Latest figures show fewer students than ever are taking up physics at GCSE and many trained physics teachers are only teaching maths. In a subject vital to UK plc, Chris Butlin highlights how ICT can breathe new life into physics lessons
Physics teaching has changed enormously over the past 25 years as ICT has evolved. Both teachers and students can incorporate all kinds of imagery - animations, photographs, diagrams and video-clips - into presentation packages.
"My interactive whiteboard, Blackboard Academic Suite, has taken things much further, enabling me to bring together a whole range of resources to use in the development and delivery of lessons," says Glyn Jones, a science teacher at York College.
Ideas can be shared more easily; notes from students' lessons can be printed off; comments, sketches and annotations can be saved for future use. In some schools, voting pods bring a new dimension to discussion of ideas, concepts and views. Digital projectors offer a chance to display and run all kinds of media.
While great use is made of professionally developed movies, the simplicity of use of camcorders and movie editors has enabled teachers and students to produce their own movies, incorporating sound, titling and transitions.
Many teachers and students are revelling in the simple freedom camcorders and movie editors allow to incorporate their own movie clips into datalogging packages such as Fourier's Video Motion Analyser from Economatics (Education). Then movement of objects and people can be tracked and graphs plotted of displacement-time, velocity-time and acceleration-time.
Others are using the motion, waves and diffraction clips in Cambridge Science Media's multimedia CD-rom packages to investigate difficult-to-obtain images and data. Indeed, datalogging is now ubiquitous and, with some of the latest devices, analyses can include graphs, gradients, derivatives, an array of best-fit lines, conversion of data by functions, statistics, fast Fourier transforms and much more.
Displays are no longer limited to laptops- several dataloggers can now display on Palms, Pocket PCs or - as with the Pasco Xplorer GLX, the Philip Harris e.Log and the LogIT Datavision CX - on their own built-in screens. When Fourier launches its Nova5000 tablet PC, convenience will take on a new meaning, with a datalogger being added to by a word processor, spreadsheet, media player, connection to the internet and more.
With such devices, physics has the world at its feet. Here is the capacity to see and discuss data pretty much instantly. As one of my recent Inset teachers said: "Now we can get out and about and bring some fun to physics."
Dataloggers have vast arrays of sensors available to them. While temperature, voltage, sound and motion sensors, together with light/photogates, are still the most common, force, charge and acceleration sensors are available for most. Indeed, more than 50 sensors can be found in some catalogues. In recent times even the cable link has begun to cede defeat to Bluetooth connections, which are easy to use and, for the most part, allow teachers to see what each student is doing.
Depending on the sensor connected, some dataloggers, such as Data Harvest's EasySense Q Advanced and the Pasco Xplorer GLX, can collect data at rates up to 50kHz. The Philip Harris e. Log on burst mode (short duration) can sample at 250kHz, and Pico Technology's PicoScope 2202 PC oscilloscope - and some of Pico's more expensive other models - can do even better.
Leybold-Didactic's VideoCom has added a new facility to datalogging with its single-line CCD imaging camera, which is able to record movement of up to 10 objects and graph their motion. It can also scan and plot the intensity distribution of diffraction and interference patterns, together with filter transmission curves.
Datalogging is no longer restricted to things on earth, either. With my Meade ETX telescope I can use its Autostar handheld controller or the AutoStar Planetarium software to guide it onto a required object and synchronise movement so that the object stays in view. With a Lunar Planetary Imager attached, it's then easy to obtain, save and process images.
On a much larger scale, schools and colleges can have free online robotic access to the 2-metre Faulkes telescope on Hawaii, booking their time in advance, selecting what they wish to image, and noting the effect of different exposure times and filters. Teachers marvelled at it at the national astronomy meeting in Birmingham earlier last year.
Here, along with the low-charge National Schools Observatory 2-metre Liverpool telescope on La Palma in the Canary Isles and the John Moores University solar telescope, students can benefit in their studies of astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology. Plenty of resources have been, and are being, developed to go with these facilities. Scientific data can also be collected and analysed from satellites in space, either via the web or direct with a special receiver.
Modelling of physics phenomena first became popular with the early spreadsheets and the dynamic modelling system of the Nuffield advanced physics project. Today a lot can be done with spreadsheets, indeed, one I noted recently can be used to create a 3D interactive simulation of a particle detector.
However, of wider use is the free-of-charge Modellus, where students can generate mathematical models of situations, produce animations of their behaviour over time, together with graphs of the changes produced. As Ian Martin of Malton School says: "It took me quite a while one holiday to master Modellus, but now it is proving an asset."
For younger students (11-14 years) without such a grasp of maths, the VnR package made available on the Association for Science Education Science Year CD-roms (number 3 onwards) provides a visualisation of how changes of variables affect relationships.
While spreadsheets are useful for modelling and the graphing of data, many find the complexity of their use detracts from their purpose. So, for plotting data collected in experiments not directly linked to dataloggers, computer graph plotters such as djb microtech's Simple Data Handling can prove an asset. They allow the plotting of line graphs, bar and pie charts, and histograms, with associated error bars if required and a range of best-fit lines. I find them invaluable and use one in preference to a spreadsheet.
Simulations of situations that are difficult, time-consuming or dangerous to reproduce in reality have come to the fore. Crocodile Physics provides a wealth of resources covering electronics, electricity, dynamics, optics and waves.
From the US, the free Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy simulations are second to none. Some simulations have been incorporated into whiteboard activities (Learnpremium) or into the vast array of applets to be found on the web.
While such simulations should not replace the hands-on practical work through which students can appreciate real-life problems such as optical alignment, levelling, how to compensate for friction and difficulties with contact potentials, they do offer opportunities not dreamed of years ago.
So physics has an array of relatively new tools or, at least, highly upgraded ones. They can help engage students in more thought-provoking activities and they can capture data at useful rates. And data can also be collected and exchanged over the net - whether it be the length of a shadow at various locations at a specific time, so allowing students to determine the curvature of the Earth, or natural background count data to compare levels of local radioactivity.
The web itself is now a massive source of information and activities. Many sites are soundly and interestingly presented (see suggestions each week in Education Guardian), but a high degree of sifting is needed to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Some CD/DVD-roms - for example, Channel 4 TV's Clipbank - provide video clips within a contextual teaching package. Questions, activities, weblinks and a gallery of photos and diagrams all integrate with the video material. Supporting hyperlinks aid the learning process.
So are these tools of potential benefit, or is there a downside? Some might complain that graph-drawing skills are disappearing, but are they now needed? Others might say data tabulation and the discrete logging of instrument readings are vanishing skills but, again, are they needed when dataloggers do so much?
Obviously the use of such enhancements needs to be taught and some of the pitfalls appreciated - such as aliasing by sampling at inappropriate frequencies or sampling too infrequently so that important data is missed.
Finally, is the teacher becoming superfluous? I don't believe so. It is just that the role is now more one of managing the students' environment, in guiding, arguing, explaining and making the learners think.
· Thanks to Birmingham University's school of education, John Leggott college, Malton school and York College. Chris Butlin is an independent educational consultant