How will this science survive?

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
The axe hangs over physics courses, with fewer teachers and a fall in students, but with help from universities it has a future, writes Ronna Montgomery

The shortage of physics teachers in Scottish secondary schools has led to a drop in the number of pupils given the opportunity to study the subject at Advanced Higher level.

Also, more pupils are expected to learn in composite classes, with often as many as three levels being undertaken at the same time, by the same teacher.

This has led to fewer and fewer students taking up physics at university.

Worries have recently been aired on Sputnik, the Institute of Physics'

e-mail forum for Scottish physics teachers, that the reduction in teacher class contact time, due to come into force in August, will have a knock-on effect for Advanced Higher courses.

Some schools have already been told that courses which attract smaller numbers, such as Intermediate 2, will be among the first to be cut.

So how do physics teachers ensure that courses continue to receive the quality of teaching required to inspire young people to study physics at university?

The best way is to enlist the help of the other key players in education, the universities.

Since 1994, the number of university physics departments has dropped by more than 30 per cent. Only 50 remain in the UK with a provision for undergraduate physics and many of these fear they will be axed as the student population studying "hard" subjects continues to decline.

In the west of Scotland, only Glasgow University and Strathclyde University retain physics departments, both of which are world players in many areas of research. But recruitment at undergraduate level continues to fall.

Both universities are committed to working with schools and physics teachers to enhance the quality of education that physics pupils experience and to give practical help in dealing with areas of the curriculum where schools may not have the necessary equipment and expertise.

The best example is Advanced Higher investigations. At Glasgow University, Professor Miles Padgett, who is in charge of schools liaison, has been working with the IoP teacher network co-ordinators to improve communication and tailor the content of the teacher support meetings to the needs of physics teachers.

The department has made first-year undergraduate lab scripts available via the teachers' page on its website, and laboratories and equipment are available to pupils working on investigations that would be impossible in school.

Professor James Hough, head of the gravitation group, has been working with Setpoint, the university's team of science communicators, to appoint ambassadors to school physics departments. These are postgraduate or post-doctorate students who are affiliated to schools to assist primarily with Advanced Higher work such as investigations.

The University of Strathclyde offers similar support to teachers in the Glasgow area. On Friday afternoons, first- and second-year laboratories are made available for Higher and Advanced Higher students to come in and undertake their investigative projects.

Alternatively, the brightest and best young academics in the department can visit schools to present a class covering concepts in the Higher or Advanced Higher syllabus and relate their importance to cutting-edge science and engineering.

Physics lecturer Carol Trager-Cowan is currently organising a half-day event for teachers from all over the country. This will include masterclasses in topics relevant to the core Higher and Advanced Higher syllabuses, hands-on practical fun experiments in the laboratory, the chance to meet academic staff and a summary of the most exciting research.

Dr Trager-Cowan enjoys telling everyone who will listen how wonderful physics is. She gives talks at schools, runs activities for visiting pupil groups and organises undergraduate students to visit schools. She also helps to run activities during National Science Week, including a science tour around Glasgow city centre and an internet science quiz.

Ronna Montgomery is the Institute of Physics teacher network co-ordinator in the Greater Glasgow area Glasgow University: www.physics.gla.ac.uk

Strathclyde University: phys.strath.ac.uk

Institute of Physics teacher support network: teachingphysics.iop.org

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