‘Relevant’ teaching turns UK children back on to physics

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Turn off? Critics argue that traditional ways of teaching physics need a thorough review. Credit: SALLY GREENHILL

Twenty-five British schools are piloting a new approach to teaching physics to 16- to 19-year-olds that is already said to be attracting those who might otherwise have deserted the subject.

‘Advancing Physics’ is intended to bring “physics teaching firmly into the twenty-first century, using relevant and up-to-date examples of physics from everyday life”. It is part of a £1 million (US$1.6 million) initiative by the UK Institute of Physics (IoP) to be launched at next month's annual meeting of the Association for Science Education.

Supported by the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the course uses a range of teaching approaches, examples of applications, and work for students. There is also a CD-ROM with activities that use the computer for doing physics.

The IoP say that schools involved in pilot studies have reported increased enthusiasm for physics among students, and that in one school physics became the most popular choice for sixth-form study. One aspect of the course is the way it uses the manipulation of images to bring together the aspects of what has become a disparate subject.

Mick Brown, a physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge who has been assessing the course for the IoP, describes this feature as “wonderful”. “It puts acquisition, manipulation and display of information at the centre of physics, and in doing so unites astronomy, cosmology, high-energy physics and applied physics,” he says.

John Ogborn, professor of science education at the University of Sussex, who has been involved in designing the course, says that the IoP is concerned at the falling numbers of young people going into physics. To make the subject more attractive, Ogborn's group has created what he describes as a package with a core of essential work and an engineering flavour, relating to skills useful in jobs.

But the course's design was constrained by the fact that 60 per cent of the subject content is prescribed by a central authority — the Qualification and Curriculum Authority — which approves A-level courses. Advancing Physics is in the last stages of obtaining official approval.

The core curriculum is intended to let universities know what to expect from students. Ogborn say that those who developed the new course had to be “inventive”. The way that sensors work, for example, was used to teach how direct currents operate.

Brown points out that attracting more students to physics will be “a long process that will involve enthusiastic teachers, students and backup on the web”.

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Loder, N. ‘Relevant’ teaching turns UK children back on to physics. Nature 402, 708 (1999) doi:10.1038/45328

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