Review: 30 Second Physics

It’s always useful to have a few popular science books available for interested students. These make great summer extension work for some, and even less enthusiastic pupils may dip in and out of good prose. Adding magazines and a selection of science blogs is always worthwhile, of course…

30 Second Physics, Brian Clegg (ed)

Ivy Press, 2017, 160pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781782405146: buy via Amazon.

30-Second Physics cover
30-Second Physics

The book follows an established format; each edited by an expert in the field, and broken down into topics with small sections. In some ways it is the ultimate expression of a textbook with a double-page spread for each idea! It is, however, much briefer in detail but wider in scope. It’s worth noting that each topic is illustrated with a full-page picture, many of which owe more to artistic design principles than scientific diagrams. This is sometimes a missed opportunity.

Most of the text would be accessible to able GCSE science students and above; any who find particular ideas challenging can refer to the ‘three-second thrash’ on each page. If more detail is needed, there is a hint to further study, page references to related topics and brief biographies of relevant scientists. Each of the six sections includes one longer description; the usual physics suspects appear.

I’m not sure if the would supply useful extension work for specific topics but could be a good way to encourage students to consider links to the ‘Big Picture’. Because the text is accessible, selected bits would also work well to challenge able students at the upper end of KS3. Depending on personal preference, it could also be loaned out to students who might prefer to dip into something briefly rather than digging into something meatier.

One cautionary note; the pages on Energy are, unsurprisingly, aligned with the ‘types and transformations’ model rather than ‘stores and pathways’. This would not even be noticed by most parents, but students may find the reversion to a model no longer recommended for school teaching is confusing. The physics, of course, is fine – it is just the way the equations and processes are described in words that may cause difficulties. And as a physicist, I think the lack of equations on the pages is a shame; I suspect the average reader would consider it a benefit!

Overall, I’d recommend this as a good starting point for a classroom bookshelf but most interested students will soon move on to books on more specific physics topics. It would be a great for interested parents so they have a clue about what their children are encountering in lessons.

I was sent a free pre-publication copy to review; it was released on Amazon on 17th August.

Medical Careers

Apologies if this is a repost, but I can’t find it anywhere even though I created it ages ago. I, like many science teachers, have found that kids have tunnel vision when it comes to careers. Medicine, for a variety of reasons, is a real target for many of them. For some it’s a totally unrealistic one. The progression (anecdotally) goes like this.

  • At the start of Yr12, more than 30 in a year of 120 were ‘going to be doctors’. When it is pointed out that we might send two or three off to medical school in a good year, there are blank looks. Even asking “Are you one of the three smartest students in the year?” doesn’t reach everyone.
  • By halfway through the year, more than half of the students now know medicine isn’t happening for them. They immediately start looking at Pharmacy.
  • By the start of yr13, with results in hand (and yes, I know that’s changing) we used to be down to between eight or ten with a reasonable chance. Some of those who had hoped for Pharmacy are now clinging to the hope of Biomedical Science. And have a private tutor.
  • By Christmas, a few more are being realistic and have switched to other plans; I’ve found they’re a bit more open-minded, but it’s marginal. I had one student tell me they now wanted to do theoretical physics as it was the next best thing to medicine.
  • At Easter, between six and eight think they’ve got a reasonable chance; two or three of those might actually get in.

What’s interesting is that hardly anywhere in this do they consider other clinical options that aren’t Medicine. (Some, of course, started off hoping for Dentistry or Veterinary.) It’s as if the vast majority of medical roles, working with patients and using highly technical skills, simply pass them by. So I created a list, not intended to be exhaustive, which is linked below. Perhaps useful to kick off discussion if nothing else?

medical careers as .docx file

medical careers as .pdf


A Scientific Summer

My eldest son already identifies as geeky. Maybe it’ll change, and that’s fine. But right now he’s got a Raspberry Pi, several electronics kits and a burning desire to make a robot that will allow him to take over the world. He likes coding (secret ciphers as well as Scratch and Python) and is getting into astronomy, microscopes and wildlife. He wants to be a zoologist (this week) and is learning to touch type so he can blog his discoveries. In the interests of fairness: he also reads continuously, rock climbs, draws really badly and has taught himself to turn cartwheels and do backflips on a trampoline. He’s as well rounded as the average nine year old, for which his mother deserves a lot more credit than I.
The thing is, supporting his interest in science always came easily to me. I get science. It makes sense to me. Although I mainly teach physics, I’ve enough of a grounding across the board that I know where to look for good explanations if I’m stumped myself. (Recently: what’s the difference between moths and butterflies?) Sport, drama, music – these are mysteries to me. But science I get.
Lots of people don’t. Which means lots of parents don’t.
The ExpeRimental project – the middle capital letter is because it’s being run out of the Ri, the Royal Institution – is about giving parents the tools to play scientifically with their kids this summer. Instructions for simple, kitchen science demonstrations that help kids explain basic scientific ideas. It’s free, it’s supported via YouTube and it’s led not by famous faces but by real kids and parents. Alom Shaha is part of the project which means both the science and the videos are top-notch. The focus isn’t on recreating something they could see online, but on thinking scientifically. This is about questions, not answers, and it’s something everyone can learn, young or old.
By this point you’re probably nodding enthusiastically, but you’re also realising, as I did, that we’re the wrong audience. This site isn’t intended for me, although I’ll use it. As science teachers, we don’t need this. Parents need this project.
I don’t need this site
Because I’m a geek.

There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference, answer in the comments.)

This doesn’t make me a character in The Big Bang Theory, which I see as undemanding (rather sexist) comedy rather than a life blueprint. It doesn’t make me a genius. I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. It makes me a person who recognises a fact about the world that I’d probably take for granted, if I didn’t have to make it explicit in a daily basis for my students.

Science is cool.

Not just because it leads to great stuff. Although it does. Not just because it involves big explosions. Ditto. And not just because it’s useful (candidate for this year’s understatement award) when facing crises like climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science is cool because it’s arguably the best way to answer one of the first abstract questions human beings ask.


Yes, I know that often the explanation of cause and effect involves people and their motives as well as scientific principles. Yes, I know that sometimes we’re answering the question in terms of justifying a choice rather than explaining how something works. But in its simplest possible incarnation, science is about describing how the world works and suggesting a reason for it. Magic and religion may have offered the first explanations, but science offered the first that actually worked. And still does. So science is cool, and thinking scientifically is useful to everyone, and lots of people think they can’t do it.

Who To Tell
share button 2
Is everyone too simplistic? It would be better to tell people who care. Parents who have six weeks of summer holiday ahead of them and know the summer reading challenge, great as it is, won’t be enough. ExpeRimental will be adding a new video each week over the summer. Kids and their parents will be encouraged to share their own contributions – videos, surprises, results, questions – via the project Facebook page.
Pass it on via your preferred social media, ideally a few times over the next few weeks. Email those in your family who are zoo keeping child minding this summer. Better yet, send it to older brothers and sisters and challenge them to help. Bribery is good – Horrible Science books are easy to find in charity shops and discounters, or the Klutz range provide great materials and ideas.
I’d love to see promotional materials in local libraries and their noticeboards – I might add a few myself. And perhaps bookshops might add something in their Science for Kids shelves? The point is to get the ideas into the hands of desperate parents who want to get through the summer without spending a fortune or shouting too much.
And next?
One approach that seems to have been missed; as well as primary teachers and those running science clubs, the resources would be great for youth groups. The project would be a great foundation for Rainbows or BeaversBrownies and Cubs. Pass on the link to youth leaders for a ready-made activity in the autumn.
Something I’m using with my own kids this summer is an American site, Kids can share projects, from Actor to Zoologist, and earn badges to show what they’ve done. The ideas would link really nicely with the PhilosopherData Visionary and Film Maker skills as well as the more obvious scientific ones.
Next stop would be visiting somewhere scientific. I’m sure there must be lists of science centres, museums with dinosaur exhibits and wildlife centres suitable for kids. This could be as easy as printing off a checklist and heading for the park to look at bugs. Or as involved as staying overnight in the Science Museum. Just like science, this project is about starting to ask questions, not about giving final answers. And this post isn’t really about science teaching, any more than visiting the Roald Dahl museum is about teaching literacy. Instead, it’s about being a parent.
Which is what I’ll be up to for the next six weeks or so. Probably armed with a Pringles cannon…

Core Physics revision sites handout

This second post in a day will be even briefer than the last. After complaints from my Year 10 students that they couldn’t possibly be expected to find good websites by themselves – yes, I know – I produced a quick handout listing a few URLs and comments for them. I was going to put it on the VLE, but realised it would be much more likely to be used if they had instant access, so added QR codes and gave them printed copies. Of course they were very appreciative for me giving up my break this morning to make this for them.

Stop laughing.

Anyway, here it is as a pdf. It’s got two identical pages because that was the fastest way to print off A5 versions, although it does mean there’s a bit of wasted space.

revision sites pic

Now, as this has quite possibly saved you a few minutes, I have a request to make. Use two of those minutes to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary, so I can show how what I do helps people outside my immediate school. Many thanks.

PBODME Resources

My last post got rather more responses than I expected, which is great. Some of them challenged how I think about using this framework with students, which is even better. I still like it, and I’ll still use it, but it was pointed out that I didn’t make it clear that this was only one of the tools that help students with practicals. I’ve blogged about the different aims of practical work before, and probably will again, but check out articles by @alomshaha for far more eloquent words than mine.

Possible Aims of Practical Work

  • To enthuse – explosions and the wow factor
  • To model and practise technical skills
  • To collect data
  • To boost appreciation of difficulties with data such as random errors and so improve experimental design
  • To illustrate a scientific idea or principle clearly by removing distractions

As I’ve commented in the past, these are all useful aims as long as we are clear in our own minds why we are doing the practical. This might not be shared with students beforehand, but should be afterwards. (NB: I was marked down in a 30 minute observation because students failed to make ‘good progress’ during a practical. The observer had not appreciated that the point was for the kids to struggle and then, in later discussion, to share tactics and appreciate why the concept was hard to observe in school lab conditions.) Of course, we should also vary the kinds of practical work we do!

Responses to the post

Read the comments; my readers put it better than I could. For which many thanks; in a week when it feels like the only things I’ve achieved involve feeding the cats and a pike of marking as tall as my five year old, the feedback really helped. The only addition I’ll make is to quote @fnoschese:

I particularly like the second flowchart (IF/AND/THEN/THEREFORE), something I’ll be adapting over the weekend between decorating and getting another year closer to forty. Unfortunately I can’t copy it as an image so you’ll just have to follow the link.

My PBODME resources

This was originally going to be the only section of this post, but never mind. For your use and interest, hopefully:

  • pbodme as ppt (print slides for a quick display)
  • pbodme flowchart/student capability checklist as pdf

As ever, I’d value comments. Can I ask that if you have a useful link that you add a comment as well as tweeting me? I always worry I’m going to miss something, and that way it’s a proper conversation for everyone.

Also, a general appeal; if you use my materials, for general displays, CPD or with your own students, can you let me know? Always nice to point to wider impact of what I do, quite apart from giving me a nice warm glow. Feedback is the only thing us bloggers ask, after all…

Moving Beyond Predict/Observe/Explain

I don’t remember when I first used the idea of breaking down a demonstration for students by having them follow the POE format:

  • Predict what will happen
  • Observe what actually happens
  • Explain it in context

I think a lot of science teachers used this before – or even without – referencing the ideas of Michael Bowen, who explains the approach in this video. He wasn’t the first, but I tracked down the link via the site of the National Science Teachers Association in the US. There are several papers available there, for example this from a decade ago about hypothesis-based learning, which makes explicit the difference between a hypothesis and a prediction. It’s easy to see how these steps link nicely with a 5/7Es planning method. But I think it’s worth adding some steps, and it’s interesting to see how it might have developed over time. How students cope with these stages is an easy way to approach formative assessment of their skills in thinking about practicals, rather than simply doing them.

Please note – I’m sure that I’m missing important references, names and details, but without academic access I simply can’t track original papers or authors. My apologies and please let me know what I’m missing in this summarised family tree!

PEOE: I think this because

To stop students making wild speculations we need to involve them in a conversation justifying their predictions. I suppose this is a first step in teaching them about research, to reference their thoughts. I find this needs guidance as many students mix up the two uses of explain; the derivation of their prediction and the link to accepted theory.

PODME: Recording what we observe

I got this from Katy Bloom (at York SLC, aka @bloom_growhow) I think after chatting at a TweetUp. I’m paraphrasing her point: in Science it’s not enough simply to observe, we must also share that observation. This can take two forms, Describing in words and Measuring in numbers. The explanation then becomes about the pattern rather than a single fact or observation. Bonus points to students who correctly suggest the words qualitative and quantitative for the observations here!

PBODME: My current approach

I’ve tweaked this slightly by making the first explanation phase explicit. The display is on the wall and students can apply this (with varying degrees of success) from year 7 practicals with burning candles to year 13 physics investigations into gamma intensity affected by thickness of lead shielding.

  • Prediction of outcome
  • Because of hypothesis based on life experience, context or research
  • Observation using senses, measuring devices
  • Description in words of what typically happens (sometimes as commentary during practical)
  • Measurement using appropriate units, with derived results and means where needed
  • Explanation of results, patterns, anomalies and confidence

Is it getting ungainly? Having this structure means students can see the next step in what they are doing, and are hopefully able to ask themselves questions about how to develop a practical further. I suppose you could argue that the original POE approach is the foundation, and these stages allow us to extend students (or ideally allows them to extend themselves).

PBODMEC: Why does it matter?

In many ways, the natural next step would be about Context – why should we care about the results and what difference do they make to what we know, what we can do or what we can make?

I plan to follow up this post with the printable resources (wall display and a student capability checklist) but they’ll have to wait until I’m home. In the mean time, I’d welcome any thoughts or comments – especially any with links to other formats and their uses in the school science lab.

Student Toolkit

Some of my readers will already know I’ve been working, in fits and starts, on a second site to be used by students: Student Toolkit. This grew out of the resources I shared with my own pupils but is available to all, without cost or registration. The running costs of the site are covered, more or less, by being an Amazon affiliate although this doesn’t come close to repaying me for the time spent. But never mind. The reason I’m posting here is to flag up the site and share some display items you may find useful.

Download toolkit complete as a five page .pdf or see the original poster at the other site.

I plan to post about my own specific displays soon, as I check the files ready for the new term (in a new school!), but these are ready to go and I hope you find the signposted resources worth recommending. If you’ve a post to contribute or students who would like to be involved, please put them in touch via the site.