The Perse School


Intellectually-stimulating and hands-on, with experimentation at its core

Our aim

We place a strong emphasis on practical work in our teaching of physics. Lessons are designed to give each student hands-on experience of tackling a problem, in order for them to grasp a concept. This, plus our focus on thinking skills and our commitment to stretching students beyond the syllabus, helps to ensure that students feel confident facing the more complex challenges they will encounter at university.

Physics is a rigorous and well respected qualification which is highly valued by universities. It is a popular choice at The Perse, with around 120 sixth form students in a typical year. Many of these will go on to study science, medicine, engineering or maths at university, but others choose physics as an interesting and challenging complement to their other subjects.

Cambridge Pre-U physics gives learners a firm foundation in classical physics, along with an introduction to some intellectually stimulating modern concepts such as special relativity, quantum physics and astrophysics. It develops their understanding of the historical development of some concepts of physics, and the link between experiment and theory. Students also learn about the role of physics in the real world by illustrating its use in medicine, biophysics, engineering, space exploration, transport, robotics, communications, global energy solutions, and environmental issues.

At this level, physics requires a good level of competency with maths, and we very strongly advise students studying physics to choose at least single maths as well. Studying Pre-U physics helps students develop problem-solving techniques in order to reach solutions to mathematical problems.

Learning journey - Lower Sixth

Starting with classical mechanics with one teacher gives plenty of opportunity to develop practical and analytical skills. With their other teacher, students investigate wave effects such as standing waves and interference, and the mathematical skills introduced here will be developed later on in describing oscillating systems.

Alongside some foundational work in matter physics and electricity students see the power of calculus in their first foray into classical field theory when we consider Newton’s law of gravitation.  The year ends with an introduction to quantum physics, special relativity, astronomy and cosmology.

In the Lent term students undertake an experimental project to develop their skills in measurement and analysis.  A second practical project helps students think harder about experimental design and scientific method as well as providing a fun end to the year.

Learning journey - Upper Sixth

Classical field theory is pushed further as we begin with electric fields and electromagnetism.  Physics of matter is extended in kinetic theory, thermodynamics and entropy. On the other side of the course students undertake experiments with radioactivity and learn the mathematical tools to describe this, as well as applying Einstein’s famous E = mc2.

A brief foray into the standard model of particle physics is complemented by further work in quantum physics, including more philosophical questions of interpretations of quantum mechanics.  The more mathematically minded find much to enjoy in rotational mechanics and moments of inertia.

Practical and analytical skills acquired in the Lower Sixth are applied in the three week Personal Investigation coursework which happens at some point in the Michaelmas or Lent terms.  With careful thought and preparation, this should be the highlight of the course as students have the opportunity to undertake practical investigation in any area of their choosing.

We usually finish the course with plenty of time for revision, when we have fun applying the breadth of our physics to a particular applied topic in preparation for the exam.

Providing stretch

Students go on a number of trips, such as a tour of Sizewell Power Station and a visit to Diamond Light Source (the UK’s national synchrotron science facility), as well as to lectures at the Cambridge Physics Centre – often followed by a curry to ruminate on the topic.

We support students taking part in external challenges such as the British Physics Olympiad.  In 2016, 28 Perse sixth formers qualified for Round 1 of this contest, and 12 of them earned gold awards, placing them in the top 150 in the country. The six students who placed in the top 50 qualified for Round 2 of the Physics Olympiad and the Astronomy Olympiad. There, four earned gold awards, with one also earning a gold in the Astronomy Olympiad. Two were in contention for the teams for the International Olympiads, and one was selected to take part in the International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, in India.

All sixth form students receive free Institute of Physics membership and suggestions of useful online resources. We encourage them to read widely. Suggested texts include Paul Dirac’s Lectures on Quantum Mechanics, Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity and Goetz Hoeppe’s Why the Sky is Blue.

Beyond the classroom

In 2016 a group of 10 students entered CERN’s Beamline for Schools competition with a proposal to re-create the Fitch Cronin experiment with kaons. They built a cloud chamber which they proposed to take to CERN, and set up an interactive web-page to crowd source the necessary analysis and to enable students from around the world to get involved. While not one of the winning two teams selected to run their experiments on CERN beamlines, the Perse team was one of 29 runners-up whose entries drew special praise.

The Extension Physics society meets fortnightly to look at solving stretching problems beyond the curriculum. (We also offer Extension Maths classes, which offer STEP and STEP 1 preparation).

Students hear regularly from eminent physicists, both through our own ’42’ programme of speakers or on trips, such as to the Cambridge Physics Centre Lectures at the University’s Cavendish Laboratory and the Big Bang Fair.

Physics at university

We offer Extension Physics (see above), along with help with applications and preparation for interviews.

The Perse supports the University of Cambridge’s Isaac Physics project, and has hosted workshops for students to experience university-level physics.

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