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31/10/2014

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Making it real

The uncertainty and excitement of taking part in academic resesarch are winners in school physics, argues Dr Becky Parker.

 

The uncertainty and excitement of taking part in academic resesarch are winners in school physics, argues Dr Becky Parker.

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What encourages students to study physics?  Perhaps they find it interesting , feel confident in their ability in the subject, or think it might be useful for their future.

The approach we have at the Langton Star Centre at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys (with girls in the sixth form), is to give students opportunities to work alongside academic and research scientists doing real science themselves. 

We have 230 A-level Physics students from a school of 1000. Nearly 1 per cent of the students who study physics at university come from our school.

Measuring radiation 

In one of the projects we are developing, LUCID, the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector, we are charting new ground in Space. 

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited has developed the student idea into a detector for Space which uses incredibly sensitive detector chips from CERN.  We are going to be able to measure the radiation environment in the orbit of TechDemoSat-1 at the level of particles. We are not sure exactly what we will see because we haven’t monitored cosmic rays at the level of individual particle energies before.  Isn’t that scary ? Yes, but the students say it’s great to be working on a project where the answers are not known. 

How dissatisfying is it for students to spend all their time doing experiments where the answer is on the next page.  Give them an environment where this uncertainty is twinned with excitement, and physics comes alive. This research work is hard, yet students are prepared to put in the time and learn how to present papers, take data and be rigorous. 

Girls too

And does this apply to girls? Of course it does! Interesting physics will excite all, and girls in my view would be outraged if it was said to them that they would only be interested if it involved some analysis of makeup or hair straigteners. Girls are interested in interesting physics and in getting a taste of what real physics is.

On our last trip to CERN, we listened to Jasper Kirkby who talked about how particle physics for him wasn’t just a job; he loved the work and it was part of what he was. The girls responded to this in just the same way as the boys. Let them be so fired up by involvement in the subject that they can’t fail to be excited! 

Results of support

I think that, along with that glimpse of the passion and power of physics, there has to be  support from the teachers in helping the students, whether they be girls or boys, to develop their interests and strengths.  I think that teachers need to help instil the confidence and belief in students that they can contribute. The thing is, young people are so bright and open to new challenges and approaches.  

Today, while the teachers had their training, a whole load of students were in school on their day off making our telescope work robotically so that other students can use it and be involved in their research work.  Another student was coding for a website to analyse LUCID data. 

In our latest project, Radiation Around You, students are mapping radiation aroundKent.  We are using the same detector chips as in LUCID, from CERN. Students embrace the challenges this throws up in terms of calibration, data aquisition and solar physics and geology links. 

I am convinved that this approach can make a difference.   Students know what they are letting themselves in for in physics, and embrace the real nature of the subject enthusiastically. It reinvigorates the teachers too!

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Dr Becky Parker
Dr Becky Parker is Director of the Langton Star Centre at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury
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