Quantum leap to combat shortage

October 5, 2001

A physics degree that requires neither physics nor mathematics A level could solve the chronic teacher shortage in physics, suggests a report this week.

Institute of Physics president Sir Peter Williams, who ordered an inquiry into undergraduate physics, denied that the new degree was dumbing down.

He said: "Physics is about concepts and using them to understand the universe. It uses mathematics as a tool to progress. You can study the concepts without having to master partial differential equations and the second law of thermodynamics."

Leceister University's physics and astronomy department is planning such a course, which would take a broad interdisciplinary approach to science. Mathematics would be replaced with analytical and presentational skills, supplemented with history, philosophy and sociology. Graduates would achieve A-level standard in physics and could progress to careers in teaching, media, marketing, sales or management for science-based companies.

This year, Newcastle University's physics department has launched two science-based degrees that require neither maths nor physics A level.

But Ian Aitchison, of Oxford University's theoretical physics department, warned that if mathematics was taken out of physics courses, skills that were crucial to employers would be lost.

The IoP inquiry found that there was a high demand for physics graduates, with employers having difficulty recruiting, citing the mathematical and analytical skills as particularly desirable. Sir Peter said this demand was fuelling the teacher shortage.

The Teacher Training Agency said candidates for teacher training needed to have sufficient subject knowledge to teach the subject. It would be up to individual institutions to decide whether to accept candidates with the new degree.

This year, 217 people in England and Wales signed up for Post Graduate Certificate in Education courses to teach physics. The government target was for about 800.

The Council for Science and Technology found recently that two-thirds of secondary school physics teachers did not have a physics-related degree. They also called for the funding of physics departments to be addressed.

The report says university facilities are mutually beneficial to local industry, offer crucial support to school teachers and enable students to live at home. Some 21 university physics departments have closed in the past seven years. Other recommendations include ensuring MPhys courses are accorded "second cycle" status in European convergence and encouraging more women to study physics.

Sir Peter said the IoP report would dovetail with Sir Gareth Roberts' report for the Treasury into the supply of scientists.

* A conference held by the Wellcome Trust to examine the problems of UK academic research life suggested: a fast-track teacher-training qualification should be offered to PhD graduates to tackle the shortage of science teachers; and PhDs should have "respect-able exit points" that allow students to leave with a masters qualification if they decide not to complete their studies.

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