Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Day 4: Happy birthday, Albert!

Wednesday March 14th  (Einstein's birthday and International Pi Day)  dawned wet and windy in Breakish at the southern end of Skye.  I headed off about 8am towards Portree, all set for another bunch of talks in the High School.  My contact was Alastair Watt - Portree High School's physics teacher, who I learned came from an engineering and RAF background (having spent some years working on Benbecula, where I would be heading later on Wednesday evening).

First up was a talk on "Putting the Iron in Irn Bru" to about sixty 3rd and 4th years.  Talking about the nuclear processes that power stars, and the importance of E = mc^2, felt just right for Einstein's birthday and the pupils seemed quite gobsmacked by the idea that we are all made out of stars!   

Next it was off to Alastair's classroom to meet his 5th year pupils who are currently doing the "Researching Physics" unit as part of the Revised Higher syllabus.  I spent a fascinating hour talking to the pupils, and seeing some of the experimental equipment they've developed to explore the physics of detecting planets around other stars - including this simple model of light source and a transiting planet, which can be used (with a lightmeter) to investigate how the size of the planet affects the brightness of the "star".

Meeting these students was a real highlight of the tour so far, and I was greatly encouraged by how much they seem to be enjoying the Researching Physics unit - as well as being highly impressed by how well they're being supported and mentored by Alastair.  It is good to have such a positive impression to report back to the Physics Qualifications Design Team.  We've come a long way from the meeting I co-organised in Edinburgh with Tania Johnston last January, where we hatched the idea of using exoplanets as an example for the RP unit.

Third period it was back to the School's main lecture theatre for a talk about "The Runaway Universe" - and another chance to wish Albert many happy returns!  This time I got a photo with the class.  (It was a wee bit too dark for my smartphone camera, really, but you can maybe make out me on the far left in my Einstein "Andy Warhol" style t-shirt which I had wheeled out for the occasion!)

Final session before lunch was a chance to talk to Alastair about other aspects of the revised Higher syllabus, and the kinds of teaching resources he'd developed to cover the cosmology and particle physics bits of "Our Dynamic Universe" and "Particles and Waves".  I was particularly impressed by his home-made particle accelerator.

After a very nice lunch at the Aros Centre, just outside Portree, it was back to the main theatre for my final talk, on Exoplanets, to all of the 2nd years.  I was very democratic - giving almost equal time and mentions to physics, chemistry and biology (this topic is ideal for that), minded that the pupils would soon be making their choices of which subjects they'd be studying for the new National 5 qualifications - which will replace Standard grades under the Curriculum for Excellence.

I finished my school day just before 3pm, having seen another 250 or so pupils over the course of the day and having had some great discussions with the pupils and teachers about the new Higher syllabus, the CfE, and how best the Universities can support them.  A good day's work all in all....

It was then off to a very nice teashop just north of Portree, for an hour or so on BT Openzone wireless access - to catch up on all the news and emails from Glasgow University, and from the LIGO Collaboration.  I also found a facebook link (from my friend Andy Newsam - another current STFC SIS Fellow) which suggests an alternative mode of transportation, and appropriate apparel, should I ever do another Hebridean astro tour! But of course I'd have to learn to play the bagpipes first...


At about 4.30pm I headed north to Uig, where it was blowing a gale as a rounded the bend and got my first view of the bay

I wondered if the incoming ferry would be delayed by the choppy seas, but at about 5.25pm the "Clansman" appeared round the headland and we were soon getting ready to board.

Finally, at 6pm, it was off to North Uist and Benbecula...Tune in tomorrow for news of my talks at Liniclate School and the journey onwards to Barra.

May the force be with you

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