Dr Stacey Habergham-Mawson is the manager of an astronomy outreach project known as the National Schools’ Observatory run by Liverpool John Moores University, which gives schools across the UK and Ireland free access to the world’s largest robotic telescope, the Liverpool Telescope. She is originally from Bradford in West Yorkshire where she completed her GCSEs and A-levels at Queensbury High School before leaving in 2004 to attend university in Liverpool to study astrophysics. Following her degree, Stacey undertook a PGCE in Secondary Science, before being drawn back into astrophysics and carrying out her PhD and a post-doctoral research post, which led her to combine her love of astronomy and education by continuing to do some research, whilst spending most of her time communicating science to the public and schools.
“A lot of the physics curriculum is about what this white guy did 400 years ago, and it feels like a dead subject. It feels like something that’s already happened, where there’s nothing new going on, which is so far from the reality of what physics is actually about.”
Discovering my passion for astrophysics
I’m from a working-class background, initially in Bradford. I was the first person in my family to go to university and wasn’t sure what to study. I wasn’t sure what choices to make, and I didn’t really have anyone who’d been through that experience to kind of guide me on anything.
I remember the teacher saying to me: “Just choose something that you find interesting, because you’re not going to get the same support at uni as you do for school. You’ve got to have that passion for it to get yourself through.” So, I was glancing through the different choices on the UCAS applications and I came across astrophysics.
I was doing physics, biology, history, and maths at school. I dropped the maths and I wasn’t finding all the physics very interesting, but I’ve always just thought space was cool, and I never knew you could do a degree solely on the astrophysics side, so as soon as I saw that, I thought: “That sounds so interesting. I’ll apply for that.”
I struggled with my A-levels and I didn’t get great results but I still managed to get onto the course in Liverpool by doing some extra classes in my first year to get me up to speed.
So, I started studying astrophysics and I ended up with a first-class master’s degree in it. I then did a teacher training degree for a year because I really liked the communication side of things, but the bureaucracy involved in teaching was just too much so I ended up going back and doing a PhD, and I’ve been there ever since, carrying on with astrophysics.
Now I’m a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, but I teach on the joint degree between the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores. The main part of my job is managing the National Schools’ Observatory, an outreach project that I’ll talk a bit more about later.
I’ve done some other bits and pieces work-wise. I was vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society for a couple of years and I also chaired their committee on diversity. I’m now part of the Decolonising the Curriculum group at our university.
Decolonising the curriculum looks at the impact colonisation had on how we teach our subjects, the way we teach the subject, the subject matter we teach and exploring different teaching methods that can allow students from various backgrounds to excel, rather than being stuck in a mindset of how we’ve always taught, which usually only benefits white students.
I’ve worked on quite a lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives within the department as well, like the Athena SWAN bronze award, which is about primarily about gender diversity. We’ve just got our bronze but prior to that, we were working with the Institute of Physics on their protect called Juno, which is like Athena SWAN, but specifically for physics departments.
Finding the perfect combination
Every day at work is different. I teach and there’s a whole bunch of stuff with the university that’s associated with teaching, so looking after the students and lots of meetings to do with that. I’ve also supervise PhD students, so I’m working with them, getting them through their PhDs.
I feel like the Schools’ Observatory work is completely different every day. We have a monthly plan we work to and we come up with new ideas, and then we’ll spend a month doing this and then we’ll have a change, so we might have more events on another topic.
After maternity leave, I decided to come back part time, so we opened up the Schools’ Observatory post to a job share. Now myself and my colleague, Dr Emma Smith, both work three days a week. It’s a really nice feeling working together and having 100% trust in the other person being able to do things as well. I guess, for me, it was partly about letting go of control a little bit too, because I used to manage it on my own.
Now I can finish on Wednesday and have no fear that anything is going to go wrong. It’s a really good working relationship. We have a crossover day on a Wednesday and we get to have a catch-up talk (usually for far too long!) but it’s great, because Emma approaches things with a different perspective because her background is in marine biochemistry.
She’s done an awful lot of work in working with schools with pupils from various underrepresented backgrounds, so she comes with a different mindset. I like that we challenge each other all the time as well. We have really good discussions that can only make the project better.
Officially, my job is just to manage the school’s observatory, but I am also an academic. I manage a number of staff at the university and the Schools’ Observatory stuff fits in and around the teaching. (I only teach for six out of the 24 teaching weeks, so the weeks I’m teaching I’m pretty heavily involved in all the teaching stuff, but the weeks I’m not teaching I’ve got a lot more freedom to manage the Schools’ Observatory.
Providing remote access for schools to the world’s largest robotic telescope
The National Schools’ Observatory is the main thing that I do. It is an online platform that gives UK and Irish schools free use of the world’s biggest robotic telescope, called the Liverpool Telescope. It sits on the Canary Island of La Palma.
Because it’s completely robotic, everything’s controlled by the Internet, so we have a really extensive website that we do most of our engagement through. Via that website schools and teachers can put requests to use the telescope to observe things in the same way any professional astronomer would all over the world.
There’s also a bunch of supporting material and things to help them. So, the goal of it is to give access to the Universe to all. It’s online so it breaks down a lot of the barriers.
Obviously, there are still some barriers to accessing things online, but it’s vital a resource to try and get more young people interested in STEM careers. A lot of young people have an interest in space and it’s a cool thing to study, so it’s trying to use that hook of doing astronomy to get students engaged with STEM more broadly, and to get them to start thinking about career paths that could be for them.
We do various different things, so over the last couple of years have been working with the Travelling Telescope group in Kenya to develop an app about the moon and trying to engage more Kenyan students with the amazing night skies they’ve got in Kenya, as well as trying to fit it in with some of the curriculum topics that are out there.
We’ve also had a public project working with the National Astrophysics Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) looking at developing the gamification of astronomy (so working through levels to achieve small goals, for example) to try and get students in Thailand a bit more engaged with astronomy.
It’s been very interesting because different cultures work very differently. It’s about how interactive you can make things; how much you expect questions from students and trying to fit into different ways of delivering the information. It’s been really interesting working on this during COVID times.
COVID has meant doing a lot of stuff remotely. We do a primary school Christmas event. That used to be in person and we’d have about 200 kids from Merseyside turn up and we’d get them super excited about space before the Christmas holidays. Over the past couple of years, we’ve turned it online and last December, we got 7000 students live, so it’s given us a good opportunity to think about doing things differently so that we can engage a wide number of people.
Working on decolonisation and the attainment gap
On the diversity side of things, the biggest thing I’m working on now is the decolonisation of the curriculum work. You can think of easy ways to fit into some subjects, so geography, sociology, all these different things, but astrophysics sometimes can seem quite removed from things, but it’s just about taking time, thinking about things and being able to speak with professional colleagues in all these different departments across the university.
I’m learning a huge amount from them, and trying to develop things that I’ve learned into how I teach. I’m also going to be helping the department roll that out through the rest of the courses that we teach as well.
A lot of it is coming from the research that have been done into the attainment gap, so why is there such a discrepancy between white and non-white students in terms of how they succeed in university. Part of that comes down to how we teach things and how we allow students to express themselves and different skills.
We’re proactively addressing these issues, and not just wash over the things and pretend everything’s fine. It’s not in any subject. There’s examples that you can find in all sorts of different subjects, so a big one in astronomy is the sites where we host telescopes, for example.
There’s a big observing site in Hawaii up the mountain on Mauna Kea. There’s an enormous observatory site, and the astronomy community is still building telescopes there, but it’s a really controversial thing because when the site was first developed, it was done without any consultation of local people. Historically, the mountain has a huge amount of significance in Hawaiian culture, so much so that parts of the site are deemed to be sacred.
When the observatory first started, they just decided they were going to build there without any conversation with the indigenous people. Now, there’s a lot more conversation around it but there’s still quite a lot of hostility to building new telescopes on the site, yet we are still doing it. There’s a new American telescope called the Thirty Meter Telescope that’s being built there. So, part of decolonisation is addressing some of these issues and making students aware that they are still happening.
Why diversity of thought is so important in the space sector
Diversity of thought is important in every sector. It’s about representation. It’s about having a culture where any person can come into that field and thrive. If you’ve got a culture that breaks down the barriers, treats everybody the same, and allows everyone to express their thoughts and ideas without any fear of judgement and prejudice, then I think you’re only going to get better outcomes from that.
The more people from different backgrounds you can have coming into a field, the better ideas are going to be because everyone comes from a different angle, and everyone sees something different. That only grows our understanding of things and how we can tackle problems, so it makes life better for everyone.
If you’ve got a good working environment where everyone feels valued, everyone feels more motivated to do the work, everyone feels committed to that work, and so they do more. So, it’s about trying to turn the space sector into somewhere where everyone sees themselves reflected, or everyone sees there’s a path for them.
Especially in physics, that’s still not the case. Physics, engineering and computing, for example, are still incredibly dominated by white men. We can’t change everything overnight, but what you can try and do is make the space as inclusive as you can, providing opportunities for people from different backgrounds to try and pursue careers in those fields.
Challenging social stereotypes around physics and maths
Societal stereotypes around who which subjects are for, who which toys are for become ingrained at such an early age and it’s really hard to start countering things. The thing about physics and maths is that yes, some people are just naturally gifted at them, but that’s not everyone.
As I said, I dropped maths at A-level and I can still struggle sometimes, so I have to cram before I teach. I think it’s partially about a fear of failure because if you try a subject and you don’t ‘get it’ straight away, there’s this perception that this isn’t for you, and you should perhaps just give up, stop trying.
I think the thing with all sciences is that we learn through failure. We learn everything through doing something wrong and correcting something, and finding out something new. It’s about having the mindset that it’s OK to get something wrong, and then learn from that and try again.
I think that’s a big part of doing physics, and especially continuing with physics. If you struggle to do something you’re told to opt-out. A lot of young people get told: “Well, this just isn’t for you. You’re just not going to be good enough to do this.” Some schools will only let you do physics for A-level if you’ve got a top grade at GCSE because they think you’re not going to be able to do it, and that’s just not the case.
I have plenty of undergraduate students and PhD students who have come into this subject via a different route, because they were discouraged from doing it initially, and you know what? They’re thriving. It’s not all about school grades. It’s okay to get something wrong, and then learn from it. That’s quite a big part of it.
We need to encourage people to ask questions. Science is about asking a question and trying to find the answer. It’s not about knowing all the answers. That’s the whole purpose of it, so I think there’s an awful lot that needs to be done to change the message that young people get when they’re going through school about how good you have to be at a particular subject to keep studying it.
You don’t have to be a maths genius to be able to do physics. There are so many ways that you can learn about things, question them and still succeed. Some of it is about giving those students more confidence, and some of it is about changing society, which is super hard to do.
Maybe it’s about changing the school environment. Who is physics for? If someone’s really passionate about the subject but isn’t getting the grades, could that person still succeed? Even if they’re not going to get a top grade, that doesn’t have to mean that’s the end of their journey.
Bringing astrophysics to life
I think the syllabus can sometimes be boring and not reflective of what physics is about as a career in real life because in reality it’s about trying to solve challenges. Some of those challenges are huge challenges, like renewable energy, climate change, and trying to make an impact on the world, and practically very little is taught about that.
A lot of the physics curriculum is about what this white guy did 400 years ago, and it feels like a dead subject. It feels like something that’s already happened, where there’s nothing new going on, which is so far from the reality of what physics is actually about.
You can look at medical advancements, you can look at the big questions about what’s in the Universe? How we are looking for life elsewhere in the Universe? You can look at how physics is trying to solve the climate crisis, or how we can use nuclear fusion here on Earth to solve our energy needs?
There’s a whole bunch of really interesting stuff, but you don’t get taught much of that. There are elements of it, but even to touch on those elements, you must have already selected it for your A-levels, and you need to have a teacher who’s picked the same optional modules you’re interested in because a lot of that interesting stuff is in the optional modules.
We’ve got a careers area on our website where we’ve got a lot of case studies of different people working in the space sector. It’s quite nice just to have a look at their journeys and how they’re not always straightforward journeys through the system.
If you’ve got an interest in something and it’s the traditional schooling route you’re struggling with, don’t think that that’s the end of it. There are so many other routes to try and learn. The space sector is huge in the UK right now, and it is a growing sector. There’s going to be huge growth in space sector jobs over the next couple of decades.
Have a bit of confidence and don’t be afraid to fail. Keep trying at doing something because that’s the whole point of it, and that’s how you learn things. A lot of girls especially tend to have lower confidence, and then if that confidence gets knocked by failing at something, they’re more likely to give up, but if you find that you’ve got the interest in something, it’s trying to keep hold of that interest and pursue it in different ways.
One of the big tips I’d give people is look into doing some coding, computer programming, because it’s so big in this whole industry now, not just in space sector jobs, but in university stuff, as well. There are some really nice little coding programs that you can do that are quite basic, so for example, Python is quite big in our sector at the moment, but there will be different ones.
Once you can learn how to do a little bit of coding with one language, you can transfer it to other languages, and that’s such an invaluable skill. So, trying to do a little bit of that is really useful, and I think it will give people a lot of confidence.
There’s various places to find other information too. You can have a look at the Royal Astronomical Society’s website. It’s got a lot of careers stuff on there, and some different careers profiles and other things that people are doing. Because there’s so many careers out there you’ve probably not heard of 90-95% of them, so actually it’s just about having a look around and seeing what jobs there are to do.
Using social media helps and also going down the route of mentors. There are loads of different programmes for girls, especially mentoring, right now. There’s one called The Girls Network, which I’ve been involved with for a few years.
There are a whole bunch of them and finding a mentor and ally helps increase your connections personally, but can also help you find some experience in the sector, giving you a heads up about how things work, as well as all the unwritten rules and the soft skills. It also helps to know what to do to impress and what people are actually looking for so if you can find a mentor and an ally to help you through things it would be really impactful.
Making connections and building relationships over time
We’re making some grant applications to help us with some big outreach projects in Liverpool. Liverpool is one of the most deprived areas of the UK. We’ve always wanted to do more locally, but making connections and building relationships in some of these different areas is really hard to do, so we’re working on a big project at the moment to try and start something locally in Liverpool, doing a longitudinal programme.
It would be a whole student programme, working with small groups of students in schools and not just doing knowledge stuff like STEM club activities, but also looking at skills, training, careers advice, mentoring. and trying to put together a whole programme to develop those students so that they feel more equipped when they leave to pursue careers in STEM, whether that’s university or whether it’s apprenticeships or anything.
We’re hoping to do that in the next few years and I’m really excited about it because it’s not necessarily high numbers of people, but it’s where you could make a real impact on those students’ lives.
La Palma image © O.V.E.R.V.I.E.W., CC BY 2.0