13th May 2021: Over 450 individual students from across Ireland have entered the SOPHia Project Science Competition of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic time with almost 250 physics projects. The students range from primary school level to transition year students. A total of 38 projects have received awards in different categories in what turned out to be a very tough competition concluded on 12 May 2021.

‘This was over double the number of projects that we had entered in 2019’ informed Dr. Gráinne Walshe, the Director of Science Learning Centre and the leader of Science Foundation Ireland-funded SOPHia Project. The SOPHia Project is run by the Department of Physics and the Science Learning Centre at the University of Limerick (UL) in partnership with the Institute of Technology Carlow and Tait House Community Organisation, with the support of the Institute of Physics in Ireland. “The restrictions during the pandemic meant that students had an opportunity work on their posters at home or in school, and then send them in via email.  And we have seen increased enthusiasm for physics in general, especially among girls. 55% of the participating students were female.”

Launched in 2018, the SOPHia project aims to encourage more students, especially girls, to take up physics as a subject in their Leaving Certificate. ‘The project aims to encourage young people to form positive perceptions of physics, and to help address the gender imbalance in physics’ explained Maria Quinn, Chief Technical Officer of the Department of Physics, UL and manager for SOPHia.

There is a three to one ratio of male to female students taking physics at Leaving Certificate level in Ireland. “As one of a handful of young women in my Leaving Cert physics class and the only woman in my degree, I experienced this first hand. SOPHia shows students that physics can be for anyone. Hopefully one day our impact will help to provide future role models in both academia and industry ” noted Elora McFall, a former UL Physics graduate, who now helps to coordinate the SOPHia project. “We have now delivered our school workshops to over 4000 students”she added.

The project also runs teacher events, provides web-based learning materials and has its very own beehive located at the Three Counties Apiary using sensor technology to monitor the conditions in the hive.

The student projects submitted to the competition were evaluated by a panel of physics graduates, postgraduates, academics and professionals in the depths of lockdown in January 2021. ‘It was not an easy task, given the high quality of the entries!’ explained Dr. Walshe. ‘I am delighted to welcome the students, along with their parents and teachers, who entered the 2020 SOPHia Science Competition and made it so successful” And she notes that the competition and all other project activities have been made possible by SFI Discover programme funding: ‘Without that funding, the project could not have grown as it has, and we would not be here today’.

Videos of all the finalists in the competition can be found on the SOPHia Physics YouTube Channel.