More than money or equipment, physics teachers need time

Optical fibres. Few people immediately relate total internal reflection to the working of their broadband connection. Credit: Flickr @Groman123

Time is of the essence, especially for physics teachers. My recurring impression, every time I enter a school, is of the pace of life. I thought just in time was an idea dreamt up by the manufacturing industry, but it applies with even greater force to teaching.  Every activity I take part in, as a volunteer, has been adjusted in response to an unexpected event in the last five minutes. “Six pupils will not be here – there is a rehearsal of the play.” “Miss had to take Sam to hospital.” “The school network has crashed”.  Oh for the luxury of a crisis with 24 hours’ notice!

For the past couple of years, I have been  helping regularly with the physics experiments in Lab in a Lorry. Ten or twelve times in a day, I get 20 minutes to generate enthusiasm for light (why is the sky blue?) or sound (what is resonance?) or fibre optics (who’s got BT Infinity?).  It is not difficult to excite half a dozen year 7s or year 8s about these topics, especially when supported by equipment and devices  they have never handled before. Never underestimate the pleasure brought (to the children and to me) by stimulating cries of “Wow!”, or “Cool!”, or, best of all, “I see!”. Few pupils (and, actually, few adults) will have seen how much a wine glass can be made to deform using sound and resonance; few people know why the sky is blue (“it’s from the sea, sir”); fewer still relate total internal reflection to fibre optics.

The obvious benefit of all this effort (it is not only quite expensive to run the lorry, but it is very tiring to be on your feet and enthusiastic all day!) is to the children and their enhanced appreciation of what physics is, and why it might be useful. This is the take-away message for more than a hundred children each day.

After each session I tend to muse on the less direct, but probably more long-lasting, benefits. Those hundred children will have talked enthusiastically to several hundred more, and to their mums and dads. In the lorry we will have chatted to half a dozen teachers, many of them without a degree in physics. Most of them will be almost as entranced as their pupils (although more discreet in shouting out) and they will have learned a new trick or two. Even better – they will have had a few minutes free of school time pressures, while we take the strain for an hour.

If it was in my power I would give to physics teachers not money, nor equipment, but time: time to set up experiments they don’t currently do, time to devote to one-on-one explanations, time to organise a group entry to one of the many competitions available each year, time to devote to STEM clubs, and, of course, time to relax. But then I’d have to be a Time Lord.



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