Dr Becky Parker: our ‘amazing’ universe can get students excited about science

Bett

The physics teacher on using space to inspire young people, especially women, to go on and study the subject at university

When Becky Parker lived in Dorset, she signed up for astronomy evening classes.

“I used to lie flat on my back in the middle of a field and look at the stars,” the Kent physics teacher says. “It just takes your breath away: the universe is amazing. I often say to my students, ‘Go and lie on your back in a field.’ And then I say, ‘Maybe don’t do that.’ ”

Dr Parker is head of physics at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, which takes girls in the sixth form. She is sending a disproportionately large number of them to study physics at university. One year, she was told that her students made up 2 per cent of new female physics undergraduates.

And, tomorrow, she will be giving one of the TES Talks at Bett, the leading education technology show. She, along with some of her pupils, will demonstrate how teaching about space and astronomy can help to bring the wonder of the universe into the physics classroom.

For example, Nasa has placed detectors to monitor how much radiation astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have been exposed to. Dr Parker will be discussing how to use data from these detectors to learn about radiation in space.

In space, it is possible to demonstrate all Newton’s laws of motion without the interference of gravity or air resistance. Dr Parker points out that this was why, when astronaut Chris Hadfield played the song Space Oddity on the ISS, his guitar continued to resonate long after he had stopped playing.

“In space, you can see Newton’s laws working beautifully,” Dr Parker says. “But, on Earth, air gets in way. I could do the same experiment in my lab, but I’d have to get rid of all the air. And then everyone would die.”

‘I do a bit of Close Encounters’

The spectacle of space, she believes, is something that awes almost everyone. “On a really clear day, when I look up there, it’s amazing,” she says. “I still do a bit of a Close Encounters do-do-do-do-doo.” She sings the five-note sequence from the film.

“I think space is a way to understand physics. If you talk to lots of people, they’ll say they want to become an astronaut. And if you’re talking about, say, solar panels, it’s much more exciting talking about Tim Peake fixing solar panels on the ISS than pressing numbers into your calculator.”

And, she adds, astronomy need not be limited to academics with PhDs and state-of-the-art equipment. “Our students are doing fundamental research while they’re in school,” she says. “So often, students are told, ‘Just learn this, and you can pass this GCSE.’ But they should be contributing. They should be doing it. They should be living it.”

Some of her students have had papers published in research journals; others have presented papers at academic conferences. Her pupils won a competition that enabled them to send an experiment into space. And two sixth-formers are researching dark matter, in partnership with an PhD student at the University of Oxford.

Dr Parker is also setting up an Institute for Research in Schools, which she hopes will encourage pupils in other schools to engage in high-level analysis and cutting-edge research.

“OK, students don’t have the knowledge of a PhD person or a professor who’s been doing it for 20 years,” she says. “But they have certain things they can contribute, without a doubt. People can contribute at all sorts of different levels, even if they don’t have the full spectrum of knowledge.”

And space appeals across the ages. On the first Friday of every month, Dr Parker runs an astronomy club for local primary schools, and Cub and Brownie packs. “All the Brownies have their stargazer badge,” she says.

When it rains, they make satellites out of marshmallows. When it is clear, however, they look at the stars through the school’s telescopes, all donated by the public.

“When you first see Saturn through a telescope – blimey,” she says. “You realise we’re just living on a little blue planet in the middle of space, and there are other planets out there. People are just a bit blown away.”

This is an article from the 22 January edition of TES magazine. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Or find the magazine in all good newsagents.

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