Two innovative courses, being piloted by Salters Horners and the Institute of Physics, offer AAS-level flexibility. Victoria Neumark and Peter Campbell see how they're working.
We get such positive feedback from the pupils themselves," says Sandy Stephens, head of science at Lady Eleanor Holles school in Hampton, Middlesex. "The course has immediate relevance to them. They see it as not 'we're learning this bit of theory and later we'll apply it', but as 'here it is, connected to everyday life'."
Mrs Stephens runs one of 60 secondary science departments piloting the Salters Horners advanced physics course directed by Elizabeth Swinbank at the University of York and examined by Edexcel. The first students began the course in September 1998 and have completed the AS-level year, with those who go on to the full A-level completing their modules in June 2000. Like the Salters advanced chemistry course, its combination of up-to-date contexts and applications, easy to grasp language, and modular assessment are wildly successful with staff and pupils alike. David Swinscoe, who teaches the course at City and Islington Sixth Form College in north London, says: "It's rekindled my interest in the subject too."
With physics A-level numbers dropping from 50,000 25 years ago to 35,000 now, physics has, says Chris Butlin, project officer at the University of York, "been pretty dire for years. A course which livens things up by focusing on the real world is likely to do well". Within the 11 topics of the Salters Horners course students look, for example, at music and the making of CDs to discuss waves and oscillation; approach measuring and controlling flow through the making and packaging of chocolates; and explore modulation and multiplexing through communication on aircraft; plus much more. Each module has three topics which work in to the theory through the applications. It satisfies a basic urge: as Peter, Edward and Thomas, students at City and Islington say, "we like knowing how things work".
For a college such as City and Islington, where many students have English as an additional language, the practical, unstuffy approach of the Salters course is a huge bonus. "It's in easier language than other courses I've seen my friends have," says Josef. Samson adds: "Their books are big and bulky and explain in more complex ways - they find it more difficult, I reckon. This one explains it in everyday situations."
With topics covering control and safety in the air and on rails, the students are comfortable with the connections between their knowledge and the real world. While the content enthralls the students (when I visited City and Islington College, every one of the 14 students was craning forward all the time, whether it was equations being written on the board or a demonstration of the differences between light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or liquid crystal displays (LCDs)) the teachers are impressed by the built-in mathematical training and on-going self-assessment. "The way it is structured," says David Swinscoe, "you get good predictors of final grades at the end of each topic. And you don't worry whether they are getting enough mathematical knowledge outside their physics course: it's all in there."
A-level science is famously a big step up from GCSE, a step into abstraction and analysis. For the students at City and Islington, the interest of learning the physics behind sound systems and mobile phone messaging eases the transition. As Katherine, one of the few girls in the Islington group, says: "Now when people talk about sound quality you know what they mean even if they don't really".
For their teacher, David Swinscoe, realistically, "something new always revives your teaching practice, but I think this is the way forward. Before, when we talked of context it seemed a bit tagged on, diversionary from the goals of exams. Now the worksheets, computers, experiments are bedded in contexts - and not just male contexts - there's music and food and sport and archaeology as well as trains and aeroplanes."
And what of the worry that students may become context-bound and be unable to generalise? "It just hasn't happened," says David Swinscoe. "We visited the University College London bio-engineering unit and the students easily made the transfer between the mechanical resonance they had learned in the context of music and the resonances needed to control the bioreactor."
From the very different context of the independent, girls-only Lady Eleanor Holles school, Sandy Stephens agrees. "It's tested to the same depth and rigour as before." The difference is not in standards - LEH students expect to get good grades - but "the students enjoy the doing of it so much more". In both schools, numbers taking the course are already rising.
Salters Horners has aimed its project squarely at the new millennium and the latest curriculum developments. All the key skills objectives are met; students have to make presentations and run displays; they need ICT skills and team communications. Yet, as Mrs Stephens sums up: "It's not easy physics, it's real physics. Just because it's fun and applications-driven doesn't mean the pupils are doing any less."
For further information contact Dr E Swinbank, Project Director, Science Education Group, University of York, Heslington, York Y010 5DD. Tel: 01904 434537. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org