The right environment

30th December 1994 at 00:00
January 6 is Environmental Physics day at the ASE Annual Meeting. Catherine Wilson previews events run by the Institute of Physics to promote the subject at A-level. It is increasingly important to teach physics in schools and colleges in a way that shows its relevance to the world in which students live and its pertinence to issues that concern young people. The Institute of Physics is concerned about the decreasing popularity of physics among 16 to 18-year-olds. While the A-level entry figures are still good, in that physics still comes ninth in the list, the trend is nevertheless downwards.

When asked why they have chosen not to study physics beyond the age of 16, students will often cite the mis-match between the physics in A-level syllabuses and the exciting reports of frontiers-of-knowledge research in the media, or the apparent lack of relevance of physics to the world around them. They will also point to the need to digest a large body of facts and to an absence of opportunities to contribute ideas or to take an active part in the learning process.

With the publication of what has turned out to be its very successful Particle Physics Pack in 1992, the Institute provided teachers with a valuable updating resource, in terms of their own knowledge in this area, and thus addressed one aspect of one of the criticisms of A-level schemes. At that time, modern particle physics had no place in physics syllabuses, but one board quickly saw the attractions of this "glamorous" area of research to young people and incorporated modern particle physics as an option. Sales of the pack suggest that it has been very popular and many school visits to CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) have ensued. In the most recent revisions of A-level physics syllabuses, most of the other boards have followed suit.

But how can the benefits of applications of physics be shown in a way that appeals to students? How can the image of physics as always providing unique right answers be countered? Studies of physics and the environment provide some answers. For the past three years, the Environmental Physics Group of the Institute has been working in collaboration with the Department for Education, first to persuade exam boards to offer options or modules in environmental physics (two boards now do) and secondly to develop resources to provide the necessary support for teachers wishing to take up such options.

In support of this development, the Institute will be running a full day of activities on the environmental physics theme at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Science Education at the University of Lancaster; Friday, January 6 is Environmental Physics day!

In the morning there will be a tripartite lecture presentation covering wave-power technology and the extent to which the ocean's waves can be harnessed as a source of renewable energy; the measurement of wind velocities and the importance of such measurement in developing an accurate knowledge of the complex and variable motions of the atmosphere; and the hydrology of a desert region, the threats to its ecosystem and the role of physics in monitoring and suggesting appropriate changes to farming practice .

Throughout the day there will be an exhibition of hands-on demonstrations, computer programmes and other resources to support the teaching of physics in an environmental context, including a newly launched Open University package on Renewable Energy, an exhibition focusing on marine physics with computer-based ocean modelling, geophysics, remote sensing, and air-pollution monitoring .

In the afternoon there will be a workshop for teachers of A-level physics based on the materials under development by the Environmental Physics Group, demonstrating the inherent interest of environmental physics and how the environment provides an attractive context in which to explore key physics concepts. Through the workshop the development team hope to obtain feedback on pilot versions of the new resource materials which should be published later in the year.

By organising such events, the Institute aims to demonstrate its support for teachers in their endeavours to promote a more attractive image of physics to students - within the existing frameworks of A-level and GNVQ Science.

The Institute has recently produced a major report on post-16 physics education which concludes that a radical review both of the structure and content of post-16 programmes, and of teaching, learning and assessment styles, is needed. The Institute is in a unique position to initiate such a curriculum overhaul, and will invest in a preliminary exercise starting in 1995. We look forward to a Happy Physics New Year!

Catherine Wilson is education manager at the Institute of Physics,47 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QX. Tel: 071 235 6111.

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