Isaac Physics workshop – Gallery

Today we’re hosting a teachers’ workshop delivered by Ally Davies of the Isaac Physics project, which aims to support and develop problem-solving skills amongst A-level physics students. It’s deliberately and – we’re finding today – rather gloriously challenging.

We’ll have more to say about Isaac Physics in the coming months, but for now, here’s a gallery of physics teachers showing the various stages of confusion, insight and triumph.


Large boxes. Small boxes. Boxes with packing chips. Boxes with inflatable air cushions. Boxes with other boxes inside them. Boxes of boxes. Think Physics is all about the cardboard. And, of course, about the potential contained therein. Take this, for example:


In the eyes of a physicist, a rubber mallet allows us to solve all engineering problems.

Also in our deliveries this week: a significant portion of the European Glue-Gun Mountain; soldering stations; an audio amplifier; power supplies; cutting mats; laser-cutter acrylic; mitre boxes and saws; colour filtering goggles for primary-age kids; a microphone handgrip; and a Dynalite Pro 2, which we think is some sort of microscope.

Now we’re just waiting for the construction kit which helps us to make things with the cardboard boxes to arrive.

Lights, Camera, Image!

Ruth Wiltsher from the Institute of Physics led the Lights, Camera, Image CPD workshop tonight:

Tinkering Thursday: 19th Feb “In the swing of it” pendulum edition

Our charmingly softly-spoken volunteer Andrew is filling in some time before his own physics degree by… actually, I’m not entirely sure why he’s here, but he didn’t seem to mind when I dropped a Bare Conductive Touchboard set in front of him and said ‘Here, get that working.’ We always have things going on we can rope people into.

Touchboard is a nifty little circuit board which integrates an Arduino controller, an audio engine, and a multi-channel capacitance sensor. If you’ve seen Makey-Makey, it’s a bit like one of those only with a whole raft of other bits bolted on. It’s more expensive, but much more capable.

Andrew fettles an instrumented pendulum

Andrew fettles an instrumented pendulum

I have a bit of a masterplan to build an installation piece for Maker Faire UK that involves generating sounds (or maybe light, we’ll work that out as we go) which respond to pendulum movement. Creeping ever higher on my list of ‘Things I really should have done before now’ has been powering up a Touchboard and seeing how we might use it to extract data from a moving pendulum, which was the task I set Andrew on today.

There he is at right trying different approaches, attaching foil-plate electrodes to the Touchboard and logging the raw sensor output over a serial link. As far as I can tell he’s never done this sort of thing before, so it’s a testament to Bare’s tutorials, the approachability of this sort of tinkering, and particularly Andrew himself that he produced this:


…which is a pretty clean trace. That’s with one electrode stuck to the bottom of the pendulum bob (my water bottle – the blue thing in the photo) and the other resting on the floor.

It took us a while to work out why there’s a double peak on each swing. We think that’s about the geometry of how the plates face each other as the pendulum swings past dead-centre.

The photograph shows a different arrangement, where we attached the plates up by the pivot point of the pendulum. There are several reasons we thought this might work:

  • The capacitance sensor has a limited range, so the smaller motion at the top of the pendulum is beneficial.
  • The electrode plates are quite large, so the one attached to the pendulum presents a large surface area for air resistance. Along with smaller displacement goes lower speed, so there should be much less damping from the plate up at the top than if it were attached lower down the string.
  • There’s less of an effect from the natural decay of the pendulum amplitude anyway.

pendulum-trace-2Happily, the trace from there looked like the one to the right: much more sinusoidal. At the bottom of the waveform you can see where the sensor plates are furthest apart, and noise starts to creep in. It’s not bad, though – there’s clearly something there we can work with.

Next steps include exploring the audio capabilities of the board, and we talked a little about Fourier techniques and processing the data to extract frequency information.

I’m excited to be underway with this at last. I’m absolutely unsure if where we’re heading is physics or kinetic sculpture, and I’m entirely happy about that: there’s something very appealing to me about taking simple objects and mechanisms, instrumenting them, and using the data collected in creative and interpretive ways.

We’ll see where the investigation goes, and we’ll keep you posted with progress.




Guest post: Work experience week

My name is Callum Webster, and I’m a Physics student in my first year at Churchill Community College Sixth form. I’ve just completed a three day work experience placement with Think Physics at Northumbria University.

Day one: Monday

I was slowly introduced and settled into my surroundings at the University. I was in town for 9:20 and admittedly had to ring the head of my placement Emma to navigate my way to the office. Once I found my way in I was given a work space and a place to put my bag down (finally), then was taken to the meeting room with Emma to discuss what Think Physics is about. That cleared up brilliantly what the office is all about and what I would be doing.

I soon got cracking. I had to write a case study about myself, which I particularly enjoyed, I just relaxed and wrote a bit about me, why I chose Physics as a whole and why I chose Think Physics for my work experience. I then got cracking on some relevant focused tasks. I was asked to create a series of Powerpoints relating to STEM in the North East, which were focused on my aims to be a teacher and hence thinking about the different age groups the presentations may be displayed to.

Early progress on the sun projector kit.

Early progress on the sun projector kit.

After lunch (which was impressive, by the way) I worked on constructing a sun projector from a kit which turned out a lot more successful than I expected given my poor record with design technology. The team provided a cutting board, glue gun and anything else you could need, it was an enjoyable distraction from normal office work. For the last half an hour of my day, my timetable had me down to do this, write up the first day of my placement in a blog.

Day two: Tuesday

I’ve had as good a day as yesterday, if not a better one. I got in comfortably, said good morning to everybody and was off. I had to finish the last of the three presentations ready for schools during science week. I’d just finished the animations when I looked up and realized there was about half an hour until lunch, how time flies!

Planning talks

Planning talks

Next on my timetable was to plan a talk to a primary school surrounding the solar eclipse. I liked this as I could tell the team has specifically designed this around my dreams for the future to be a teacher. I had just got onto what would be the last ten minutes of a lesson in my plan when I was given a request I couldn’t refuse: lunch!

After Lunch I continued my construction project, now fitting a lens to the model, which is further than I’ve ever made it with these sort of things in the past. Jonathan was in a meeting with Carol but when he returned I got to carry out a little experiment, being trusted with a very high-tech Infrared camera and experimenting with scenarios such as a bin bag in front of the face and mixing hot water with cold in a tub. We were planning for a trip from multiple schools which was going to happen on day three.

We seemed to have a pretty successful set up with a display on a big screen and a cool experiment, good work overall that afternoon. Finally, I returned to the office for the last 15 minutes or so to quickly get this down.

Final day: Wednesday

Working with the pendulum in the undergraduate lab

Working with the pendulum

I can’t believe this placement is practically over, I’ve enjoyed myself a whole lot and the time has just flown by. I started the day a little nervously if I’m honest as I was working in a lab with Pietro, Gary and the first year undergraduates. A lot of new faces for one year 12 like me. However I really enjoyed my experience in the lab, Gary and Pietro helped me settle in quickly and got me cracking on a first year practical on the swinging of a pendulum.

I felt this was a really useful experience for the future when I myself will be a Physics undergraduate. I learnt things such as equations with 5 subjects, error bars and graph extrapolation. I impressed Gary with my knowledge of straight line graphs but of course had to ask for help on a few things that I didn’t understand which I wouldn’t have seen yet at sixth form. Towards the end when I had finished both parts of my practical I found that if I hadn’t have slipped up on one section I would have had exactly the same result as Gary, which is quite impressive considering I’ve only done a quarter of higher level physics.

Towards dinner I got chatting with a few students, who seemed really nice and as if they were fine with me being there. It was a super three hours that flew by, I really didn’t realise it was lunch until the team knocked on the lab door and asked if I was ready to head down to the canteen.

For the second half of the day it was the same as previous, with Jonathan and then this blog. This time the practical was real and in front of multiple groups of kids from different schools, varying between 6 and 15 students. Mostly they seemed really impressed and as if they enjoyed the demonstration that me and Jonathan put on about 5 times. This I also found useful as again it links to my future aspiration to be a science teacher. Following that success, me and Jonathan tidied the equipment up from Think Lab and  brought it all back through to their places in the office (which I’ve got used to by now).

Then all there was left to do was fill out a work experience evaluation form where I was honest about how much I enjoyed the experience and then this, the final paragraph of my blog, on the closing day of my work experience placement at Think Physics, Northumbria University.

I’d like to quickly thank the team for having me and being so thoughtful, welcoming and generous over the three days I’ve been here, it’s been such a good experience for me and I find it a shame to leave actually.

Thanks and all the best, Callum.

The completed sun projector

The completed sun projector

Open call for artists: pieces to support exhibition at The Holy Biscuit

We’ll have more details about this soon, but briefly:

Call for Artists

Open call to support an exhibition being staged in partnership between Think Physics and The Holy Biscuit, marking 2015 as the International Year of Light.

We’re looking for installations, films, paintings, photographs, interactive art or sculptures responding to the theme. For an artist’s brief and further details, please see the call at Arts Jobs.

Tinkering Thursday – Feb 5th 2015

Tinkering Thursday is back. It’s taken us a couple of weeks to shake off the post-Christmas blues and carve out some time, but at last there’s been some activity in the lab. OK, so some of this happened yesterday: ‘Tinkering Thursday’ is more a state of mind than a requirement.

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The university Physics Society is running a high-altitude balloon project, and they’re getting properly stuck into their sensor and tracking package. Or at least, they’ve got the different sensors out of their plastic pouches and have run some electricity through them. LEDs have flashed, coffee has been consumed: all the required conditions have been met for programming to happen.

Meanwhile, volunteer Andrew gleefully seized on one of the Lego Mindstorms kits we found gathering dust on a store-room shelf. They’re legendary kits in education circles, and we’re keen to explore and think how we might use them.

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At the sticky-tape-and-straws end of the scale, this afternoon we tried making some eardrum models with students at Cramlington Learning Village. Not with complete success, it seems: the recommended route we followed led to the weird contraption you see in front of the speaker.

It didn’t work very well. Or at all, in fact. The idea is that you float the ping-pong ball in a tray of water and look for the ripples it makes, but we saw no movement. However, we had better luck with a long straw sticking out sideways, as you’ll recognise in the other picture. So the right sorts of things are happening, we just need to fine-tune a little to see the effect we want. Sometimes progress is like that.

— That was Tinkering Thursday for the first week of February. We’re still finding our feet, but it’s good to see activity. Next challenge: turning ‘activity’ into ‘progress.’

CPD Opportunities in February: KS3/4 Light and Colour, Isaac Physics

We’ve two terrific CPD opportunities coming up late this month, both to be held in our shiny new Think Lab facility at Northumbria University:

Lights, Camera, Images

26th February, 16:30–18:00
This twilight workshop is aimed at those teaching physics at Key Stages 3 and 4: it’s suitable for non-specialists. We’ll investigate a variety of activities for use in the classroom when teaching light, colour and spectra.

Presented in association with the Institute of Physics.

Light refreshments will be provided on arrival.

To book, please contact Think Physics via Annie Padwick,

Isaac Physics Day

28th February, 09:00–15:00
This one-day workshop is aimed at A-level Physics teachers and A-level Maths(mechanics units) teachers, or those intending to teach these subjects.

Delivered in association with Isaac Physics, the workshop will support teachers to develop mathematical problem-solving in a physics context. It will also help teachers prepare their students for physics, engineering and maths courses at University.

Refreshments will be provided through out the day.

For further information or to book a place, please contact

Isaac Physics Day – brochure.
(PDF, 600Kb).

Please do drop Annie a line if you’ve any further questions, and feel free to pass this information on to anyone else you think might be interested.

We’ve information about how to contact Think Physics, and how to find Think Lab.