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Isaac Physics project makes awards shortlist

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An innovative free online physics resource aimed at students and teachers has been shortlisted in the Times Higher Education (THE) Awards 2015.

The Isaac Physics project was developed in Cambridge in response to concerns that A Level physics courses were not preparing students adequately for degree level study, with one key area of concern being the development of pupils’ problem solving skills.

The project’s online platform, isaacphysics.org, is aimed at students transitioning from GCSE to A Level and on into Higher Education. The site provides a range of problems for students and teachers to use, along with hints to provide some extra support and has been recognized for its work, by making the THE’s Awards shortlist in the Outstanding Digital Innovation in Teaching or Research category.

Isaac Physics is a Department of Education project at the University of Cambridge. Since its inception in 2014, it has developed and expanded thanks to work with the in-house software development team from the Digital Technology Group in the University’s Computer Laboratory. It now contains a suite of tools and content to support the development of problem-solving skills, raise their aspirations, widen participation and build confidence.

Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, co-director of the Isaac Physics Project, said: “We really wanted to encourage students to continue into higher education with physics. Our main aim was to help students to work with or without a teacher. Some students feel that physics is essentially solved and no longer needs deep thought or application – they feel that there are no more problems to understand or investigate and that if they want fresh challenges then studying engineering or mathematics would be better for them. We want to provide the resources for students to encourage them to do physics and to see it is  a subject where there are unsolved problems which can have a real-life application that require keen mathematical skills.

“It has been so pleasing to see how many students are using the site independently of teachers. One aim was to widen participation for students who do not have fellow students to talk to or specialist teachers to help them - and we can see they are using this on their own.”

Jardine-Wright explained that physics students transitioning through schools into university often found the change from ‘scaffolded’ questions – ones where the student is heavily assisted in finding the answer – to problem-solving questions a tough challenge.

“Think of the difference in these terms. You have a puncture on your bike – this is our problem. The answer is to mend the puncture. The scaffolding to this problem is the step-by-step instructions contained in the puncture repair kit. A real problem-solving question would give you the repair kit, but not tell you what to do with it. It isn’t about making it harder, but it is about enabling students to develop the logical approach to problems and see what physics at university-level will be like.”

Ensuring that the site could adapt and improve was built into the software. It was designed so that researchers could analyse a wealth of usage data to enable the project to leaders to learn how to better support the teaching of problem solving skills.

The site still has plenty of room to grow adds Jardine-Wright. “We initially aim to reach 3,000 physics and maths teachers in England and a considerable fraction of their 100,000 students.”

The latest statistics show that users have entered more than 500,000 answers to questions, more than 900 schools are using the site and that there are almost 10,000 users registered.  With the start of the new school year, schools are doing problems at a rate of 75,000 per week – up 10-fold from June. Those using the site include students from around the world.

David Anderson of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Kent said: “The opportunities presented to students to access high quality subject content, accompanied by relevant, challenging, extended questions, is really exceptional. Our experience is that students have found the work stimulating and enjoyable as it has posed a good degree of stretch and challenge.”

The web platform can extend beyond physics problems and it has recently been shared for development in chemical physics and biophysics with the Biological Sciences department at the University of York.

The website has been nominated in the Outstanding Digital Innovation in Teaching or Research Category. The winners will be announced in a ceremony on November 26 in London.

Times Higher Education Awards 2015 shortlist includes University of Cambridge project.
 

The opportunities presented to students to access high quality subject content, accompanied by relevant, challenging, extended questions, is really exceptional.
David Anderson of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Kent
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