Curious tale of a red latex toy frog

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Physics can be entertaining, and that's no joke. Andrew Mourant reports

Gary Williams is an entertainer. He enjoys playing the guitar and using a song or two to get across scientific concepts.

As national co-ordinator for the Institute of Physics (IoP) network, he is at the heart of its mission to inspire teachers with new ideas.

This week, he brought an array of curious objects to the physics lab at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, Dolgellau, to inspire an audience of old hands in the classroom and postgraduate certificate in education students starting their careers. For example, a red latex toy frog and a piece of fishing elastic were tested to their limits alongside a rubber band to compare how far they will stretch.

He has also been known to set homework that involves children recording a song and playing it back next lesson. For example, in lyrics composed to the tune of English football anthem Three Lions, "Then we'd know, blow by blow, what's happening when air oscillates, and ear drum vibrates and stimulates your hearing organ".

Wales needs scientific inspiration - half the country's specialist physics teachers are over 50. Elizabeth Eastwell, a PGCE student, hopes to help fill the gap.

"Some of these ideas are brilliant," she said. "Being able to teach physics concepts this way is great, and it's so simple. It shows how you can apply them to everyday life. People will remember things through the toys. "

All the apparatus fits into a suitcase that Gary and his IoP colleagues can take to conferences or in-service training sessions, along with hand-outs containing more information about the ideas and where to get the apparatus.

Most concepts are aimed at key stages 3 and 4. Some ideas are suitable for demonstrations, others for coursework. They have been devised with cost as well as simplicity in mind.

"There's no point in showing people expensive things," said Gary. "We hope they will go away and start swapping ideas."

Meanwhile, the WJEC, Wales's exam board, is planning changes to its GCSE physics syllabus from September. Unpopular coursework based on practicals will be replaced by experiments prescribed by teachers.

"These will be an integral part of the course rather than a bolt-on," says Gareth Kelly, WJEC examinations officer for physics.

There will also be a new unit based on how physics applies in the wider world, for instance looking at wind farms and mobile phone masts. It will also be designed to help students better understand what scientists do.

"We hope pupils will come out more scientifically literate and be able, for instance, to make a more critical analysis of data they see in newspapers,"

said Mr Kelly.

He admits there will be less scientific content as a result but denies the course will be less rigorous. "The time that pupils become academic physicists is at A-level," he said. "We will still do the basics."

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