What’s the catch?

Last weekend Alison Campbell and I took a trip to New Plymouth to do a day session with final year school students to help them prepare for their physics and biology scholarship exams. (Alison did the Biology half, I did the physics). I do hope the students got something useful out of it. Doing this kind of thing certainly teaches me things too – it really gets me focused on the essential concepts behind physics, and being able to communicate them in simple terms.   (Talking about communication – I head down to Wellington very shortly to give a cafe-scientifique-style talk at Te Papa  on The Large Hadron Collider – it’s a little bit daunting to be honest – don’t quite know which politicians may sneak in the back of the audience…)

Anyway, one question I was asked on Saturday by a teacher is whether the scholarship physics questions all have ‘catches’ in them. Is the answer always as simple as it seems, or is there always some nasty sting in its tail?  Well, to be honest (and note that I am not in anyway involved with the school examination process), I would say no.  I don’t think there are many catches, as such. That is, I don’t think the examiners deliberately set traps for the students. But what the questions do involve is applying lots of different physics concepts to a single problem in an entirely unfamiliar setting. A student really needs to know his or her physics very well to tackle a scholarship problem. Putting a catch in is just plain vindictive – and I don’t think it is necessary to identify the really capable students. But remember, I’m not an examiner, that’s just my impression.

This application of several concepts is pretty well how physics works in practice – the stuff that physicists like myself do. As such the scholarship questions are excellent – they are more like real world problems than the straightforward ‘what is the current flowing through the resistor?’-style question of other exams. If you can do the scholarship questions, you should feel confident about your ability as a physicist.

NB After I got back to the motel after the session, I sat down and worked through a question from the 2008 paper that I hadn’t done before.  The students have 3 hours to do 6 questions.   I did this question in 40 minutes…

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