This Saturday morning I spoke to nearly 100 teachers at a school in Leicester about how exactly we get to know what the temperature is. This is a subject which I find fascinating, but I don’t honestly expect other people to share my fascination. However, this group were amazingly enthusiastic and I felt really quite humbled meeting them.
The ‘Leader of the Gang’ was Helen Pollard, a woman who radiated competence and kindness. At the end of my talk she addressed the teachers and said that when their colleagues complained in the staff room that some child had taken 25 minutes to measure a temperature, they would be able to say “That’s nothing! I met a man at the weekend who spent five years trying to measure one temperature!”.
My talk wasn’t the main attraction. The rest of the day – part of the Institute of Physics ‘Stimulating Physics‘ Initiative – involved classes of teachers learning a variety of hands-on experiments that they could then show to students. This is a really admirable attempt to acknowledge that the educational landscape has changed, and to accept that Physics in school is no longer being taught by specialist physicists. Based on the people I met, it is being taught by some physicists, some chemists, some biologists and some ex-tap-dance tutors! But this initiative seemed to focus on the positive aspects of this diversity rather than harking back to an imagined golden age, which definitely did not exist.
My main conclusion was that this was a pretty bright group of people. And I felt heartened. Here they were on a Saturday morning – many having travelled long distances – just keen to learn. As a member of the Institute of Physics I rarely feel proud of what my Institute does. But in this case, I feel honoured to have been able to help a really noble effort. It seemed that this group was re-inventing a physics teaching culture that is diverse, bubbling, and above all, alive.
I attended one of the sessions before heading home and saw people making a cloud chamber out of an upside down-aquarium. Nothing could exemplify the idea of building a new culture better than this. Using basic household items plus a special ingredient (solid carbon dioxide or ‘dry ice’) to reveal the nuclear events taking place all around us. Anyone who could make such a thing must surely feel that they are a member of the cognoscenti.