Life, the universe and everything

Many students are put off studying physics, but those who take it don't regret it
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The Independent Online

When Sarah Maiden opted to do physics as one of her A-levels, she didn't have great expectations. "I only chose it because I thought it would look good to have a science qualification. But since the course has started, I've found it so interesting and it's already clear how transferable the skills are going to be, even though I don't intend to follow a science-based career," says the 16-year-old student at St Bernard's High School in Essex.

Her low expectations were also down to the fact that she found GCSE physics dry. "It was a crowded syllabus and there never seemed to be time to really understand what you were learning, whereas the A-level explores how physics is at the heart of everything in life."

Benjie Gillam, a 17-year-old student at Ringwood School in Hampshire, agrees. "The GCSE seemed to be about getting students to pass the exam, whereas A-level physics is really good fun," he says.

The problem, according to the Institute of Physics (IoP), is that unlike Sarah and Benjie, many students don't hang around for the A-level course to find out. "The fact that young people have often not had good physics experience prior to sixth form is the reason that so many shun the A-level," confirms Daniel Sandford-Smith, education manager of schools and colleges at the IoP. "Another reason is that it's an A-level subject that's often perceived to be much harder than others."

Catherine Jones, head of physics at Ringwood School, believes this is the chief factor in putting off students at her school. "Physics A-level is not necessarily any harder than other subjects like psychology, but it is perceived as such," she says. "Also, psychology can seem more exciting because the students haven't done it before, whereas they've had 11 years of compulsory science."

If physics had "the Time Team treatment", she believes it would become more popular. Indeed, since Time Team has been running, applications to read archaeology at university have risen by 20 per cent and the influence that people cite more than any other is the television series. "There are some television series that make physics accessible, like Science Shack, but they tend to get buried," says Ms Jones. And while physics has, of course, role models ranging from Stephen Hawking to Albert Einstein, it lacks high profile, celebrity mentors who help promote other subjects.

In a growing number of educational establishments, students are rejecting sciences altogether because they think it will be harder to get top grades than if they took, say, arts subjects or newer A-levels such as media studies. Even in supposedly pro-science countries such as South Korea, America and Japan, media studies is now seen as a more attractive option than chemistry, biology and physics. "Students know that universities and employers concentrate on grades A to C, often irrespective of the subjects, and so they don't want to risk not getting these top grades," says Paul Horton, the recently retired head of science at Corn Wallis School in Kent.

He adds that girls are even less likely than boys to take up physics A-level, causing another problem. "Girls see that older girls aren't taking it and may be put off - it's a vicious circle," he says, adding that sciences have been perceived traditionally as "male". The fact that many schools insist that physics A-level students also study maths A-level can also put people off - although this happens less than in the past.

Both Corn Wallis and Ringwood Schools claim that for students who do sign up to physics A-level, most really enjoy it, very few drop out and many get excellent grades. Indeed, Daniel Sandford-Smith of the IoP says, "I've rarely met anyone who has regretted doing physics A-level; yet I've met quite a few who have regretted taking other A-levels."

This is largely because the course content is more stimulating and varied than most people realise, particularly in schools that use less traditional syllabuses such as Salters Horners and Advancing Physics. "The Salters Horners course really set physics in context for me," says Stacie Powell, a 17-year-old student at Oxted School, near Croydon, who is currently in her second year. "It's not just theoretical - we do lots of activities and experiments in which we get to try out the theories." You get to explore some very intellectually challenging questions too, such as, "How did the universe start?" and "What is a black hole?", she says.

A further reason that few regret taking physics at A-level is because the skills acquired are transferable into literally every university course and occupation. Christina Astin, head of physics at King's School in Canterbury, says, "Because physics is perceived as a difficult A-level and because the subject is so relevant to everyday life, this qualification really impresses universities and employers.

"I can't overestimate how good the word 'physics' looks on a CV. It says you have analytical and numeracy skills and it shows that you're a logical thinker and can work with other other people to solve problems and communicate explanations."

Many of her physics students go onto study non-physics subjects at university, among them Charlotte Mitchell, 18, who will be studying philosophy. "Physics has helped me think in a certain way, breaking things down and questioning how they work. I can't think of a subject area where this wouldn't be useful," she says. Indeed, graduates of physics A-level and even of physics degrees, find themselves employed in occupations ranging from medicine to computing and from finance to law.

Physics A-level is particularly useful - in fact, it is increasingly a pre-requisite - for people interested in going into engineering, chemistry and materials science. Mr Sandford-Smith says, "Because engineering is crying out for good graduates, there are a huge number of really exciting careers available, with early responsibility and excellent salaries. Meanwhile, there are many new career opportunities in chemistry and materials science, particularly in the latter - a relatively new science which studies materials and their properties and the way they behave."

For a growing number of young people, A-level physics entices them into a career in physics itself - whether it's in research, medicine, archaeology or national space programmes, to name a few. Professor Kathy Sykes, presenter of the BBC's Rough Science series, holds the chair in the Public Engagement in Science and Technology at Bristol University. She also runs the Cheltenham Science Festival. She explains, "During my A-level, I began to love the way physics makes models of the world which you, the physicist, try to bash down and be creative in coming up with new ones. Some of the ideas within physics, such as quantum mechanics, are so bizarre, surprising and glorious that I found it, and still do, incredibly exciting. Physics involves so many wonderful ideas about understanding the world that it makes for a varied and fascinating career."