. "Photonic structures in biology", P. Vukusic and J. R. Sambles,
Nature 424, 852-855 (2003).
3.2. "Biomaterials: Directionally controlled flourescence emission in
butterflies", P. Vukusic and I. R. Hooper, Science 310, 1151 (2005).
3.3. "Brilliant whiteness in ultrathin beetle scales", P.
Vukusic, B. Hallam, and J. Noyes, Science 315, 348 (2007).
3.4. "Evolutionary photonics with a twist", P. Vukusic, Science, 325,
3.5. "Mimicking the colourful wing scale structure of the Papilio
blumei butterfly", M._Kolle, P. M. Salgard-Cunha, M. R. Scherer, F.
Huang F, P. Vukusic, S. Mahajan, J. J. Baumberg, and U. Steiner Nat.
Nanotechnol. 5, 511 (2010).
3.7. "Bio-inspired Photonics", DARPA/GE Global DARPA-BAA 09-71 extension
(PI P. Vukusic, $49,045, Jan — Dec 2012).
3.8. "Bio-inspired Photonics", DARPA DARPA-BAA 09-71 (PI P. Vukusic,
£51,440, Jan 2010 — July 2011).
3.9. "BioOptics", USAF Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI),
FA9550-10-1-0020, (PI P. Vukusic, $1.2M, July 2009 — June 2014).
3.10. Funds to support travel, equipment and expenses relating to the IoP
UK Schools' Lecturership, Institute of Physics (PI P. Vukusic, £21,000,
Details of the impact
In recent years, the uptake of physics at A-level has experienced a
resurgence. From a low of 27,368 in 2006, the number of A-level entries
climbed to 32,860 in 2011. Figures from UCAS revealed an approximately
2,000 increase in students applying for physics courses at UK universities
between 2011 and 2012. This 8.3% rise is at odds with an overall 8.7%
decline in university applicants across the UK. While it is impossible to
measure the individual contribution of Vukusic's public engagement
campaigns — based wholly on 15 years of his research into natural
photonics — to this popularity upswing, his outreach activities have
formed a significant part of the UK physics community's wider successful
efforts to capture the public imagination, which in turn has extended the
reach of Vukusic's activities to Ireland and Africa.
Building on the schools tour in 2007, Vukusic initiated subsequent tours
of the Light Fantastic: The Science of Colour lectures for young
people [5.1]: between 2008 and 2013 he gave 160 presentations (the
majority in the UK) to primary and secondary schools. The lectures set out
to elucidate the science behind light and colour to stimulate students'
curiosity beyond the classroom, and were designed to complement the
National Curriculum and its Scottish and Irish equivalents. The lectures
featured the electromagnetic spectrum, how colour is produced when light
interacts with structures, how structural colour is produced and used in
nature, and how examples of natural structural colour are
influencing new technology and products, from cosmetics to fashion.
The impact of the 2007 tour continued throughout the REF period. The IOP
filmed Vukusic's original lecture and distributed 5,000 free DVDs to
IOP-member schools. In January 2012, it was uploaded to YouTube [5.2] and
has been viewed over 17,000 times so far. The majority of viewers are from
the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and India. The video was uploaded as a
teaching resource on the TES UK and India websites in 2012 and 2013, where
it is freely available for 2.5m registered online users in 274 countries.
Demonstrating the success of the lectures, Vukusic was awarded the
British Association of Science Lord Kelvin Prize for science lecturing in
2008. He received repeat invitations from many schools, for example a
lecture at Rugby School in January 2013 led to a request for him to return
in June for the 25th anniversary of the IOP teachers' meeting. Following
one lecture at The Westgate School in Slough, the Deputy Head wrote that
Vukusic's talk had "completely changed a number of students' (many of whom
had previously failed the 11+) feelings towards pursuing their studies at
university level." [5.3].
In 2011, Vukusic, again funded by the IOP, took the lecture series to
Ireland [5.4] where he reached more than 4,500 schoolchildren and 50
teachers through 11 lectures that tied in with the school curriculum. The
tour was organised in response to declining numbers of Irish
schoolchildren taking physics at Leaving Certificate level. Writing in the
Irish Times in 2012, the Chair of the IOP in Ireland said that a quarter
of schools were not offering the subject at Leaving Certificate level.
In May 2012, the IOP provided `in kind' (stationery, textbooks, DVDs) and
logistical support to enable Vukusic to take his lecture series to Africa.
This contributed to the IOP's international programme, which seeks to
advance physics in the developing world for economic and social benefit.
Vukusic arranged lectures at five schools in the poorest parts of the
Ethiopian capital Addis-Adaba, reaching more than 1100 students and 15
teachers [5.5, 5.6]. The Director of the Addis-Ababa Education Bureau
said: `...surprisingly enough, social science students who took part
in your public lecture have insisted to be members of the science and
technology club to whom we have accepted their appeal [5.6]."
Vukusic took the lecture tour to Tanzania and on to Malawi, where he
visited eight rural schools over four days, reaching 1,500 pupils and 55
teachers. This trip was part-funded by Ripple Africa, a charity that works
to improve quality of education. The charity's programme lead said Vukusic
was "an inspiration" to the students, commenting that the lectures
complemented the Malawian science syllabus. He asked Vukusic to return
every year [5.7].
Vukusic's lectures have also engaged adult audiences. He exhibited his
photonics research at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2011 and,
since 2008, has given talks at five major science festivals, including a
Royal Society event in Tokyo in 2008 and the Dublin Science Festival in
2009. He has given talks to 37 clubs and societies and media appearances
since 2008 include BBC Radio 2 Drivetime with Chris Evans, Material
World on BBC Radio 4 and National Geographic News.
In July 2013, Vukusic was awarded the distinguished Royal Society Kohn
Award for excellence in engaging the public with Science [5.8].
Sources to corroborate the impact
5.1. Letter 25/04/2013 Science Enrichment Coordinator, La Sainte Union
5.2. IOP Youtube video: http://youtu.be/TWhGmwUojBE
5.3. Letter 05/02/2013 Deputy Head Teacher, Westgate School
5.4. Irish Teachers Association, Institute of Physics Lectures http://www.ista.ie/news/institute-physics
5.5. Letter 25/05/12 Director Dejazmach Preparatory School
5.6. Letter 25/05/12 Deputy Director Addis-Abab City Education Bureau.
5.7. Letter 11/12 Education Authority, Ripple Africa Charity, Malawi.
5.8. Royal Society Kohn Award for Excellence in Engaging the Public with
Science, July 2013.