A tribute to Brenda Jennison, physicist, teacher and trainer

Image: Shutterstock/Thanatchon Sae-lim
Image: Shutterstock/Thanatchon Sae-lim

I am writing up some personal reflections of my friend Brenda Jennison, physicist, teacher and trainer, who died on 15 March. Brenda’s reach and influence were enormous – shown by the number and standing of the physics educators and college colleagues who came to her funeral on Friday.

Brenda was one of the most remarkable women that I have ever met. I feel privileged to have been numbered among her friends, and honoured, but also not a little daunted, to have been asked to pay tribute to her.

My first real memory of Brenda dates back to the mid-70s when she brought her PGCE students to visit the headquarters of the Association for Science Education in Hatfield, where I then worked. I have no doubt that she also arranged visits to the Institute of Physics, and other organisations providing resources likely to be of help to them. We never had that sort of visit in my PGCE course. Our career paths crossed and intertwined many times after this and Brenda became a very good friend.

On leaving Bedford College, London in 1963, Brenda underwent a teacher training course at Hughes Hall and the Cambridge University Department of Education. From Cambridge, she went to teach at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, a London County Council Grammar School for Girls and one of the 50 schools in the country trying out the new Nuffield materials. She described it as a school taking very able girls from a wide social background, and commented that the pleasure of teaching them left one breathless, many of them being brighter than herself.

She claimed that she almost didn’t apply for the physics post as the then head of science was a somewhat formidable woman and she was terrified at the prospect of being interviewed by her. I suspect that some of Brenda’s future PGCE students experienced similar feelings! Frances Eastwood may have “terrified” the young Brenda, but she clearly recognised her potential and gave her her head from day one. A friend from the same year as Brenda at Bedford College, who joined the department at the same time, refers to Brenda as an excellent classroom teacher who rapidly made her mark.

Brenda really enjoyed her teaching, especially her involvement with the trial Nuffield Physics scheme, and her interactions with her students, and because she enjoyed it, she hadn’t really intended to leave. However, she had already demonstrated her skills as a teacher of other teachers on Nuffield in-service training courses, and her head of science, without her knowledge, sent off for an application form for the post of training physics teachers at Cambridge. Brenda applied and was appointed in 1970, becoming the only female physics teacher trainer in the UK at that time.

In the more than 30 years that followed, Brenda trained nearly 350 physics teachers, which is an impressive figure, but while it quantifies her contribution to physics teacher training, it does not reveal the quality of her work. Well before Brenda retired, I used to say: “Think for the very best teachers of physics in England and Wales and I will bet you that the vast majority of them were trained by Brenda.”

Asked once by a student what were the characteristics of a really good physics teacher, Brenda replied:

  • A love of physics and wanting to learn more
  • Enthusiasm to hold a conversation with students about physics
  • A willingness to get involved beyond the school walls, to bring in ideas to keep your teaching alive and lively
  • Being self-motivated and enjoying your teaching.

Brenda exemplified all these characteristics, and more, in her teaching in school and in her teacher-training. She loved physics and never stopped wanting to learn more. She not only had enthusiasm for conversation with her students but also used those conversations to challenge them, and thus deepen their understanding.

Getting involved beyond the department’s walls, Brenda took her students out and about to a wide variety of venues – the Humber Bridge, Alton Towers, the Thames Barrier, power stations, research establishments, museums, etc – and, more recently to CERN. Indeed, such was her enthusiasm for the CERN experience that she chartered an aeroplane so that she could take local sixth-form students there as well, having them sleep over at the Cavendish on a Friday night, in order to make a very early start on the Saturday morning and then to fly back later in the day.

The Cavendish was a great resource for Brenda in her promotion of physics to young people, and I would suggest that she was a great resource for the Cavendish. With the support of the IOP, she established the Cambridge Physics Centre there, running lectures and other activities for teachers and school students in the area. When the Institute put forward the idea of an exhibition for school students demonstrating the application of physics in industry and research, Brenda embraced it and Physics at Work was born in Cambridge. The 2017 exhibition will be the 33rd, and, as each exhibition caters for of the order of 2,700 students, that’s a total of more than 85,000 students who have benefited from the experience.

Space does not allow to list all of Brenda’s achievements – her support for the Institute of Physics, her contributions to the much-used Practical Physics website, her championing of girls in physics, her international links, especially with the physics education community in Japan. Whenever she engaged with a project, an initiative or an organisation, she did so wholeheartedly, giving generously of her time and her talents.

For the IOP Education Group she organised meetings and conferences and served as secretary and then chair. Not only did she herself engage, but she encouraged others to do so and was always looking out for younger people to take over in due time. She served on various education related committees and on Council. In 1996 she was awarded the Institute’s Bragg Medal for her outstanding service to physics education, and in 1999 was awarded an MBE.

As Brenda’s retirement date approached, I was one of those who worried about how she would cope with her new lifestyle – but she had no intention of settling to a quiet life, and took herself off on cruises, trans-continental train journeys and all sort of other amazing global travels. Brenda was planning another big expedition in early 2014 but in late 2013, she suffered a setback in her health and by the end of January she had been admitted to Addenbrooke’s. Throughout the three years of illness and treatment that followed, Brenda was amazingly brave and stoical. She took an interest in all the tests and equipment used as part of her treatment and read widely and deeply to acquaint herself with the relevant medical facts and procedures. Typical of her not giving in to her illness, when I came to visit her in January, she insisted, having booked a room for me in college, that despite the back and other pain she was suffering she would walk across with me, in wind and rain, to make sure that the room provided everything I needed.

In a chapter of a book about Eric Rogers, the man who laid the foundations of some of the very best physics teaching, Brenda wrote in conclusion: “His spirit will live on into the next century and his many dedicated children of physics are his memorial.” I think we could write similarly of Brenda. She was such a good friend to so many of us and we will miss her greatly, but, her spirit will live on for many years to come, and her many students, who became such excellent teachers of physics, are her memorial.

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Catherine Wilson

Catherine is a physics educationalist who followed a career in teaching with 17 years at the Association for Science Education and was education manager at the IOP until 2004. She is am honorary fellow of the Institute and was awarded an MBE in 1998.

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