Education stories at the national physics congress

Australian Institute of Physics, Australian Institute of Physics Congress, Media releases
  • Letting first-year students loose in the lab

  • Girls in physics—what’s keeping the door closed?

  • MOOCs—better than uni?

  • Special effects improve understanding of complex science

Speakers available for interview in Canberra. Photos available. Stories embargoed until conference presentation.

There’s more information on these below and much more at

MOOCS—better than uni?

After delivering three massive open online courses (MOOCs) in astrophysics to 25,000 students, ANU’s Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and colleague Paul Francis argue that a good MOOC can be “a better learning experience than the vast majority of face-to-face classes taught at universities”. But the workload is surprisingly high and requires a different skill set than on-campus teaching. Paul and Brian incorporated two innovations in their successful course: holding conversations between the two of them rather than giving lectures; and involving the students in proposing and solving experiments on a mystery bubble universe each week of the course. Paul Francis speaks on his experiences and the latest MOOC trends at 11 am, Tuesday 9 December.

Girls in physics—what’s keeping the door closed?

Girls make up only about 20 per cent of the UK students studying physics in senior years of high school (A levels), even though they are as successful academically in GSCE physics (the year below) as boys. This low number has been constant over the past few decades, and contributes to greatly limiting possible careers in the sciences for women. The Institute of Physics in the UK is investigating why girls don’t continue with physics—is it lack of confidence in their abilities, bad experiences in the physics classroom or the influence of broader school culture? Frances Saunders, IOP President, will discuss the IOP’s programs underway in schools in the light of their Project Juno, which has successfully broken down barriers for women in physics at UK universities. Frances Saunders speaks at 5.30 pm, Monday 8 December.

Letting first year students loose in the lab

Are we teaching science the right way? Many of us learn best by doing, and that’s Les Kirkup‘s approach to teaching: challenging his students with practical problems, but not giving them the instructions for solving them—they have to work it out themselves. With this inquiry-oriented learning approach and using real-world problems Les engages the students’ imagination and creativity right from the start—even students who are apprehensive about tackling physics. His approach also successfully engages students for whom physics will not be a career focus. On Tuesday at 5 pm, Les, from the University of Technology, Sydney, will describe some of the methods that have led to him being awarded the 2014 AIP Education Medal for his contribution to physics education.

Special effects reveal scientific insights

Photo credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Photo credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When data from a tornado in Illinois were fed into a visualisation, the scientists were surprised to find a secondary tornado (the front column of balls on the right in the still from the animation, below) in advance of the main tornado column—a phenomenon their observations had missed.

“It’s an example of how visualising numerical data can produce new scientific insight,” says Roy Tasker, from the University of Western Sydney, who believes visualisation is also the key to ensuring that students truly grasp the difficult scientific concepts they are learning.

Certainly his first-year students have a better grasp of what’s really going on in chemical reactions after seeing, and working with, visualisations. “It’s the key to making meaning from the symbolism and mathematics in science that too often alienate novice students,” Roy says.

With an Office of Teaching and Learning National Senior Teaching Fellowship, Roy will be running workshops for Australian educators across the sciences on best practice in computer animations in education. His goal is to see much wider use of visualisations in teaching science. Roy is following his talk at the physics congress (Wed 10 Dec, 12 pm) with talks to chemists in Adelaide and biologists in Canberra in the same week. His Fellowship will result in national workshops teaching best practice design and teaching early next year, in the lead up to a national forum in 2015.

The animation is available on request.