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Sarah Johnson wins Faculty of Science Excellence in Public Outreach and Engagement Award

February 17, 2017

Sarah Johnson displays her award at a celebration to honor her accomplishments in science outreach and public engagement.

By Diane Mar-Nicolle

It takes a special talent to make the field of physics accessible, engaging and interesting to children, youth and students. Sarah Johnson has been sharing her love of physics with students of all ages for the past 20 years and has succeeded at just that.

This year’s recipient of the Faculty of Science Excellence in Public Outreach and Engagement Award says, “The Physics Department at SFU is incredibly supportive of outreach which makes it easy for me to share my enthusiasm for physics with school children and the general public. I'm very honored to have been recognized with this award.”

Johnson has been enthusiastically sharing the world of physics with thousands of youth through outreach programs like Girls Exploring Physics, Science Spooktacular, Discover Physics @SFU and the TRIUMF Saturday Morning Lectures. Johnson also designs and holds workshops for the faculty’s Science in Action program and Pro-D workshops for Physics teachers.

Johnson also takes care of the behind the scenes work as well. Besides mobilizing colleagues and chairing the department’s Outreach Committee, Physics Department Chair, Jeff Sonier notes that Johnson holds leadership roles in the BC Association of Physics Teachers and is the Principal Investigator on grants from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) PromoScience and WWEST (Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology).

All of this is in addition to teaching the large, first-year physics lecture courses at SFU.

A colleague of Johnson’s notes, “This group of students poses particular challenges because, despite being science majors, many find physics intimidating and do not always understand why they are required to take physics for their majors…but Sarah manages to engage these students in a positive and constructive way.”

What drives Johnson to create and organize outreach activities outside of her regular course load? She simply says, “I love science, especially physics, and I enjoy helping others learn about our amazing universe and how it works.”

The award recognizes the dedication that staff, faculty and student volunteers put into outreach programming. Dean of Science Claire Cupples is thrilled that Sarah is the inaugural winner.  “Sarah exemplifies what this award stands for and sets the bar high for next year’s winner."

We asked Sarah for her thoughts on outreach.


Why do you think that girls and women might be less interested in physics than the other sciences?

This is a complicated issue because there are a variety of factors that lead to there being fewer women than men in physics in Canada. One factor is the societal perception of physicist as a masculine profession. The general public also generally doesn't know what physicists do or how we contribute to society. This can lead to girls who are scientifically inclined choosing a different scientific path.

Would it have made a difference in your career if you had been able to partake in these kinds of outreach activities when you were in high school?

I think I might have chosen physics as a career path earlier if I had been able to attend a workshop like Girls Exploring Physics. I decided to major in physics during my first year at university, partially because of an inspiring instructor in one of my first-year physics classes. 

Have there been any mentors or role models who helped you along the way? If so, how did they inspire you?

My undergraduate advisor was incredibly helpful to me. He gave me my first exposure to research and encouraged me to continue my studies in graduate school. He also emphasized how important it is to be well rounded and pursue interests outside of physics. 

What is the most common comment you receive from students taking part in your workshops?

The most common reaction we see is surprise at all of the different things that physicists study from biological physics to cosmology. 

How will your department use the $1,000 that accompanies this prize?

We will use it to further enhance the Girls Exploring Physics workshops, especially the new high school teachers workshops we have planned. 

The Faculty of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Public Engagement and Outreach is a new award open to SFU faculty, staff and registered students.  The $1,000 prize goes to the recipient’s department to be used for public engagement and outreach.