Salters Physics

My school now offers the “Salters Physics” AS/A2 course rather than a more traditional course. It is a very mixed bag containing much that one would expect to find on a physics course but also numerous oddities.

The first section, Higher Faster Stronger (HFS) is introductory dynamics with a few different experiments. The problem students have with this section is that it is a big conceptual jump from GCSE; in particular they now have to use actual mathematics and as I have written previously, Twenty First Century Science (even the more advanced sections aimed at students aimimg to obtain GCSEs in the three separate sciences) is a largely maths free zone so they find the mathematical aspects of AS physics a shock to the system.

The first oddity is the next section – EAT – which appears to be the physics of food. Some of the means of getting food into the experiments are quite contrived. For example, an early Activity requires them to use vernier calipers and a micrometer screw guage to measure the dimensions of – liquorice allsorts. I kid you not. Now learning to use these instruments is an excellent idea but what is wrong with giving them a set of metal wood and metal pieces to measure? We have a stock of them used for density experiments and calculations. I would be surprised if other schools did not have similar samples. This section also includes viscosity experiments – using honey and sugar water instead of substances such as glycerol. Why? Some attempt to seem relevent?

The viscosity experiments are followed by a sub-section on the application of dimensional analysis (expressing all quantities in terms of functions of mass, length and time) to fluid flow. This is not an easy concept to get your head around and will be particularly difficult for students who are mathematically weak. Please note that I am not saying that this concept should not be in the course – quite the reverse. I am saying that the GCSE course the students will have studied lets them down badly by avoiding maths.

Later, EAT again introduces aspects of social relevence by discussing food miles. Social relevence appears throughout this course. The electricity section is put in the context of space travel and includes a discussion on the merits of crewed space missions. DIG includes a discussion on the peer-review process for allocating research grants.

All of these are certainly interesting subjects for informed discussion and future citizens should IMHO take an interest an the impact of science on society. I am not convinced of the merits of making them part of a physics course at the expense of basic knowledge. Such discussions could more usefully be held in Citizenship tutorials or General Studies lessons where the debate would have input from students studying other subjects.

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2 Responses to “Salters Physics”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    I am a substantial fan of Harold McGee and science in the kitchen but I have to agree with you that EAT seems a trifle contrived in this context.

    I would be interested if this were chemistry and students were learning how to hydrolise cane sugar and create an invert sugar syrup but the exercises that you outline seem only glancingly related to physics (no laws or principles, just the form of the instrumentation).

  2. sceptiphreniac Says:

    I remember thinking, the last time I taught dimensional analysis to my GCSE higher maths class, that there was too little time allocated to it. I also noticed how hard the students found it to get their heads around. The result was that only a few understood it. On behalf of all maths teachers I can only apologise and plead the same curriculum restrictions as you.

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