A physics student sketches out a problem

A new five-year project aimed at developing the skills of sixth-form physicists has been awarded a £7 million grant by the Department for Education.

Since Archimedes, mathematics and physics have been inseparable, and the interdependence continues into the 21st century

Professor Mark Warner

The Rutherford Schools Physics Project, led by Cambridge University Professor of Theoretical Physics Mark Warner, and Cavendish Laboratory Outreach Officer Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, will work collaboratively with teachers, schools and other partner universities to deliver extension materials, on-line learning, workshops for students and support for physics teachers.

The DfE has agreed to support the project with a £6.9million grant over five and a half years, with an intermediate review after three years.

“University physics is ideally suited to students who are fluent in mathematics and have an appetite for problem-solving,” explains Professor Warner. “Universities want to admit students who are beginning to demonstrate that they think like physicists. 

“This includes them sketching diagrams to assess a problem, deconstructing problems, sifting information, assembling ideas from different areas of physics, and using their mathematical skills.”

“The Rutherford Schools Physics Project will provide extension materials for students and support for teachers in developing these key skills and methods, working within the framework of the existing A-level curriculum.”

Professor Warner hopes that the learning resources and activities offered by the project will enable more students from all backgrounds to gain physics expertise beyond school level, encourage more students to apply for physics, engineering and mathematics at highly-selective universities throughout the UK, and equip them to best demonstrate their academic potential.

The Department for Education’s grant will allow the project to deliver a mix of on-line learning, independent study, and work in schools with teachers. Cambridge computer science experts will develop an on-line delivery platform inspired by the successful use of MOOCs in the USA.

The Rutherford School Physics Project will develop its resources in close collaboration with teachers and schools.  Experienced physics teachers will lead CPD sessions and masterclasses, while the Project will work in close partnership with schools interested in teaching their own students and those from surrounding schools on a regular basis. This may include schools with less experience of supporting students into Physics at university.

The programme continues the Cavendish Laboratory’s longstanding commitment to working with schools to widen participation, raise aspiration and skills, and to encourage young people to consider studying physics at university, including Physics at Work, and the Senior Physics Challenge

"The Cavendish has a longstanding tradition of recruiting, training and inspiring physics students," said Professor James Stirling, Head of the Physics Department. "Working closely with school students and their teachers has become an increasingly important part of this. The Rutherford Schools Physics Project will add tremendous value to this work, and I am delighted that the Department is playing a leading role."

The project will also work closely with its two sister initiatives, the Cambridge Mathematics Education Project, led by Professor Martin Hyland and also supported by the DfE, and “i-want-to-study-engineering.org”, led by Professor Richard Prager and supported by the Underwood Trust. 

“Since Archimedes, mathematics and physics have been inseparable, and the interdependence continues into the 21st century,” said Professor Warner. “Applications of physics, including in engineering, biology and chemistry, have transformed the world.

"Physics both underpins these related disciplines and makes fundamental advances in our understanding of our world. This mathematical basis, and the excitement of focussing on problem solving, are the driving force of the Rutherford Schools Physics Project.

“The project team is delighted to receive the DfE’s support for our initiative, which will equip prospective physics, maths, and engineering students with the skills and powers of analysis needed for university studies. This grant will enable us to reach almost all school physics students in the UK, and to work with their teachers.

“We hope that the project will result in an increase in the number of talented and ambitious young physicists with the skills to make strong applications to university.”

Secretary of State Michael Gove said "Professor Warner's brilliant project will give state school pupils access to advanced materials so they can develop problem-solving skills in maths and physics. Cambridge University physicists will provide support for science teachers and online resources enabling many more state school students to succeed at university.”

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