Exploring Einstein's big ideas

Conscious of the decreasing supply of mathematical science graduates, many teachers are looking for innovative ways of encouraging pupils to consider studying maths at A-level by exposing early key stage 4 pupils to advanced scientific thinking in an interesting way.

One way we found very successful and which aroused a lot of enthusiasm from pupils, was to invite a consultant, who would usually be brought in by companies to solve high-level mathematical engineering problems, to give a masterclass on Einstein for high-achieving Year 10 maths pupils.

To raise the status of the event we invited neighbouring secondary schools to send six delegates each. Five schools took part. Dr Chris Robbins, a science and engineering ambassador, recruited by Setpoint Derbyshire, used a variety of audio-visuals, computer simulations and other practical resources to introduce and explain Einstein's theories on diffusion, the photo-electric effect, special and general relativity, as well as the curvature of spacetime - all in under two hours!

Where possible, Chris referred to the mathematics involved (even though it might appear to be way over the pupils' current understanding), demonstrating how mathematical models were at the centre of much of Einstein's work. The finale was a very loud explosion, which demonstrated the relationship E = mc2.

Activities were often aimed at encouraging an intuitive understanding. One about particle diffusion (particles diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration) involved students, who were sitting in a line, being given different amounts of beads. They kept half of the beads and shared a quarter of the rest with each neighbour. This gradually spreads the beads out until everyone has the same amount. This simulation of a computer solution of the diffusion equation is the same mechanism that would transport pollutants in, say, a lake.

The masterclass has already provoked a great deal of discussion among pupils and it will be a focus for further research by them as part of our gifted and talented programme.

Jon Stratford Head of maths, John Flamsteed School (a maths and computing specialist school), Derbyshire


Nearly two years ago, I was asked to look at our school environment (an 11-16 inner-city comprehensive with 880 pupils) and surrounding area. As part of this, I decided to form a student environment group committee, using Year 10 students - old enough to be responsible, but not too weighed down with GCSE work.

I asked the committee for suggestions to improve the school environment.

Surprisingly, one idea was to introduce a system of prefects, which is usually the preserve of independent schools.

The system operates under the citizenship umbrella. Prefects are selected from Year 10, and senior prefects from Year 11. Prefects become senior prefects on their progression into Year 11. They are given duty days and positions, support the staff at break times, and act as dinner monitors at lunch times. I hope to extend the system to operate before school and throughout lunchtimes.

The students feel empowered by their roles. I have not put a limit on the number of prefects or senior prefects - we currently have around 70 - as this encourages positive behaviour from those who wish to become prefects, and many have asked. I can give students prefect and senior prefect status at any time during the year. This allows them to feel they have earned their status.

The prefects are also encouraged to act as role models of good, positive behaviour - something for younger pupils to aspire to. We recognise that the word on their badge is "prefect" not "perfect", however. They are teenagers, after all.

The benefits of the system are enormous: the school takes on a much calmer appearance at breaks and staff are less stretched; the prefects and senior prefects have status; senior prefects have found post-16 progression routes have become easier as colleges and employers love to ask the question: "So what else did you do at school?'

I would recommend the system to any school.

Keith Page

Teacher and prefect system co-ordinator, Norham Community Technology College

North Shields, Tyne and Wear


I used this lesson as part of the Ancient Egypt topic with Year 4, but it could be used with Years 3-6 and with other topics, such as the Greeks or Romans.

Start by painting some plain, cheap terracotta pots with emulsion.

When dry, use a black marker pen to draw some hieroglyphs or other imagery.

Pop each pot in a plastic bag. Think of your worst enemy, then take a hammer and smash the pot - pure therapy! Next, fill some trays with sand and place one smashed pot in each tray. Ensure the pot fragments are completely covered.

You can create a wonderful anticipatory buzz before the children enter the room by placing the trays in the middle of the class tables along with some chunky paintbrushes, sieves and other potential tools. You must give clear instructions on how to approach the task, emphasising that the pupils are archaeologists and have no idea what lies below the surface; consequently no plunging of hands into the sand, instead children must carefully uncover the evidence using their tools. It is also important to stress that they need to work together as teams. Once all fragments are retrieved, children try to glue the pot back together.

To make it harder, muddle up some of the fragments across the trays; they will soon realise that the table next to them needs the red pieces while they need to collect blue pieces and so on.

Cross-curriculum links are endless; try linking to ICT and literacy by getting a group to be journalists taking photos and writing a newspaper article or making a film.

Cathy Walsh. Deputy headteacher, Lutley Primary School Halesowen

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