A Science Generation

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Summary
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?
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Skills Lists

I’m going to keep this brief in the hope it actually gets (a) finished and (b) published. Because I’ve several drafts that I’ve just not found the time or motivation to finish off. In context; I have a small child, a shortage of caffeine and a grumpy temperament. This may be because not one new blogger built on my #aseconf session and contributed a post. Humph.

Recently, the skills vs knowledge debate has kicked off again. Not that it ever really went away! I think like many teachers, I actually stay away from both extremes. Of course kids need to know (ie recall with fluency) some facts. The question is where you draw the line. Do I expect my GCSE students to remember that Carbon has a proton number of 6? Of course I do. Do I expect them to memorize the entire periodic table, with or without the song? Of course I don’t. This could be applied to the reactivity series, the equations of motion, geological era or pretty much any other part of science. Knowing some is vital, knowing them all is unnecessary. But discussion online – perhaps especially on twitter – tends towards the argumentative.

So arguments about what should and shouldn’t be in the national curriculum, exam specifications or whatever are doomed to end unresolved. And, let’s face it – as teachers we don’t often get a say in it. We just have to make the best of what we get.

Instead, I was kicking some ideas around with colleagues and ended up with the bastard offspring of APP for younger kids and logbooks as suggested for AS, via ‘loyalty cards’ which I blogged after stealing the idea from @ange01. Hold on, it makes sense. Kind of.

Why not, I reasoned, put together lists for the students to use to record their various competencies? (I did something like this for teacher standards, although I’ve stopped keeping track of it. When I get around to it I’ll create a version for RSci and CSciTeach recording categories and wave it at @theASE via twitter.) This fits in well with the new approach to practical work at post-16, something else which has divided teachers and politicians alike. I made several deliberate decisions for the sample below, but I was very much thinking this would be better put together collaboratively, exam-board agnostic and perhaps led by expert/subject associations. (It would be interesting to have input from universities too, although I’ve a post brewing about university involvement in curriculum design too…)

click for .pdf

  1. These are solely hands-on skills for the school lab – no analysis, no maths. There is no content. (Although it might be interesting to produce a paired list, with knowledge on the left and skills on the right. Hmm. Notes for later.)
  2. I ignored exam specifications and instead flicked through the relevant pages on PracticalPhysics. I’ve probably missed something, suggestions welcome.
  3. Instead of a ticklist, my idea was for students to add a date each time they demonstrated that skill. I suspect teachers would have varying ideas of how many times are needed. The only thing everyone will agree on is that once is not enough.
  4. This is for students to use themselves for tracking, not teachers to use for assessment. I hope HoDs are paying attention to this point.

It would be easy to use this approach for GCSE and AS/A2, one checklist per topic area. (I’m sure many colleagues and departments already do.) But why not spend a little time putting together a good list, based on agreed best practice? I do similar things for content revision, but it’s the first time I’ve done it for specific hands-on skills. I’m going to have a play around with a ‘minds-on, thinking scientifically’ version too.

I’d happily run a project producing high quality versions, based on wider consultation, for all subject areas. It would need more of my time and the time of colleagues. That means money, so let me know if you know where I could submit a proposal for funding…

Energy Stores and Pathways

Tonight’s #asechat will involve Charles Tracy, the IoP’s Head of Education (and one of my bosses), discussing the new approach adopted by exam boards from this year. There’s lots of information at Supporting Physics Teaching, which is free to access and needs no sign-in. Other sites and resources will hopefully move over to this terminology (BBC Bitesize already has, for example). But why should we bother?

Energy is one of those topics, isn’t it? We teach it several times, but the kids seem to hang on to their misconceptions. Partly this is because it’s a word which is used in everyday life, often interchangably with power. Partly it’s the way students get mixed up with energy ‘resources’ (or as I prefer to teach it, ‘ways to make electricity’.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this causes problems. Energy is at heart a very abstract concept, and so one which is difficult for students to grasp. Does it make things happen? Well, not always – and this leads to students confusing energy with force. I used to divide the ‘types’ of energy into potential and moving categories, which I suppose could be seen as a crude version of this new approach.

In the simplest possible description, energy is about bookkeeping or currency. It turns out that when objects interact, often via forces, then we can do some maths which describe the change. What’s interesting is that if we pay attention, then the same number comes up more than once. This tells us that something is conserved.

We call that something energy and say it has been transferred from one place to another. Calling those places stores emphasizes that they still have whatever they were given. This sounds similar to past approaches but avoids the idea of distinct ‘chemical energy’ being turned into ‘electrical energy’ and so on. SPT has a good comparison.

So we teach energy concepts to make it easier to do calculations. We can’t measure energy directly, but the equations we use allow us to make measurements, which allow us to make deductions, which in turn allow us to make predictions.

That sounds a lot like science, doesn’t it?

Energy moves from one store to another via pathways. These are actions – verbs, if you like – which describe a change in a system. The IoP is suggesting using the word shift rather than transfer. (I would suggest one good reason to do so is to avoid the mix up with transform, which suggests there are different kinds of energy.) I found the diagram of possible pathways at SPT useful.

Several approaches are possible, including taking a ‘snapshot’ before and after an event, or showing the amount of energy in each store with orange liquid. There are of course others, many of which are visual and so provide an anchor for students to observed reality. This isn’t to recommend VAK of course – only to suggest that making this concept ‘stract’ can only be a good thing.

I’ll be taking part in the session this evening, and I’ll add a link to the archive afterwards. I’m sure there’ll be an advert for TalkPhysics, which is one place to get access to ongoing advice and support on this and other approaches. It may be short notice but please pass on the link for tonight’s chat; the more the merrier.

Doing Physics

A recent Guardian blog was from a 16 year old who felt that Physics at A-level had little to offer her. Sadly the Guardian weren’t interested in the response, so I’m posting it here.

It’s a basic principle of science that anecdotes are not data. Sadly the personal story shared by Sarah is one example supported by wider evidence. There are undoubtedly many reasons why students, male and female, drop physics at sixteen. Things are better than they were, since the low point in 2007 when less than 28000 chose it as an A-level subject. But female students still make up only 20% of sixth form physics classes, despite GCSE results that are as good or better. This is frustrating for students, for teachers and certainly for politicians.

So why should anybody, male or female, choose Physics for post-16 study? The reasons are the same as for any subject; for interest and for usefulness. I can’t imagine not finding physics fascinating, but then you could argue I’m one of the success stories.

I start the school year by turning out my pockets and challenging students to recognise the science implicit in our lives. It stretches from the metallurgy of my keys and wedding ring to drug trials for painkillers, from the link between the shape of my lenses and my prescription to the magnetic coding on my credit card. And that’s before we consider the many facets of mobile devices, from electronics via touchscreen engineering to the EM spectrum and orbital mechanics for the satellites that carry the signals. Science really is everywhere, physics certainly as much as biology or chemistry. From the big, abstract picture to the uses we take for granted day to day, physics is mind-blowing.

In practical terms it’s also a hugely useful, facilitating subject even if you don’t plan to use it directly in the scientific, medical or engineering worlds. Yes, rocket scientists (actually usually engineers) need physics. Yes, it provides an important grounding for medicine. But the skills you learn provide many other benefits in a wide range of courses and careers. When able students choose other subjects we as teachers inevitably feel we missed making that clear enough. Sometimes students making A-level choices don’t appreciate that the courses are a stepping stone, not an end in themselves.

There is a big imbalance in the number of male and female students who choose Physics at A-level. This is not new, and it’s not going away by itself. I think – and more importantly, the data shows – that there are several possible causes worth considering. Unsurprisingly, some of these factors are more difficult to address than others. Many subjects have a gender imbalance, some much worse than physics, but as a physics teacher I have a personal stake. I often describe changes in education happening at different levels.

Nationally, there are some really big issues affecting education across all subjects. Representations of scientists in the media are improving, but Brian Cox isn’t the only reason students choose Physics. The Wellcome Trust raised many issues in their 2011 report about young people’s views on science education. Programmes of study and the exam specifications need to be considered for their impact on a range of diverse students. The type of school makes a difference – although this is nothing to do with academies or free schools. Students with attached sixth forms make up more balanced classes. Girls are more likely to choose physics in independent schools, especially if they are single sex. These findings, along with several of the other links, form the backdrop to ongoing projects at the Institute of Physics to improve UK Physics education. There are often other political choices to be made, from funding of teacher training to rebuilding school facilities. The Royal Society recently published their Vision for science and mathematics education, This is ambitious and far-ranging, considering how we might develop teaching of these subjects over the next twenty years.

School leaders and governers need to consider what affects student choices for A-levels across subjects. The evidence, despite claims to the contrary, suggests that the rapport between teacher and student is generally much more important than the gender of the teacher. Having specialists teaching physics well to younger students also makes a big difference. A school with no Spanish teacher has the option to offer other languages instead, something that doesn’t apply to the sciences. Of course local authorities and academy chains make choices at this tactical level too.

And I can change things in my classroom, with my students. I can ensure examples and textbooks feature male and female physicists. I can make clear links to social implications of the physics we study, something which has been shown to improve engagement for all but girls in particular. I can point out when individuals or the class are making assumptions; for example in a recent question describing the movement of a skydiver, 22 out of 28 in the group used male pronouns for no reason they could explain. I can try out different arrangements of practical groups so boys don’t dominate the hands-on aspect. These aspects are about good teaching methods. At the same time they’re hugely important and completely overwhelmed by the bigger picture.

If I were Sarah’s teacher, I would tell her that Physics is hugely relevant to daily life and always will be. It’s a beautiful subject with fascinating implications. It is a vital part of many careers and studying it provides many future options. I would never criticise a student’s choices – it’s their life, not mine – but I hope their decisions are a truly informed choice. A lot of teaching is helping students to overcome their misconceptions. I hope that we as teachers can do a better job of offering that informed choice to more students across the UK.

AQA 4/6mark Qs

The shortest post ever (to make up for the 1500word epic of the weekend): I’ve organised AQA questions from past papers with markschemes and examiners’ report comments. The 16 pages of this .pdf have the 4 and 6 mark questions at the front, followed by the relevant marking guidelines and what the examiners had to say afterwards. Last minute but possibly useful today?

6 mark Qs blog as .pdf

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.

Waves Revision (AQA P1)

Another quick one, but hopefully useful for those helping students prepare for GCSE Physics; our specification is AQA and the exam is P1, but I hope it will be more generally helpful than that.

waves bestof3

Download waves bestof3 as .ppt

Starter: Choose three words to define

You could have students write down their ideas, include some hints or simply Think/Pair/Share. I like to have one student share their idea, then have another try to improve it, or say what’s good about it. The words are in alphabetical order but you could easily differentiate this activity explicitly if preferred.

Main1: Best of 3

Each slide shows three possible statements or answers to a question. I give students a minute to choose a particularly good or bad answer by discussion. They must be able to improve it and I then ask for suggestions before moving on to the solution slide.  They do not all have one good, one indifferent and one bad answer. There are obvious links to grade progression here and you could use mini whiteboards to ensure all are involved.

Main2: Drawing diagrams

By now students should be seeing these points as a reminder, hopefully ideas they’re familiar with from thorough and careful revision cough cough. Based on their answers and difficulties I would then split them into groups to practise individual elements, from rehearsing fundamentals to more challenging diagrams. I’ve credited the sources of the diagrams, all CC-licensed I think.

Plenary: umm…

I’ve not included one on the powerpoint but returning to key definitions would seem a good plan; ask students to state something they understand better now than they did at the start perhaps? Alternatively finish with a past paper question so they can demonstrate what they are now capable of.

 

Before You Go…

As usual, if you find this resource useful, or adapt the idea to your own teaching, I’d really appreciate you taking a moment to add to my portfolio. Simply follow this link and tick a few boxes, no names necessary. Many thanks.