Add mass to energy

7th February 1997 at 00:00
David Waddington describes a scheme to make A-level physics more popular

As much of the recent publicity suggests, physics at A-level is in a parlous state; the number of students taking the subject is declining despite the vast increase in the number of pupils choosing A-level studies overall.

But help is perhaps at hand - from chemistry departments, which have themselves been through hard times.

While most chemistry syllabuses have seen a decrease in their entry, the context-led Salters course has been able to attract growing numbers. This was devised about eight years ago when the University of York Science Education Group began to develop a new advanced chemistry course with the support of the Salters Institute of Industrial Chemistry, industrial companies, a range of professional bodies, and representatives from just about anywhere where modern chemistry is practised - including the National Gallery.

The Salters chemistry course is centred on "storylines": the development of a new medicine, for example; the use of chemistry in preserving medieval paintings; or the role of chemistry in the environment. From 13 such stories or topics emerge the chemical principles for A-level, carefully structured so that students fresh from science at GCSE can assimilate them properly.

The course also contains many chances for students to practise skills such as investigation, report writing, reading, working in groups, data collection and analysis.

We believe the A-level has been a major success story. There are now more than 4,000 students taking it each year, a great many of whom, we believe would not otherwise have taken the subject. The increased motivation among students and teachers leads to fewer drop outs during the course, while more students go on to consider chemistry and chemistry-related subjects at university.

We had been urged for several years to turn our minds to physics; and now we have done so.

The Salters physics project aims to attract young people into a study of physics post-16, to retain these students for a full two-year course, and hence to encourage them to consider engineering and science-based careers.

As with the chemistry project, there is a core team of academics at the University of York. But at the same time much of the work is being done by teachers and by experts in physics from a wide range of institutions and companies. Physics abounds with diverse "storylines", whether to do with telecommunications, medicine, buildings, archaeology or space; and it is from the study of such themes that a coherent structure of physics principles emerges.

But let us examine some of the reasons why physics is unpopular with students, and why we think the Salter's approach can help. There is, for example, a perceived mismatch between the direction of GCSE and A-level. By using the drip-feed process for introducing principles when they are needed, and coming back to reinforce the work during the course, this can be overcome.

By introducing contemporary issues in physics we will address another complaint from teachers and students - that the physics they study is stale, boring and irrelevant.

The perceived difficulty of the mathematics involved in physics is a major stumbling block. It is not simply a question of the poor mathematical abilities of some students. It is genuinely difficult to use mathematics in new contexts. So we are giving students opportunities through the course to come to terms with the mathematical operations they need - and a chance to practise as they go along.

It is far from easy to attract girls into physics. But here again the Salter's method seems to have worked: large numbers of girls have done particularly well in the Salter's A-level chemistry. It is not simply a question of providing stories that will attract them but of providing a course as a whole that is attractive and stimulating.

The way the chemistry course is laid out provides a great deal of space for self study and for allowing students to plan their own work. We are repeating this with the physics project. There are many opportunities for students to practise the skills they need, skills for physics and for the wider world - the capacity to argue and criticise cogently, to write reports, to collect and use data. Their mastery of these will be assessed alongside the more traditional aspects of physics, the principles and their application.

Already more than 100 teachers have asked to collaborate with us either by writing or trialling the materials. It is to be hoped that the next generation of newspaper headlines will cover the flood of people joining, rather than fleeing physics.

David Waddington is professor of chemical education at the University of York and the founder of the Salters A-level chemistry course

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