Physical appeal

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Dorothy Stiven reports on a series of masterclasses for A-level pupils

Numbers taking the subject at A-level and university declining, few female pupils, teachers predominately male - this is how many people see physics in the UK today. But had they attended any of the National Particle Physics Masterclasses for sixth-formers last month they might have formed a different view.

The classes, organised by the High Energy Particle Physics Group of the Institute of Physics together with university physics departments, were held in universities throughout the UK. Hundreds of A-level students and their teachers took part, with local schools invited on a first-come, first-served basis.

An average of 70 students attended each session. And with many classes oversubscribed, some universities plan to hold at least one other session to satisfy demand.

Particle physics is the study of the smallest particles of matter in the universe and the forces between them. Research in the UK is funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. There are research groups in this field at 15 universities throughout the UK, as well as at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

The day-long sessions gave students hands-on experience of the type of interactive graphics display programs used by particle physicists at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva. The laboratory's work revolves around the Large Electron Positron Collider. Students had the opportunity to study real particle collisions from this machine. Other PC-based activities allowed students to make their own measurements of particle tracks, using software designed for schools by Lancaster University.

One of the organisers, Christine Sutton, research associate in physics at Oxford University, explains why the group decided to run the masterclasses. "We wanted to take particle physics out into the community. One way of doing this is to introduce sixth-formers to the work we do in our laboratories."

In the masterclass at Oxford University, Helen Reynolds, head of physics at Gosford Hill, a local comprehensive, was impressed. She said: "Here the pupils can do things we cannot even attempt in school. It's an excellent way of giving them a taste of what university physics departments have to offer."

Sixth-formers at Wheatley Park School were particularly interested in the way computers could be used to study particle tracks. Pupil Andy Brown said: "They have much more in the way of resources here. We don't have access to computers for this type of study. It's a good opportunity to expand our knowledge. " His teacher, Colin Clarke, welcomed the opportunity to bring pupils into the university. He said: "We know physics is decreasing in popularity at university level. It's a problem we need to address, particularly in state schools. These classes help to raise its profile."

But increasing the overall popularity of physics is only half the Jbattle - all those involved in the subject recognise that more must be done to make a career in physics attractive to girls. Paula Melville, physics teacher at Oxford High, an independent girls school, said: "Most girls see physics as a support subject rather than one that will provide a career in itself."

But Christine Sutton believes the situation is improving: "More women are coming into physics as a career. Around 35 per cent of our physics undergraduates at Oxford are women. A few years ago it was only five per cent." She hopes the masterclasses will help to redress the balance further.

Dr Roger Barlow of Manchester University was one of the instigators of the initiative. He said the university had been delighted by the response and hoped next year to involve more universities. He added: "Our mission is to explain particle physics to people who can understand it. We were encouraged to see how motivated the pupils were - they stayed on task and enjoyed themselves. "

And if the enthusiasm of the sixth-formers is anything to go by, the classes are having the desired effect. At the end of the session at Oxford University, students were singing the classes' praises. Abby Millar, from Oxford High, said: "Before today I knew little about particle physics, now I understand it a lot more." Fellow pupil Cynthia Pullen agreed: "None of the other sciences has so much scope. Physics takes in the whole universe."

More information from Dr Roger Barlow, Department of Physics, University of Manchester M13 9PL. E-mail: roger@h2.ph.man.ac.uk

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