Developing student research skills in Physics


As part of the recent curriculum reforms in Scotland there has been an increased emphasis on the development of skills in science. Part of these changes has been the introduction of a Researching Physics unit into the Higher Physics course. Higher courses are normally studied by students aged 16-17 years and lead to national, external assessment the results of which are used for entrance to university, college or employment.

It is the intention that the Researching Physics unit allows students to research a bit of topical physics of interest to them. There is no restriction on the topic chosen provided it meets the assessment criteria for the Higher Physics course. The Researching Physics unit essentially consists of three parts: background research; experimental work and communication.

The background research is in effect a literature review and it is likely that each student will conduct web-based research into a topic, or a range of topics, before making a final decision as to what to investigate. As well as finding out about their chosen topic students also need to identify potential aspects for their related experimental work. This requires some discussion with their teacher to ensure the practical work is going to be feasible within the accommodation, equipment and resources available. We cannot all have an LHC in the basement or a 2 metre telescope on the roof!

Working in pairs or small groups students then design and conduct their experiment. The experimental work conducted should aim to complement the data they have gathered during their background research.

The final part is then communicating their findings from both their background research and experimental work in a suitable report.

To assist teachers implement the new research work a number of exemplars have been produced by a number of different people, many co-ordinated by the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC). These are all in novel topics and not ones studied as part of normal course work or involving classic experiments or relationships. Exemplars have been produced on: Ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer; Detecting earthquakes; Detecting exoplanets; Optoelectronics and modern telecommunications; Radon and background radiation; Planetary impacts; Modern vehicle technology; Aviation, and Renewable energy.  The exemplars can be accessed on the SSERC website.

Many of the exemplar topics involve the modelling of techniques used by real researchers such as moving objects in front of light sources to model the transiting of exoplanets in front of stars. The experiments often produce “messy” data, in other words, data that does not immediately produce a straight line graph such as investigating voltage and current for a resistor or unbalanced force and acceleration of a mass. This allows students to develop more sophisticated data analysis and evaluation skills.

Although the writers of the exemplars had particular experiments, using particular equipment, in mind when producing them the exemplars do not have “recipes” for the experiments. The exemplars contain prompt questions which nudge students to develop their own experiments. Discussion between the students and their teacher should ensure that appropriate equipment and resources are available to allow the students to do reasonable practical work. Much innovative practical work has developed as a result.

Many physics teachers in Scotland are unfamiliar with some of the experiments possible or what new equipment might be available. As a result, I and a few others, have been running a number of professional development workshops for teachers across the country on the experiments students might be able to conduct. We have concentrated on showing how a number of different ideas can be modelled in a normal school lab using a variety of simple equipment and readily available software, such as Tracker and Audacity. These sessions have proved very popular and generated lots of discussion.

Modelling the detection of exoplanets

Modelling the detection of exoplanets

Investigating kinetic energy recovery systems

Investigating kinetic energy recovery systems

The results produced by some of the students in my own school have been very impressive with groups producing some excellent research posters and communicating their findings to their parents and guests at our well received Science Fair.


Research posters (1)


Research posters (2)


Reserach posters (3)

All in all, the experience of introducing the Researching Physics unit has been a very positive one which has helped engage and motivate students in much more realistic research activities than in the past where students followed a recipe style experiment and wrote up a standard lab report.

Article written by: Stuart Farmer, Scientix Deputy Ambassador

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