Scientists in Residence

I’ve managed to get through the hectic  first couple of days of what promises to be a very hectic week without feeling too much of the strain, which is quite a pleasant surprise given my advancing senility.

This week a whole bunch of Cardiff astronomers are taking part in a Scientists in Residence scheme at Monkton Combe School which nestles in among the lovely hills in the picturesque countryside near Bath. The idea was to try to give the pupils some sort of idea what it’s like being a scientist – specifically an astronomer – by having an intensive series of teaching sessions run by scientists who visit the school for several days running.  A whole range of different types have taken part, from graduate students and postdoctoral researchers all the way down to Professors. Some, in fact, have been staying overnight there too.; it’s a boarding school, in fact.

As with most things these days, I’ve been a bit of a freeloader in this thing – the course materials were prepared by others, principally Chris North, so all I had to do was turn up and lend a hand on the day. Members of the department with duties at Cardiff have only been able to go for part of the time and even that has meant, for me at least, a bit of dashing backwards and forwards on the train. On Monday I had a full complement of meetings, lectures and exercise classes in Cardiff before heading off to Bath to give an evening lecture on The Big Bang to what turned out to be quite a large and attentive audience of sixth-form students. When I finished I had to get the train back to Cardiff – about 70 minute journey – in order to be able to give Columbo his evening insulin fix in good time.

This morning I was up at six to get the train again to Bath – after doing the necessary with Columbo again – in order to take part in a classroom session where we took the students through activities centred around the idea of using the orbital motions of astronomical objects to work out masses. I found this very interesting. On the one hand the students were keen and very easy to interact with, but on the other this experience reinforced the impression that today’s A-level physics students are given a syllabus that is diluted beyond all recognition compared with what older generations of physicists learned. Even in a private school, with excellent laboratoty facilities and highly motivated teachers, it is difficult for todays 16-18 year olds to learn anything meaningful about what physics is really like.

Not having kids of my own, I’ve only observed the changes in educational standards over the last decade indirectly, so this couple of days was a bit of a reality check for me. Unless someone can be persuaded to force schools to teach science properly again, university lecturers will have to carry on doing what is essentially remedial teaching.

Anyway, I’ve found the last couple of days very interesting and I hope the others taking part in the week will enjoy it as much as I did.

You might reasonably ask why a bunch of University academics – mainly funded by the taxpayer – should be running backwards and forwards organizing activities for a posh private school? The mercenary answer is, of course, that some of the kids we’ve been talking to might actually turn into Cardiff undergraduates one day and even if only one does so, the income that generates for the School of Physics & Astronomy more than pays for the number of person-hours we have put in. But even if that doesn’t happen it’s still worth it. Our plan is to offer this type of activity to all kinds of schools in  local areas, not only for our own recruitment, but also for the general purpose of “outreach”, communicating an interest in science in the society beyond academia. This week is the first time we’ve done it. Undoubtedly some things will work and others won’t. This week we will iron out some of the problems before we take it on the road to more challenging audiences.

It will need to be a good show if it is to go down well in the Valley Comprehensives, and what better way to improve it than to practice on the rich kids?

One Response to “Scientists in Residence”

  1. Steve Warren Says:

    Perhaps the current system where a large fraction of pupils get As is actually better for the average pupil, in terms of understanding, but worse for the top 10% who are the ones we want to see considering a PhD. I came across a student from a particular grammar school recently. Here the smartest pupils are accelerated through GCSE so that they can take 3 years at A level. After completing the A levels in 2 years they then go on to do pre-U exams. It certainly worked with him. He could deal with unfamiliar questions by thinking about principles.

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