Subject-based physics HE research

A grant scheme to stimulate research into university-level physics education has been launched by the Institute of Physics.

Although a substantial fraction of the population now receive a university education, subject-based, education research at the university level operates on a very small scale and we know very little about how students learn and what the barriers are to understanding and effective learning. Undoubtedly, one of the major factors in this state of affairs is the absence of any sustainable funding route for such research

Because there is no funding route, it is very difficult for subject-based researchers in physics departments to develop a stable research group and acquire the same status as those who do research more conventionally associated with physics. And yet, not only is there a clear need for such research but, with practitioners based in the departments, there is an immediate route to impact.

The aim of the SPHERE project is to create a number of properly funded research collaborations in the UK. In the first phase of this work, the Institute and the Economic and Social Research Council co-funded a project to look into physics HE research. The report emerging from that project indicated clearly the need for such a funding route.

Last year the IOP offered seed-funding of up to £10,000 for developing subject-based higher education research funding applications and received applications from 14 groups representing 57 individuals in 20 organisations from across the UK and Republic of Ireland. A panel chaired by Professor Peter Main of King's College London considered the applications focussing on a wide range of research areas including collaborative learning, diagnostic testing, engaging employers, teaching assistants and mathematical literacy. Interdisciplinary collaborations were encouraged between physics and other departments such as education, engineering, medicine and psychology.

The first three teams benefiting from the SPHERE scheme are now on track to submit grant applications to research councils by autumn 2016:

  • First year physics and supporting school-university transition - University of Durham
  • The impact of visualisation and learning environment on the effectiveness of interactive simulations - University of St Andrews, Imperial College London, University of Strathclyde and University of Manchester
  • The role of computational physics in students' conceptual understanding of physics - University of Portsmouth, University of St Andrews, University of Hertfordshire, University College London, Loughborough University and University of Strathclyde