Sporting chance

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
The ASE's UPD8 service uses students' interest in current events, like the Rugby World Cup, to get them thinking about science. Tony Sherborne describes what it has to offer

The ball spirals away from Jonny Wilkinson's boot. However, many of the students watching think the force of the kick is still acting as it sails over the posts.

This is one of at least 50 common misunderstandings that pupils hold about science. These beliefs are remarkably resistant to change. They rarely come into conflict with everyday experience, so students don't feel any force pushing them towards more scientific explanations. After all, if Jonny himself is confused about Newton's first law, it's unlikely his kicking will suffer.

Science teachers have to find ways to correct all these misconceptions. But lessons spent discussing abstract scientific models can easily lose students' interests. So how can students become sufficiently engaged that they're prepared to challenge their own thinking?

Topical contexts, from the news, TV or films, make an ideal way in.

Teachers can exploit this concrete relevance, and students' curiosity, to pull them towards more abstract concepts.

Science UPD8, an email newsletter from the Centre for Science Education and ASE, is now developing activities specifically for this purpose. To accompany the World Cup, we wrote a rugby activity, in which students look at moments of the game in pictures. They have to think about the forces acting in scrums and tackles, and sort the cards into "balanced" and "unbalanced forces". It's a springboard into why and how things move.

Many students believe that volcanoes erupt out of the top of mountains. To tackle this misconception, we've taken inspiration from Hollywood. A recently published UPD8 activity has students constructing a storyboard for the forthcoming movie Pompeii. Following the plot of the best-selling book and recent TV drama, we've provided scenes of the city through time, showing how the volcano has grown. The students' task is to draw cut-aways that show what's happening inside the volcano. The idea is for them to see that the eruptions actually built the mountain.

Television is coming up trumps at the moment for contexts to liven up misconception lessons. The new quiz show, QI, with Stephen Fry on BBC2, can teach students how our intuitive understanding of the world is often wrong.

On the show, flashing lights and alarms greet any contestant naive enough to give the obvious and wrong answer to the questions, which are often about science.

Cream of the TV crop is the new series Brainiac, on Sky. They try experiments that, for health and safety reasons, you and your students can only dream of. These methodologically dodgey, ethically unsound, hilariously unscientific investigations make wonderful material for tackling students' misconceptions.

Combining UPD8-style activities with tried and tested strategies could help loosen the grip of misconceptions. However, we cannot claim it will make students into world class athletes or improve their lives in general.

Apparently, physics teachers get electrocuted as often as those who believe current gets used up round a circuit.

Tony Sherborne is executive editor of UPD8. You can subscribe by emailing UPD8 will start again in late January

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