Physics is so hot it's cool

11th November 2005 at 00:00
The 15 to 17-year-old finalists in this year's Paperclip Physics competition can't wait to communicate their enthusiasm, as Reva Klein reports

Wherever you look there's Einstein working the room, white fuzzy hair at right angles to his head, talking in ze vay Briddish actors impersonating Chermans do. He's circulating around animated clusters of 15 to 17-year-old students, finalists in the Paperclip Physics competition 2005, at Birmingham's Thinktank. They are there because they love physics, are full of physics and want to communicate physics to anybody who will listen, because they think it's so hot, so cool.

Take Omagh Academy's entry to the competition. One student is puzzling over how circular motion works after a thrills and spills-packed holiday at a funfair led her to explore the question at home on the internet and then explain it to classmates, who, together with their teacher Ruth Cousins, decided to make it the basis of their entry.

The result was a five-minute presentation on "physics around the fairground", in which two "professors of physics" explain to a girl about to go for a rollercoaster ride how it works.

They start off by showing a marble going around a circuit, illustrating how energy changes to centrifugal acceleration, which keeps you from falling off.

"We're trying to involve practical work and relate physics concepts to students' everyday experiences," says Ruth Cousins. "It makes them want to learn more."

Her group made a mini-rollercoaster out of wood and wire to demonstrate potential energy changing to kinetic energy. "They hadn't studied much about circular motion yet, but had questions in their minds about how it works and decided to explore it further. It's when they think about how to explain principles of physics to others that the real understanding comes."

Physics teaching at Altrincham Girls' Grammar in Manchester, which won this year's Paperclip Physics competition, draws heavily on practical demonstrations and experiments. "Demonstrations open up understanding and become metaphors," says teacher Pam Howie.

For Caroline Young, Year 11 student and member of the winning team, "There's no point in learning the syllabus without seeing how it's applied after that. And it's no good if the teacher doesn't see things from the pupils' point of view. A good teacher is somebody who's enthusiastic and can relate things to you. If you get a good teacher from the start, that's all you need."

Charlotte Hargreaves, a finalist from Westholme School in Blackburn, agrees. "In Year 7, I wasn't very interested. It was later, when we had demonstrations, that I got involved and thinking. When you start with theory, you need something to open it up. You need to see things, to do analogies and role plays."

Gender distinctions need to be addressed by teachers if physics is to mean anything in mixed classes. According to Charlotte's teacher, Christine Mayson, "It's evident that girls prefer seeing pictures at first to being told how it's done, while boys are not as visual; they tend to want short explanations without too many details. "

However it's presented, the bottom line, in the words of Dr Matashar, of Leeds Girls' High School, is to "change the nerdy image of physics and make it relevant to their lives".

l Teachers interested in taking part in the competition can request a free copy of the Paperclip Physics DVD - a docu-film which follows a team through the competition. Although the October deadline has passed, if you are interested in taking part in the 2006 competition, late entries may be possilble. Please contact or

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