Britney Spears and Sir Isaac Newton may seem an unlikely pair, but Dr Dominic Dickson of Liverpool University's Science Communication Unit thinks they complement each other perfectly. Dr Dickson is the founder of GetSET Theatre Company, whose members are physics students at the university. The company visits schools and colleges, performing science-based shows designed to entertain, educate and inspire pupils. One of their most popular items is "physics karaoke".
"Physics karaoke started out as just a bit of fun," says Dr Dickson. "We took some well-known pop tunes, gave them science lyrics, and included them in our performances.
"But we discovered that when you're wrestling to fit words to the tune, you do a surprising amount of probing of the physics. And you do it over and over. All of this helps to cement the science concepts in your mind. So, what started out as a bit of fun, actually turned out to have educational benefits."
GetSET's performances are often followed by workshops in which pupils are challenged to write their own physics lyrics. They are given information sheets summarising important concepts for a physics topic, like waves or mechanics. Then they have just 15 minutes to rewrite the words of a popular song. Those brave enough to perform their compositions have the chance to win prizes.
Initially, some of Dr Dickson's colleagues were sceptical about this approach, but they are now becoming aware of the effectiveness of unconventional methods. Last year, the Institute of Physics presented him with an award for achievements in promoting public awareness of physics.
"I want to remove some of the mystique from my subject," he says. "Too often people say, 'I was no good at physics at school'. That's what I want to get away from. I want to show you can have fun, and that physics is as much a part of human activity as anything else is."
GetSET Theatre Companyemail: firstname.lastname@example.org For an information pack email: email@example.com
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One of GetSET's songs merges Britney Spears' chart hit, "Oops! I did it again", with the laws of Newtonian mechanics: My problem with you is this, You can't comprehend the laws of physics.
Oh, baby - speed is distance by time.
And if you had known, You could have been mine.
But our forces weren't balanced So we went our separate ways - oh baby, baby Chorus
Newton did it again.
My force by your mass Gives acceleration - oh baby, baby.
Oops! There's no gravity Holding you to me.
You're just no scientist.
Another song uses a classic Beatles' tune to elucidate the principles of the first law of thermodynamics: Hey Joule, it makes me cool, When I do work adiabatically.
But when, some work is done upon me, That sure increases my internal energy.
The increase of the internal energy, Equals the heat going into the system, Plus the work that's done upon it, And of these three things the Joule's the unit.
Although designed for students in key stages 3 and 4, physics karaoke has been successfully adapted for primary pupils. Juliet Wroe teaches a Year 6 class at St Berteline's Church of England Primary School in Runcorn. After a class theatre trip to see the musical Grease, she challenged her pupils to compose and perform science lyrics to popular songs from the show:
"You're The One That I Want", "Hopelessly Devoted To You" and "Greased Lightnin'". The children were presented with revision cards, summarising important information about the topics: earth in space, magnetism, and solids, liquids and gases. They were also given access to karaoke versions of the songs.
"I was astounded by the level of enthusiasm the project generated," she says. "For some pupils, matching the lyrics to their chosen song and perfecting their performance became an obsession. They even worked through lunchtimes."
Science karaoke proved to be an effective method of engaging pupils. But was it an effective tool for learning?
"It certainly works as a revision technique. Year 6 pupils need to be familiar with a whole range of scientific concepts and quite an extensive vocabulary. Working together on science lyrics leads to some valuable discussion, and helps to reinforce all of this."
The pupils themselves gave a huge thumbs-up to science karaoke. "It's quite tricky trying to fit the words to the music and get the science right," commented one boy. "But it's really good fun. And the fun keeps you going!"