How questions from the past are creating the physicists of tomorrow

19 April 2016

A scheme to drive up the number of sixth form students taking science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects is already paying dividends, a seminar has heard.

The University of Cambridge’s Isaac Physics project exploits what is described as an "online treasure trove" of 17,000 exam questions from exam group Cambridge Assessment’s archives. Students can use the bank of questions - which dates back to 1858 - to enrich their learning, particularly ahead of exams and university admissions interviews. 

Set up three years ago with a grant of nearly £7m from the Department for Education, the project is led by Cambridge University Professor of Theoretical Physics Mark Warner and Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, Educational Outreach Officer at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Prof Warner told a seminar hosted by Cambridge Assessment’s training and development division, The Network, that the project has seen more than 2.6m exam questions answered by students across the UK and the world in this school year. Currently, 10,000 questions are being answered a day. A sister initiative, Underground Mathematics, is also enjoying similar take-up.

Prof Warner said the project had been founded partly to confront the decline in UK students taking STEM subjects at university, as well as increase access to higher education.

"My real interest is empowerment. We should think about outreach, where we try to get people into a subject, into university and into an academic discipline. An important and necessary part of that is raising aspiration and awareness. There are lots of ways of doing that, including this project. But students with these aspirations also need to be empowered to enter top (Russell Group) STEM universities. That is why they also need to develop physics analysis and mathematical tools."

Prof Warner said the scheme was not only proving popular with sixth form students, but with their teachers and parents. Teachers found it was useful in terms of professional development but also because it enabled them to test themselves and keep their skills fresh. The project is novel since it aims to halve teachers' work rather than double it, while the associated Massive Open Online Course is free and associated books are available at cost price.

Thanking Prof Warner for his talk, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development Tim Oates said that the project was an outstanding example of beneficial linking between assessment and learning, increasing the range of pupils gaining access to deep learning in physics.

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