“Niels Bohr once said that those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it,” Professor Mark Warner tells his audience of A-Level physicists on the final day of the 2013 Senior Physics Challenge.

I hoped by coming here that I’d be stretched and learn to think about problems in a different way.

Lydia Kanai-Naish

They are working through the physics and mathematics of the strangest of quantum phenomena –  how electrons tunnel into classically forbidden regions  where their kinetic energy of motion is negative and transcendental equations rapidly appear.

During three days of intensive study, the students, from schools and colleges all over the UK, have tackled problems and practicals based on the University of Cambridge’s undergraduate physics course.  In order to win their place they have prepared an application and been recommended by their schools.

Help and support during the Challenge was provided by Professor Mark Warner, Dr Anson Cheung, Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright and experienced Physics teacher Robin Hughes. 

“We want to help school students start to think like university physicists,” said Professor Warner. “This means sketching diagrams to assess a problem, using their mathematical skills to analyse it, and bringing ideas together from across the physics curriculum.

“We hope that events like the Senior Physics Challenge will encourage more good physicists to take the subject at university, and prepare them to be really strong applicants.”

In the evenings the students enjoyed a taste of life as Cambridge undergraduates, living in College rooms and attending a garden party.

Lydia Kanai-Naish from  Birmingham King Edward High School for Girls, Sneha Naik, who studies at Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls in Hertfordshire,  and Jack Dent, from St Paul’s Hammersmith, took a break to reflect on the Challenge.

“We’re getting experience of 2nd year undergraduate physics,” Jack explained. “We’re working through the Quantum Mechanics primer, which is a formal but gentle introduction to quantum mechanics.”

“Most people know a bit of quantum mechanics but we’re being re-taught to make sure there are no gaps,” added Lydia. “I hoped by coming here that I’d be stretched and learn to think about problems in a different way.”

Jack also enjoyed learning how to set out a problem independently. “At school we have “machines” – we put in the information and solve the problem,” said Jack. “Here, we’re being given the tools to build the machines ourselves.”

Sneha is sad that it’s the final day of the Challenge. “It has really stretched our minds, but I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface. I want to keep going and keep stretching!”

The Senior Physics Challenge is now in its 8th year and is more popular than ever. “We get between 4 and 6 applications for every place,” said Dr Anson Cheung. “We’re limited in numbers because we want students to stay in colleges to experience university life.  We fully appreciate the college contribution and thank them for their support.

“This year we’ve got 71 students. They love physics when they apply, but they don’t fully appreciate the possibilities of the subject at university level.  We’re helping them understand university-level physics and to find out whether they love it the same amount, or even more.

“This is the last day, and we’re still seeing smiles, they’re still engaged with the problems and the lectures – working to the last minute! This is the best testament to their engagement with the subject – and tells us that the Senior Physics Challenge 2013 has been a success.”

• The 2013 Senior Physics Challenge has been part funded by a grant from the Rutherford Schools Physics Project, a five-year project aimed at enriching A-Level physics teaching.

• The SPC also thanks Corpus Christi College, Christ’s College, Churchill College, Fitzwilliam College, Newnham College, Peterhouse, Pembroke College, Queens’ College, Robinson College, St John's College, Trinity College and the Ogden Trust for their support.

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