In the first of a series of articles on IOP’s new strategic themes, we look at the Institute’s aims for physics education.

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Education provides opportunities, and the Institute’s education strategy is intended to ensure that, in turn, all schoolchildren have the opportunity to authentically experience physics.

To get it, they’ll need a teacher who knows how to talk about physics – or about the world in a physics-based way – and who can give them a real chance to think like a physicist themselves.

Even if they decide not to study physics any further, they should, as with any other subject, all get the option to try it and see whether they like it. And they should have the chance to get at least some benefit from the skills that studying physics imparts: it’s rational and reductionist, and involves modelling and solving problems – abilities that are useful in many walks of life. Physics is not a disparate bunch of knowledge: it’s a way of thinking about the world.

Since an education in physics is so beneficial – both to the student and to society in general – it’s natural for the Institute to want to see an increase in numbers of those choosing to continue with the subject beyond the age of 16. In particular, girls are underrepresented, making up only a fifth of those studying physics at 16–19 level.

For those that do choose to study physics, we want them to have access to a high-quality education. Often this means addressing a whole school culture, and having good teachers is crucial. A good physics teacher can more easily make the subject appeal to students by bringing it to life and making it seem intuitive and logical. This tends to come more naturally to teachers who are subject-specialists, but there’s still a shortage of specialist physics teachers – it would take recruitment of 1000 teachers a year for ten years to fill the gap, but in 2013 there were only 660 joining the profession.

The Institute wants there to be a workforce of engaged, qualified, trained teachers. We’re marketing physics teaching to physics undergraduates and graduates, and also to engineers, and we run prestigious scholarships funded by the Department for Education to attract the very best into teaching. Programmes like the Stimulating Physics Network and Capital Physics aim to get the best out of those already in teaching through mentoring and continuing professional development.

To increase diversity among physics students, we’re trying to show that the subject is intellectually relevant and satisfying. IOP’s work on girls in physics – for which there are currently three pilot projects – tackles unconscious biases in society and in schools that affect the way girls view themselves as scientists.

Finally, the curriculum itself should be engaging, and practical work considered an inherent part of learning physics rather than being seen as something separate. Along with partner organisations, IOP will work towards a curriculum and assessment framework for all age groups.

All of this should add up to a school experience of physics that allows schoolchildren to make an informed decision of whether they want to study it more – and more who decide they do.

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