Is physics boring?

This is a guest post by Hannah Coleman, a 2nd year physics undergrad here at Nottingham. (Hannah’s YouTube channel is well worth a visit for insights into student life and the trials and tribulations of studying physics.)


One of the more unusual aspects of being an undergraduate is that you are sometimes asked to attend staff meetings as a ‘student representative’. I’ve attended many meetings in my past life where people waffle on for a very long time about all things that should be done but never actually happen. Thankfully the Outreach Committee meetings in the School of Physics and Astronomy don’t fall into that category.

One of the agenda points today was feedback from the Diversity Committee. Our school really works hard to tackle diversity issues in physics, not just for our undergraduate courses, but also, and especially, for A Level physics. Data from 2016 indicates that only 1.9% of girls progress to A Level physics, while 6.5% of boys choose the subject. The other two sciences (and maths) have a much less pronounced gender split.

There are many complicated and subtle reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A Level and university, and these need to be countered very early on. However, one reason that was discussed more than briefly at today’s meeting was the idea that physics is boring. In a room filled with half a dozen physicists, this is a ridiculous notion. Yet I think it is worth considering.

I can only really speak from personal experience, but I have vivid memories of being routinely disappointed by science at school. I received most of my secondary education in South Africa under the IGCSE system, in a school that was mostly driven by money and results, but I had some really good teachers. There were only two male teachers and they taught art and geography, so I certainly wasn’t lacking female roles models in the sciences. I remember both of my maths teachers being very enthusiastic, and they made the classes fun, and the problems seem like puzzles. (I still managed to bag myself an E at IGCSE, but that’s a story for another time).

But the physics sucked.

Now, physics is a truly incredible subject, and the people who study it tend to be fairly passionate and enthusiastic. With the amount of time spent banging your head against a wall while trying to make sense of some problem or other, the enthusiasm is almost a prerequisite. So why is school physics so boring?

I think physics at school is robbed of almost everything that makes it such a fascinating subject. Velocity is boring. Potential energy is boring. Friction is boring. It can all be so incredibly dry when it’s void of any greater context and/or taught by someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject. I remember looking forward to the one lesson of the year that had anything to do with astronomy, only to be hugely disappointed because we learnt about the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, the solar system is pretty incredible, but it felt like we learnt the same facts we learnt at primary school. Where were the quasars, the black holes and the expanding universes?

I saw this same disappointment countless times as a secondary school teaching assistant, and I tried my best to explain to those kids that all of physics was just as interesting if they were willing to dig deeply enough. But I think the curriculum probably lost them pretty quickly.

As someone who has returned to study later in life, I have often thought about (and over-analysed) the reasons I didn’t pursue physics after GCSE. The three things I come back to time and again are the perceived difficulty of the subject (‘it’s too hard for someone like me’), the lack of role models (‘people like me aren’t successful in the field’), and just how dull it was at school. The latter frustrated me the most as a kid, because it wasn’t a perceived fault within me. I knew my teachers could have been teaching us some really cool stuff, but I was worried it wouldn’t change at A Level or university and I’d be stuck doing something that didn’t enthuse me.

The fundamentals of physics don’t have to be boring (and I’m sure all of my lecturers would argue that they most definitely aren’t!). So what’s so special about friction? Why should I be interested in potential energy? Let’s face it, cars on inclined planes aren’t exactly the most fascinating things, but the underlying laws that govern how they interact have so many applications, and are actually kind of cool just by themselves. I hope that if we can show a few kids a different side to physics, then they might be more adventurous with their A Level choices.

If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because I’m an undergraduate admissions tutor. It was the following paragraphs, however, that really hit home:

I know this because it happens each year, and it happened to me all those years ago when I failed one of my A-levels.

And what 30 years of experience has shown me is that if you end up not getting your first – or even second – choice of university place and have a tense couple of days on the phone sorting out new plans through the clearing process, then you will look back on this as something positive.

I ended up at a university I had never visited. It proved to be the best thing that happened in my education. And, like me, each year students come back at Christmas from their first term at university telling us that the unexpected change of plans has worked out to be brilliant.

Fortunately, I didn’t fail any of my Leaving Certificate exams — extreme exam failure was to come later on in my academic career — and I went on to start my BSc in Applied Physics degree at Dublin City University the following month. DCU was a small university at the time and I made my choice to go there not on the basis of prestige or national/international ranking  — in any case, the pseudostatistical, pseudoscentific, faux-quantitiative nonsense of university league tables hadn’t yet been spawned back in 1985 — but solely on the sense of excitement and, indeed, ‘belonging’ I felt when I attended a DCU Physics open day. (I’ll not bang on about the dubious value of league tables again, except to repeat that many A-level students show a healthy and laudable cynicism when it comes to the numerology of university rankings.)

Barton’s point about exam failure is particularly well made. I’ve been a personal academic and pastoral tutor for undergraduate students at Nottingham for the last eighteen years and it is always heartbreaking to have to tell a tutee that they have failed exams or, worse, can’t progress on their preferred course. This, of course, feels like the end of the world to them: how can they ever recover from what they see as abject failure?

So I tell them that I failed Year 3 of my four year BSc degree in Applied Physics at DCU.

Badly.

Appallingly badly.

For a couple of exam papers I did little more than write my name on the cover sheet. This was because I was rather more focused on the band I was in at the time, returning home to Monaghan at weekends to rehearse/play gigs and using my revision time to write riffs, lyrics, and songs.

Not clever.

But if I hadn’t failed my third year exams, and had to resit the year, then I am absolutely certain that I would have similarly drifted through my fourth year and graduated with, at the very best, a low 2.2 or, most likely, a 3rd class degree. Failing my exams, in the words of a band whose songs we used to cover at the time, hit me “like a battering ram”. I repeated 3rd year and went into my final year with many orders of magnitude more motivation and commitment. I graduated with a 2.1 (the pass mark I was ‘carrying’ from my third year due to the resits didn’t, let’s say, work in my favour) — enough to take up a PhD.

Less than a year into my PhD I knew I wanted to pursue a career in academia. (For the reasons discussed here).

I recount this story to tutees and students who have failed exams to echo Barton’s advice that it really isn’t the end of the world when things don’t go to plan. I certainly don’t recommend failing exams as an effective study skill or as an efficient strategy for career development. Nonetheless, a failed exam or two can often act as a catalyst to improve a student’s overall motivation and performance.

But that’s enough about me. My secondary school and undergraduate days are so far in the past that my memories of those times have a subtle reddish hue. Let’s instead hear from Jason Patrone, who graduated last month from Nottingham with a thoroughly well-deserved 1st class hons BSc in Physics (and is featured on the front cover of the School’s most recent newsletter):

I got a C, D and E grade at A-level. I then worked for six years in a job I didn’t find rewarding, before making the decision to return to university in 2011. I did the Foundation Year because of the `non-standard’ A-level grades, getting an overall mark of 81% for the year. I then transferred to the BSc and for each year of the degree I secured a 1st class mark.

The second year of the BSc I found the most challenging. Would I have put the same effort in, come the 2nd year crunch time, if I had sailed through A-levels? I doubt it.

Whether it means a kick up the arse for a bogey year/bad results, or facing the harsh realities of a crap job, any glimpse at what bad results leads to — or even just a blunt reminder that you didn’t do what you know you are capable of — works wonders.

Or, as Barton so eloquently puts it in his open letter, “the reality is that sometimes it’s the unexpected events in our lives that are the richest and most rewarding.

 

[Edit 13/08/2015, 11:03 — Drat. Forgot to mention that the cartoon above is from the wonderful xkcd and that it’s made available under a Creative Commons licence.]