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Pioneering physics’ educator wins award

Soon after Lisa Wright arrived at Trinity in 1994 she realised that studying physics at university needed a completely different approach to learning the subject at school.

Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright has long been interested in science communication

‘I had many A-levels, with top grades, but that was just the starting point,’ she said. ‘Like learning to drive, I had passed the test but only when I got on the road did I really begin to realise what I needed to do: apply the physics and maths I had learned, not just regurgitate it and hope it gave the right answer.

‘I needed to challenge myself with problems that I couldn’t solve, make mistakes – learn from them – and keep trying,’ said Lisa, now Dr Jardine-Wright and a Fellow at Churchill College.

25 years on and Dr Jardine-Wright and Professor Mark Warner, who co-directs the Cavendish Laboratory, have won the 2019 Lawrence Bragg Medal and Prize for establishing and directing Isaac Physics, which ‘has revolutionised physics education in an extraordinary number of schools and is now attracting international attention,’ says the Institute of Physics (IOP).

The IOP awards the Lawrence Bragg Medal and Prize for ‘outstanding and sustained contributions to physics education.’ It says of Isaac Physics:

This radical, mass-scale programme harnesses technology to help all students, especially those exposed to the national shortage of physics teachers with consequent social disadvantage in entering STEM at university. The 36% participation rate for women in Isaac compares with just 21% in A-level physics.

As an undergraduate and then postgraduate student at Cambridge, Dr Jardine-Wright had little inkling that her interest in engaging people in scientific ideas would lead to directing a major online resource used by thousands of teachers and students – but the seeds were there.

While simulating spiral galaxies as part of her PhD and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Astronomy, she organised stargazing evenings for the general public, wrote science articles for The Financial Times and was a consultant for the redevelopment of the museum galleries at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Later, as a Fellow at Churchill, where Dr Jardine-Wright supervises students and interviews for admissions, memories of her undergraduate experience came back.

It was apparent that some students had not been exposed to resources and problems that really enabled them to challenge their understanding of the physics that they had learned at school – problems that require multiple steps to get to the solution and an application of both physics and mathematics together.

Such experiences galvanised Dr Jardine-Wright and Professor Warner to set up Isaac Physics, which provides a wide range of resources and support to raise attainment and widen participation in physics, helping students in their transition from GCSE through Year 12 and Year 13, to university.

Dr Jardine-Wright with students at an Isaac Physics’ event

‘Isaac Physics is very much about learning by doing – it is not a course but many, many problems for students to learn from their mistakes and gather greater understanding ,resilience and confidence from solving the problems,’ says Dr Jardine-Wright, who directs the initiative alongside her teaching, research and College responsibilities. She is Director of Studies in Physics at Churchill College and director of the outreach programme at the Cavendish. In 2017 she won the Pilkington Prize – an annual Cambridge University award for 12 academics for teaching excellence.

In addition to the online resources, Isaac Physics produces the Mastery Series – more than 100,000 books have been distributed at cost to UK schools – and since their launch students have attempted more than 13 million questions in these publications.

Isaac Physics is aimed at teachers as well as students, providing them with a range of support and resources.

‘We save teachers time by enabling them to set homework easily that we auto-mark the questions. This allows the teachers to concentrate on identifying and addressing students’ misconceptions and difficulties and allows students to find their own mistakes using our immediate feedback,’ says Dr Jardine-Wright.

The initiative has proved very popular: more than 78% of UK schools teaching GCSE and/or A-level Physics have engaged with the Isaac Open Platform for Active Learning (OPAL). Currently, more than 3,700 schools participate and each month 28,000 students and 1,300 teachers use the Isaac OPAL.

Isaac Physics has measureable impact. Schools that regularly engage with the initiative can raise 40% of their students’ A-level grades from C to B. Those students are very significantly more likely to apply to, receive an offer from, achieve their grades, and accept a place at a leading UK university compared to students who do not use Isaac Physics.

It is so successful in fact, that it has spawned Isaac Chemistry and Isaac Computer Science (a collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation).

Behind Isaac is a team of academics and Cambridge undergraduates on paid internships. ‘It’s a symbiotic relationship’, says Dr Jardine-Wright.

‘Undergraduates work with us over the long vacation which enables them to consolidate their understanding of physics, maths, chemistry and programming while enabling Isaac to develop high-quality resources quickly and efficiently.’

Currently Isaac Physics is funded in England by the Department for Education England and the Ogden Trust. The IOP helps the project operate across the rest of the UK.

But Dr Jardine-Wright is not sitting on her laurels.

‘Ideally we are looking to secure £250,000 per year to sustain Isaac Physics well into the future. This would enable us to continue to innovate – the project has been built from scratch and the online learning technology is bespoke. Everything we produce is open source, including the platform software, so the investment is available to others,’ she says.

We think there are many aspects of Isaac Physics that might attract financial support – for example, it’s impact on the gender imbalance in STEM, widening participation and social mobility, raising attainment, and innovating with new research into technology enhanced learning. Keeping Isaac free for schools is vital to achieving these aims.

Following Isaac Physics’ first five-year grant, support has been secured for much shorter durations.

Professor Valerie Gibson

‘Short-term funding limits our ability to plan strategically and allow time for the delivery of real innovation – two key features of our work so far and crucial factors for the project going forward,’ says Dr Jardine-Wright.

Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish, Professor Valerie Gibson, has charted the development of Isaac Physics with interest. She was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1994, the year Lisa began her degree, and was her Director of Studies and Supervisor.

‘Isaac Physics is incredibly successful – and ironically therein lies a problem when it comes to support,’ Professor Gibson said.

It’s a classic case of creative collaboration by dedicated Cambridge academics that results in a highly effective initiative – Isaac Physics is a game-changer in terms of physics education in schools, helping improve diversity and the gender balance in STEM at university.

But many funders don’t want to help sustain a six-year-old project – even a very successful one – because they are always looking for new initiatives, or novel ideas.

Dr Jardine-Wright isn’t just hoping that this mindset will change. She’s applying her problem-solving skills cultivated from decades of researching and teaching physics to this latest conundrum.

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