There's a hole in the bucket

9th July 2010 at 01:00
My senior colleague went to the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva and all I got was a T-shirt with formulae that I don't understand printed on it.

Actually, it's a very cool T-shirt, aesthetically speaking. Non-aesthetically speaking, it's a very warm T-shirt, because it's black and black is a good absorber of infrared radiation. You'd probably have to be a physicist to think of it in that sense. Or the cool sense.

If you are a physics teacher, you have something to celebrate or worry about, depending on your point of view. The content tables for a revised Higher were released on June 21. All subjects will get new Highers when Curriculum for Excellence comes around, but the sciences will have them before the rest of the troops. These courses are likely to be very similar to those that will be run under the CfE flag.

Early adopters can kick off next August, should they choose to do so. Having been on the team that helped develop the revised course, I am hoping that a good number of schools choose to do so.

A while ago, I mentioned Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis's description of physics as "smashing particles together at huge energies in massive machines or watching ice melt in a bucket for an hour". I don't remember the comedians' exact quote. I do think there has been an attempt in the new course to include exciting, modern physics. The problem is that it is much easier to do classroom experiments with ice and buckets than it is to build a collider using what little is left in a departmental budget once the photocopying has been paid for.

The consultation process reveals that, while many are in favour of the new topics, a significant minority of physics teachers believe good content that can be supported by practical work has been scrapped in favour of trendy physics. It may transpire that some much-loved content finds its way to National 5.

There are groups of people, including my aforementioned colleague, who are also working to develop practical work in the new topics. I've footered about with a few ideas myself. Supposing we fail to come up with decent practical work, should we go back to ice and buckets? I don't think so, for two reasons. One is that astrophysics and particle physics are stimulating pupils' curiosity. They come into class asking about the Large Hadron Collider. You could extrapolate this argument and suggest we base our physics course on the X Factor, because pupils are into reality TV, but that's taking it a bit far.

Secondly, I recall the physics of my own school days as dealing with established laws that nobody questioned. These laws, rightly, will form the majority of the content of the new Higher. How refreshing, though, to include some physics that is not done and dusted, where we don't yet know all the answers. This is physics at its frontiers, science that men and women only a few years older than the pupils themselves are working on. Look, kids! Not all physics is all sown up and understood by middle-aged bald guys who have been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

Gregor Steele also owns a T-shirt bearing physics formulae that he does understand.

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