They’re not lying, this is Stimulating Physics!

I’ve got major feelings of imposter syndrome: I’m at the London region stimulating physics networking day for physics teachers at Highgate School. As you may have noticed, I am not a teacher. I’m not even really a grown up- I’ve got a young person’s railcard and I’m not afraid to use it. Stimulating Physics is an IOP initiative to support the teaching and learning of physics. Out of the IOP, the Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry, only the IOP offer teachers such a comprehensive system of support and CPD. The events are free and catered and offer a brilliant opportunity for teachers to network and share experiences and ideas. After constantly moaning about the lack of specialist science teachers and enthusiasm for science education, I’m speechless when I start interacting with these ‘inspirers’. Some teachers have travelled for almost two hours to make it to Highgate for the 0930 start and are all here voluntarily. They’re not all specialist physics teachers and are only here to support their pupils.

imageThe IOP and Highgate do a cracking effort of making everyone feel welcome- in between sessions we crash out in the staff room drinking fancy tea and brainstorming science lessons, sharing details of competitions and generally having a very good Saturday. The timetable is good too, covering Heat Transfer, Energy, Radioactivity, Forces, Science Clubs, Astrophysics, Forces, Waves, Optics, EM Induction and Light. There’s also less applied sessions on Improving Gender Balance, ‘Engaging Physics’ and ‘Doing Physics’. It’s all very hands-on and interactive, and pitched at a whole range of activities; from the sports science graduate who is somehow teaching A-level to the PhD-level specialist teacher. Somehow the Teaching and Learning Coaches (TLC) avoid all opportunities to patronise: they don’t mind where you put your force arrows on your free body diagram, as long as you try.

I attend the Improving Gender Balance session first: despite knowing a bit more about the project than your average attendee, I’m just as naïve when it comes to doing things properly. It’s also immensely interesting/ informative to hear the teacher’s responses to the teaching sessions and the IOP’s expert advice. These teachers notice big gender rifts in their classrooms, whether it’s girls avoiding picking up pieces of lego or boys shying away from astrophysics. As many readers of my blog will know (that’s you mom ;)), the IOP have been trying to address the gender imbalance in physics for quite sometime. In the middle of the credit crunch of 2008, boys realised that physics was a pretty impressive A-level to have in your top four, and uptake of maths and physics increased noticeably. Girls were slower to respond. The new cuts and push to 3 AS levels as opposed to the current 4 will only make matters worse- medical school applicants usually take three sciences and maths at AS, dropping physics for A2, but physics will no longer get their passing trade in years to come. Jon Clarke is a physics teacher who is very good at what he does- he comes armed with anecdotes and experience. He sets us a challenge, to determine “which [of the following] factors most affect girls’ progression in physics (i.e. decision to study A-level)?”. We spend sometime ranking his answers, and I’m surprised by the results:

Factor Signifi-cance Reference
Having a supportive teacher & good physics lessons High p6 (Macdonald 2014)

p23 (Murphy & Whitelegg 2006)

Teachers’ unconscious bias about under-represented groups (e.g. lower expectations of girls) High p26 (Murphy & Whitelegg 2006)
Students’ perceptions of elitism (e.g. science A-levels lead only to jobs as scientists for the “brainy few”) High p12 (Macdonald 2014)


Students’ self-concept (e.g. feeling of not being good at physics even though they’ve got good grades) High p9 (Murphy & Whitelegg 2006)
Discussing with students the underrepresentation of women in physics High p21 (Macdonald 2014)
Having a female physics teacher Low p21 (Macdonald 2014)
Interventions to raise girls’ exposure to scientific skills and role models (e.g. hands-on activities led by women from industry) Low p16 (Murphy & Whitelegg 2006)

p6 (Iain Springate, Jennie Harland, Pippa Lord & Anne Wilkin, 2008)

Girls-only physics lessons Low p21 (Macdonald 2014)
Exciting team-based science competitions in mixed-gender settings Low p25 (Macdonald 2014)
interventions to raise aspirations (e.g. university masterclass) Low p18 (Macdonald 2014)

(EEF 2015)

I’m really fascinated by some of these results. Having only heard from Maggie Philbin earlier this week about the failings of the majority of STEMNet’s 30,000 ‘science ambassadors’ doing one-off gigs in schools and colleges, I’m even more convinced when I see it written down. The study the result comes from, the IOP & RSC’s investigation into the influences on physics and chemistry subject choices of BME students found that “young people’s decision making was found to be most informed by that of their immediate peers”, with “most young people studying for A-levels were not aware of any famous physicists or chemists of their time”. Jon points out that if there are 3-hours of physics lessons a week that equates to 600 hours with a teacher a year, around 70,000 hours of being with their family and peers. There’s only so much impact a one-hour session with a depressed STEMNet ambassador, who just wanted the day off work, can do. Girls only physics lessons can (and do) work- for example, in an all-girls school- but only if the whole school culture is supportive of a such a strategy. The unconscious bias of teachers- asking boys deeper questions, not choosing girls in class- is so strong and yet so hard to fix. Jon recommends having someone specifically watching your attentiveness to boys and girls during observation, to film lessons (and watch back to critique) and to ask yourself honestly how you address boys and girls. There are also CPD sessions you can attend at the IET, RAEng and IOP.

The IOP/RSC report on choosing physics and chemistry found the following factors to be of high, medium and low significance:

  • High-influence factors: enjoyment of physics and chemistry, future ambitions, perceptions of careers with a physics or chemistry degree, and the relevance of physics and chemistry study to life.
  • Medium-influence factors: the way physics and chemistry are taught, physics and chemistry teachers, images of scientists and the work that they do, and family influences.
  • Low-influence factors: the difficulty of physics and chemistry, role models, careers advisors and peers.

Jon shows us a list of “what most people want to learn in science”- the big questions that boys and girls have. Whilst the boys list contains a lot of ‘actual science’- weightlessness, black holes, the atom-bomb, explosive chemicals and chemical weapons- the girls list is much more questioning and much more human-oriented: what is cancer? How can we perform first aid? How can we exercise to keep the body strong. We discuss briefly whether we should adapt physics lessons to target the girls interests (more focus on medical imaging? Using microscopes more?) but all agree that time would be better spent ignoring these society-driven stereotypes in the first-place- as Charles Tracy said only two-days before, this isn’t a problem with the girls, it’s a problem with the system.

Girls are more likely to learn if the physics is engaging and accessible, the classrooms are well-managed and they’re taught in ideas rather than random, often disconnected, facts. Like all young people girls want to feel supported in their learning, and want to understand how to apply what they learn to better impact society and their friends and families lives. Jon leaves us with some ‘top-tips’ for managing the classroom and beyond:

Managing the classroom:

  • Managing groups and group work
  • Questioning styles
  • Disrupting/challenging the roles pupils settle into
  • Using ‘how science works’ as a vehicle for engaging with girls
  • Putting pupils in charge
  • Using different kinds of activity

Top tips:

  • Present the big picture
  • Don’t ‘talk equations’. Develop the ideas before using technical language.
  • Use a variety of illustrations – not just mechanistic
  • Encourage collaboration in learning
  • Give students the privacy & confidence to take risks in their thinking & responses
  • Vary the grouping in class to avoid passivity
  • Accept and use analogies that help the student
  • Have a rationale for teaching which includes social relevance

My next session was simple science clubs with Gerry Blake. I was in awe of his ingenuity and resourcefulness. This wasn’t a guy with a twitter account and an Instagram- this is a man who crosses the capital to find the cheapest multi-pack of toothbrush heads to make the most cost-effective robot. This is no-frills, no fancy merchandise science- the science that absolutely must not be lost to corporate crap. He shows us a great demo replacing the old, swing a bucket around your head, here’s circular motion trick- just a simple plastic cup of water on a wooden board. He has his students hack LEDs and lenses to create a simple tool to allow us to see the ‘real image’ of an object. The next few I’m listing as bullet points so that you can try them yourself. I also picked up a few demos during my final ‘Light Fantastic’ session, which are also detailed here:

  • Bristle Bots:
    • Ingredients: Mobile phone vibrator + soldering iron ends of wires, bluetack, toothbrush head, 1.5 V battery, plastic pipe to race them in (hardware store for racing rack!)
    • Activities: How does it work in first place? Bristles hit table >> tables hit bristles. Faster forward >> bristles need to hit the table a bit more >> ‘splay the bristles so they’re slightly further back)
  • Lollipop Harmonica: lollipop stick, straws, stretchy bands
    • Activities: How can you change pitch >> change frequency (wavelength)
  • Tumblewing science toy maker-
    • Activities: Use a flow of air to paper surf across the classroom!
  • Electrostatic charge tube:
  • UV Lamps and leaving tracks
    • UV Lamps: UV torch (laser, torch, uv lights), Lasers of different colours, UV diodes + Battery CR2032
    • UV indicators: UV fluid (turns transparent in the dark), tonic water (quinine)- fluoresces, brown spots on bananas fluoresce, UV film
  • ExoPlanets (IOP Resource)
    • LightGrapher, free NASA programme (plots light intensity variation through a web cam_
    • Light intensity output of exoplanets: Lamp- light bulb, string, webcam
  • Cartesian diver
    • Ingredients: Water pipette, screw nut
    • Ingredients 2: Straw, Water balloons, measuring cylinder, water
    • Activities: What do you see? Hard to push down, balloon inflates, water up sides increases
  • Vortex tube link
  • Alka seltzer rockets
  • Bubble mixture string
  • Pringles tube, bottles (one big, sports cap, one small), pencil, elastic bands – rocket
  • Pepper’s Ghost
  • Polarisation by scattering– milk drops in water, polarized beam
  • Calcite crystal (double refraction) and polarized film
  • g-balls
  • EM spectrum= prism + box + infrared thermometer

 Useful Websites:

Over lunch I speak to stressed out teachers operating on minimal budgets to disenchanted teenagers. One lady studied her PGCE in Warwick, before having a massive culture shock when teaching in a secondary school in Acton. She didn’t sleep, couldn’t relax and had to leave. After a year of unemployment, she’s back in action, teaching in South East London and spending her treasured weekends broadening her skills. She never enjoyed physics at school and is worried of this impacting her students. Without saying out loud, ‘it’s a really good idea you all talk to each other’, the IOP have created a friendly and honest forum for teachers to interact. There are teachers from incredibly private schools and super deprived states, there are technicians, there are rogue-outreach officers: no one judges.

My next session was Forces with Young Scientist Journal’s finest, Christina Astin. Christina Astin is a sensationally able teacher and educator. The IOP’s Teaching Physics resource for forces is online here. She’s got a whole range of skillsets in this cohort, all with the post lunch blues and all a bit confused about free-body diagrams. She shows us some pretty sweet tricks using arrow stickers to label forces, and reveals some of students’ most common errors- and how to help them. Astin shows us a wonderfully simple demonstration of friction (and inadvertently centres of mass). Astin also shows us all of the sweet physics demos we run in the outreach lab at Imperial, and that Seb and I will be trialing in a few weeks at Turing House. We measure the stretchiness of strawberry laces, the crushability of crunchies and the bendiness of ice-cream wafers. It turns out it’s all based on an old Salters Advanced Physics A-Level Module named ‘Good Enough to Eat’.

Thanks so much to the amazing teaching and learning coaches who were all here today: to Jon, to Sharron, to Alan, to Robert, to Liz, to Steve, To Christina and to Gerry. Thank you Highgate for being such generous hosts. Thank you Isaac Physics for continuing to inspire and elevate students who’ve teachers have given up. And thanks to all of these teachers for not giving up, and for renewing my faith in the English education system.

Amazing.  (And I’ve already bought all of the equipment Gerry told me to ;)).

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