Taking the fear out of physics through the SPN summer schools

In my experience, when science teachers hear the word “physics” they seem to go pale and swiftly move on to another subject. For some, finger nails on a chalkboard would be a preferable experience.

By degree, I’m not a physicist. I spent many of my academic years studying medicine at Bristol, but during my training my circumstances changed rather unfortunately. That’s a story for another time, however.

Right now, I’m a recently qualified teacher – still within my first five years of teaching – and, like all of us science teachers, have had to teach all the disciplines. My first few years of teaching were spent teaching mostly biology, chemistry and applied science – with a handful of modules of physics. I guess that’s because my degree was in medicine and the department heads thought it best to leave the physics to their seasoned veterans.

I’ve moved around a few schools, so when I first started working in Bristol, I was employed as a physics specialist – mostly because in my vast amount of spare time outside of teaching (ha!), I’m studying for a master’s in medical physics. I was asked to put together a plan to reintroduce A-level physics to the school for the next academic year – being a bit rusty with the physics, I was a little apprehensive!

Fortunately, the head of science at this school had experience of working with the IOP’s Stimulating Physics Network previously, and recommended that I join one of the chemists on their summer school up in York – as the more local courses had already closed for applicants.

What strikes you first about the venue for the summer school in York, for those of you not familiar with the National STEM Learning Centre, is that it doesn’t look like a stuffy old building. It’s very modern and it almost feels as if it is much larger on the inside.

You arrive, you’re greeted, there’s timetables everywhere, clearly labelled out for whichever course you’re expected to be on, you’re issued an information pack with login details and your accommodation details. Accommodation is within student halls, but let’s just say they’re a significant improvement over my own student days. There’s plenty of space to work (if you feel so inclined), the bathroom doesn’t flood when you switch on the shower and the bed (most important part!) is suitably comfortable. Don’t get me wrong: you can’t expect five-star hotel rooms here – but you’ll barely spend any time in the room anyway.

So, first activities of the course are typically the meet-and-greet. You’re introduced to the teaching and learning coaches (TLCs), the course leaders, technicians and supporting staff. You’re then issued with your iPad and shown how to access all the systems for saving documents onto a dedicated cloud service for access when you get home.

The daily experiences of the course involve a great number of comprehensive sessions focused around specific areas of physics – whether that be energy transfers, momentum, light or even radiation. The activities are led by the highly knowledgeable but also extremely approachable TLCs, and you’re more than encouraged to take part in all the practical activities provided. Ways of modelling the more challenging components are provided – as well as ensuring that the less challenging areas are secured. I’d go into more detail, but then it would defeat the object of you going on the course yourself.

So, you’ve had your brain filled with a day full of physics – and you’re a nonspecialist and you need some down-time before your head explodes in a messy, messy way – but it’s 4–5pm and you don’t know the area. What are you going to do? Retreat to your room and sit looking at the walls until sleep time?

Fortunately, the rather awesome guys who run the course have already got things lined up for those of you who don’t fancy sitting staring at walls. There’s a rather decent quiz in one of the local pubs – which the locals are more than happy to have you join in. I remember not being in the best of teams – I think we came last – but it was still great fun. Choose your friends wisely during the course if you want to win.

There’s also a tour of York on another night, which is rather lovely – the tour guides are highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And then there’s the big dinner on the last night. What you do afterwards is up to you, but if you fancy a revolving dancefloor and cheesy hits from last century…

Overall, the course is highly recommended. I know several (now) friends who attended first, second and are going to be attending the new third year.

It’s great fun, you learn a great deal about the subject and are given loads of ideas that you can take home and try in your own classrooms – and most of the modelling can be done for very, very low cost and sometimes even free!

It’s also a great networking event – I stay in touch with teachers in the north west, north east, midlands and south west, and we share ideas whenever we need to.

If you’ve not booked your place, do it now.

And if they organise a fourth year, you may see me at one of the courses!

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Daf Keyse

Daf Keyse

Daf Keyse is a recently qualified physics teacher at King Alfred’s School in Somerset
Daf Keyse

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