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Why not Physics?

Last month, the Institute of Physics released a report called ‘Why not Physics?

The report looked at how many students studied A-level science subjects in different schools in 2016. The good news is that the picture is a little bit better than when the IOP did a similar analysis 4 years ago.

The bad news is that there are still 44% of schools that don’t send any girls to study A-level Physics*.

As well as looking at the number of students who study physics in different types of schools, the report looks at how well students do in their GCSEs in different subjects, and how that affects their choice of A-levels.

“More girls achieve high grades in GCSE physics than boys, and girls generally outperform boys across the board at GCSE.  However, a smaller proportion of girls have physics in their top four subjects at GCSE (65% for girls compared to 81% for boys). When a student does have physics in their top four results, boys are three times more likely to progress to A-level physics than girls.” pg.18

So, on average, girls tend to be doing well in all of their GCSEs, which means that even though they get a good grade in Physics, they also get good grades in their other subjects, which makes physics less likely to be in their top four subjects.

How do GCSE grades influence what subjects a student chooses at A-level? You might think that students will be more likely choose to study A-levels in subjects that they did well in at GCSE.

You can see in Figure 12 from the report that students are much more likely to study a science A-level if the respective GCSE was in their top 4 results at GCSE.

But what happened if a science was not in a student’s top four subjects.

There is no reason why students have to choose A-levels in subjects that were in their top GCSEs. In fact, there are good reasons relating to progression to university or employment, or simply enjoyment, that mean a student might choose to study an A-level that isn’t in their top 4 GCSEs.

Looking at the graph, boys tend to progress to a science subject that was not in their top 4 at about the same rate regardless of whether it was biology, chemistry or physics.

But wait … Girls are more than twice as likely to choose biology when it wasn’t in their top 4 grades, as they were to choose Physics when it was in their top 4 grades.

Read that again.

Girls are more than twice as likely to choose biology when it wasn’t in their top 4 grades, as they were to choose Physics when it was in their top 4 grades.

Why should this be? Why biology? Why not physics? 

One of the recomendations of the IOP report is that:

Schools should provide effective careers guidance that starts at an early stage, focuses on the next educational phase, emphasises the benefit of choosing certain subject combinations to allow progression to a wide variety of opportunities, and actively challenges gender stereotypes and unconscious biases. pg.8

Here at NUSTEM we are working with North East schools to tackle unconscious bias, and minimise its effects on students.  We offer CPD on unconscious bias for teachers, as well as for those who are involved in advising students about A-level and career choice.

If you would be interested in having NUSTEM work with your school on unconscious bias, then get in touch.

 

*This slightly weird definition means that we can also look at schools which don’t have a sixth form, and track where their pupils go.

125,000 rpm centrifuge… powered by hand, made from cardboard

This is outstanding!

One of the first steps in a whole host of blood tests which might be used for medical diagnosis is to ‘spin down’ the sample – to bung it in a high-speed centrifuge and whirl it around, separating out the red blood cells from the blood plasma. Accordingly, you’ll find centrifuge equipment in every haematology lab in the West… but they don’t work so well in places where the electricity supply is shaky.

In 2013 Indian-born Manu Prakash, now a physical biology researcher at Stanford University in the US, stumbled over a centrifuge in a clinic in Uganda. Literally stumbled, as it was propping open a door.

Prakash is the same guy who, a year ago, introduced a microscope made from folded paper and a cameraphone. The result of his discussions about centrifuges is similarly simple yet inspired: his team at Stanford have now adapted an ancient children’s toy to make a hand-powered, cardboard-based centrifuge which achieves 125,000 revolutions per minute. That’s astonishing, and it’s sufficient to prepare samples for a range of tests in just a few minutes.

The ever-marvellous journalist Ed Yong (check out his book I Contain Multitudes!) has the full story at The Atlantic, with more details of all the juicy bits of physics the group had to do to optimise the toy for medical use. It’s one of those simple systems that nobody had thought to study before. Nature have produced the video above, and the invention is written up as a paper at Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The “Paperfuge” can be made for something like 20 cents, and the researchers have even submitted an application to Guinness World Records for the fastest rotational speed via a human-powered device.

Prakash’s group are now testing their design in rural Madagascar, and are exploring 3D-printable plastics in the hopes of being able to cheaply produce centrifuges which are integrated with specific blood tests, or transparent versions which would double as microscope slides.

Awesome invention.

Connecting with Physics

When I did my A-levels a couple of decades ago, there were only two or three girls in my physics class. The situation has got a little better since then, but many girls still find they are in a minority in their physics class. Whilst this doesn’t stop the students enjoying physics and doing well, it can sometimes feel a bit isolating.

To help the situation here in the North East, Think Physics is running a second year of our Physics Connect Network. This aims to allow girls from different schools to connect with each other through on-campus meetings and an online support group.

The network kicks off on January 28th with a Saturday morning session. Award-winning physics communicator Dr Jess Wade will be talking about her research at University College, London, on flexible solar cells. We’ll also look at where physics can lead to in terms of careers.

Later in the term there will be sessions on practical work using K’Nex, an Easter revision morning, and a visit to a local physics-related industry (watch this space for details!).

You can find more about the network sessions here, and the timetable for January 28th, including a booking link, here.

Reece Engineering Summer School

As well as Physics Connect, Think Physics organises a three-week summer school for Year 12 female Physics and Engineering students. Funded by the Reece Foundation, the course provides an introduction to engineering in its many forms. It’s an intense and hectic few weeks, with industry visits, challenges, individual and group research, presentations… everything we can cram into the time.

Applications are now open for the 2017 school: for more information and the application form, click here.

Calendar updates

If you’ve not visited our calendar of upcoming events recently, now would be a good time. We’ve added a bunch of stuff for the term ahead, from ourselves and others. Right now, we’re taking bookings for an excellent programme of lectures aimed at sixth form students, Physics Matters!, and we’re shortly kicking off the second year of our networking and support programme for girls studying physics, Physics Connect.

We add to the calendar whenever we come across something we think you might find useful or interesting, so do keep an eye on it!

This shape-changing visual effects car can… wait, what?

Suppose you’re trying to make a car advert, you’re up against tight deadlines, but you don’t actually have the car you’re supposed to be filming. What do you do?

This sort of scenario is more common than you might think. Maybe the car hasn’t quite been built yet, or perhaps there are late design changes, or the manufacturer could be really paranoid about keeping it under wraps until the grand reveal. The advertising industry spends big money – huge money – and it expects this sort of problem to be solvable.

OK, so you head out to a test track or a desert road or whatever, and you film some other car driving around, then you do the whole special effects wizardry thing to paint a 3D model of the car your client wants over the car you actually filmed. So far so good. But your client isn’t happy, because nothing looks quite right. Dust isn’t being kicked up from precisely the right places, because the wheels aren’t right. And the 3D-composited car doesn’t reflect the world around in a way that’s convincing, because it wasn’t actually there. And it doesn’t move quite right, because you’ve had to guess at all the velocity vectors of the car you filmed.

One of the biggest special effects houses working on this sort of job is The Mill. You’ll have seen their work everywhere, without knowing it, and they’ve just revealed the most amazing solution to the filming-a-car-without-the-right-car problem, the Blackbird. Watch the video above, and be astounded.

Yet in some ways, it’s unsurprising. We’re used to character replacement in movies, where an actor performs in a green suit with motion-tracking dots painted all over them, then a graphical character is animated over them in post-production. The character can be larger, smaller, wider, have more legs, whatever you like. What the Mill have done is, effectively, the same thing but for a car.

The really neat parts are the integrated motion logging and the camera mounted on the roof. The camera seems a bit like the ones used for the cars which compile Google Maps – as the Blackbird drives around it records 360° images of the world around it. Video compositors can then use that data to work out what the reflections on the car’s bodywork would have been, had it been there in reality.

I love this sort of project. It’s plainly ridiculous, and yet it’s solving a very real problem with very real sums of money hinging on it. There’s a wealth of engineering, physics, maths, and computer science involved in pulling together a solution, and you have to get all of that right before you can even start to see finished results and judge whether it looks right.

When everything comes together, you’ve done the impossible, with the result that… nobody notices. And that’s the whole point.

There’s more about the Blackbird at the Mill’s website.

Booklet: What is So Exciting About Physics?

Question: What do the following people have in common?

Answer: They all studied a physics degree, and are all in a new booklet called What is so Exciting About Physics?

Put together by a group of students at Cambridge University called Cavendish Inspiring Women, the booklet introduces a range of people discussing what they find exciting about Physics, and where it has taken them in their careers so far. The booklet’s a quick, punchy read that introduces a diverse range of role models, several of whom are working outside what you might think of as traditional physics-related jobs. Teachers, it’s well worth passing this one on to your students.

You can download a copy of the booklet from the CiW website, and follow the project via Twitter.

Take part in World Space Week 4th – 10th October

World Space week has been celebrated since 1999, when the UN declared the 4th – 10th October to be World Space Week.   The UK World Space week website is here.

When I think about Space, I think about discovery and exploration (and Star Trek, if I’m honest).  This year, the theme for World Space Week is indeed DISCOVERY.

We thought we’d give you some ideas about what you might do to celebrate all things Space next week.

Space Careers

The space industry is a growing sector in the UK.  Think Physics has produced a powerpoint and homelearning activity with examples of people who work in space. Most of them don’t work literally in space, more with things that have to do with space: space probes, satellites, telescopes, that sort of thing.  Teachers could use these activities at the start of a lesson, or as part of an assembly to show students some interesting careers that studying STEM leads to.

The Night Sky

Now the evenings are getting darker, it’s a good time for going out and looking up.  The Society for Popular Astronomy has got a Young Stargazers section and a monthly guide to the night sky.  There’s a map for you to print out and go stargazing.

If it’s cloudy, you can use Stellarium on your desktop or laptop computer to see what the sky should look like, or on tablets and mobile phones try apps like SkySafari or Star Walk.

Although you can often see the moon during the day, it’s more spectacular at night.  Think Physics has produced a Lunar Diary that you can use to follow the phases of the moon over a month.

Space Maths

Space is famously big.  Even our tiny corner of the Universe, the Solar System is pretty huge.  Our Space Maths activity is a cross-curricular activity to develop a scale model of solar system using the same scale for the planets and the distances between them.

Tim Peake

Launch permitting, in December 2015 British astronaut Tim Peake will be travelling to the International Space Station (ISS).  His mission, Principia, now has its own webpage. It has lots of information about Tim, and the science he will do whilst on the ISS.  It also has a collection of activities that you can get involved in based around Tim’s mission.

The National STEM centre eLibrary has lots of different activities that can be used to Space-theme your lessons.

And finally…

Think Physics has a series of workshops to ‘Explore your Universe‘, suitable for year 6 to year 11.  We can run these in schools, or at Think Lab on the Northumbria University campus in the heart of Newcastle. If you’re interested in booking a workshop, email think.physics@northumbria.ac.uk.

 

Yellow Giant Exhibition

Yellow Giant is an exhibition by Helen Schell.  Inspired by the Sun and Space, Helen uses optical illusions to express phenomena of space.

In creating the artwork for this exhibition, Helen has worked with solar physicists, Dr Gert Botha, Dr Stephane Regnier from Northumbria University, and Dr Helen Mason from Cambridge University.

The exhibition is open from 10 September – 3 October 2015,

Gallery Opening times Wed – Sat,  12-5pm.

The exhibition is being held at Vane Gallery, First Floor Commercial House, 39 Pilgrim St, Newcastle

Events for adults and families.

Saturday 12 September 2-4pm
Beyond Yellow

Presentations and discussions with Dr Gert Botha and Dr Stephane Regnier (Northumbria University Solar Group), Helen Schell, Richard Talbot (Head of Fine Art, Newcastle University), Dr Helen Mason (Sun|trek, Cambridge University) and Dr Carol Davenport (Think Physics, Northumbria University)

Saturday, 3 October 2-4pm
Our Dynamic Sun

Solar physics for families: presentation with Dr Helen Mason and family workshop with Helen Schell

 

These events are free, but please book a place by contacting the gallery at
info@vane.org.uk or telephone 0191 261 8281

 

 

 

The Magic of Light Boxes

Think Physics, and Think Club members, had a great time at Maker Faire UK this weekend.  As you may have seen from our blog, we’ve been creating and making things for Maker Faire for a few weeks.

Here are some of the creations from our wall of light boxes.  There was an ever-changing parade of light sculptures on the wall, although some boxes lasted a little longer than others.

If you came along, can you spot your creation?

Partnership working

Although the Think Physics project is led by Northumbria University, it is a partnership between 10 different organisations.

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of spending time supporting teachers from one of our partners, North Tyneside Learning Trust.  I was leading a session for primary school teachers about levers, pulleys and gears – which are in the new National Curriculum.

We sorted household objects, created three sorts of catapults, and played with pulleys.  I suspect that I may have lost at least one pingpong ball in the classroom!

The materials from the session are available in here.

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