The budgie has flown

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Physics is, was and always will be fun. I'm sure there is the title for an innovative textbook in there somewhere.

Just before the summer break, physics teachers received news that one aspect of the subject that might have made it less attractive for a number of pupils is about to go. Ask a physics student what they find unappealing about it and the chances are that you will get the reply: "There's hunners o formulas tae learn."

As a physics teacher, I have learnt dozens, if not hunners, of formulae. I have picked them up through constant use over three decades as a pupil, university student and teacher. Aware that the average pupil does not use most physics equations often enough to learn them by osmosis, I have spent time throughout my career working with kids trying to come up with ways of making rote learning easier. We have developed a US Marine-style chant:

"Listen to my physics rhyme Distance equals speed times time."

For weight = mass x gravitational field strength, or w = mg, I urge them to imagine that they are hitchhiking beside a road carrying a heavy pack, hoping that a sports car will stop. They are waiting for an MG. A few years ago, a couple of girls came up with a double A4 sheetful of mnemonics and tips of such wit and ingenuity that I made them available to anyone who wanted them.

A child who starts S3 physics this session will not have to worry about this as formulae sheets will be provided in exams from 2006. Some highly respected colleagues see this as dumbing down but others, myself included, are cheering. Why should pupils not have access to such a resource?

Confronted with an Advanced Higher student about to carry out an investigation into the viscosity of wallpaper paste, I do not pluck the equation out of memory. It is one I come across around twice a decade and it hasn't stuck. Rather, I dive for some grandly titled tome - Advanced Laboratory Physics with Experimental Analysis is Fun - and look it up.

What is good for the chrome-domed fortyish type with the tie should also be good for the spiky-haired teenager (with the tie). I mean, come on. How often are adults required to rote learn?

I was fond of telling pupils that, given time, I could teach a budgie the formulae of physics (actually, I patronised them by saying "formulas"). The real skill is choosing the right equation and putting in the correct values.

Now the budgie side of the subject has flown the coop, I would venture to say that physics is even more fun.

Gregor Steele was not one of those who wrote "no it bloody isn't" inside his copy of Physics is Fun.

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