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We will rock you

News | Published in TESS on 30 September, 2011 | By: Douglas Blane

Students who are competing to win a contract to build a new music festival’s main stage are discovering how physics works in the real world. Douglas Blane reports

Drive the sound system for a music festival across a wet field on the back of a 40-tonne lorry and you’ll soon get stuck, says Graham Robertson, one of the experts brought in for the day to work with students on a fifth-year project at St Columba’s School, Kilmacolm.

“If you’re building in a city, the lorries come down a road and there’s no problem,” he explains to a girl who has asked him to cast an eye on her group’s construction plans. “But in a green field you need to lay aluminium track to spread the load. Your group is using much more than the others and it’s expensive, so show me on the map, please, where you plan to put the stage.”

Ashfield Music Festival is an educational simulation in which senior pupils create a new music festival from scratch. It’s the first time it’s been tried at St Columba’s, says head of physics Iain Weir. “But it’s going well. You get all the materials, including the information the pupils need, the tasks they each have to think about, and the video clips we showed them at the start, explaining their jobs.

“The tasks are challenging but pitched at the right level, I think. You can see how motivated and on-task they all are.”

Free to schools, Ashfield Music Festival is a one-day, off-timetable activity, devised by the Institute of Physics, aimed at developing work- related skills and showing physics thinking in the real world. Participants compete in teams of six to win the contract to build the new music festival’s main stage.

Each team member is assigned a different role at the start - project manager, sound engineer, electrical engineer, construction manager, lighting engineer and health and safety. They then work individually and as a team to get the job done.

“It’s a quality resource,” says Mr Weir. “But if it was just teachers running it, I don’t believe you would have the same dynamic. It’s the experts from outside that give it a new dimension.”

Getting these experts was surprisingly easy, he says. They are all STEM Ambassadors - individuals who volunteer to make time to go into schools, work with young people and talk to them about science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in the real world. “I just sent an email to Aileen Hamilton at Science Connects, and she found all the experts we needed,” says Mr Weir.

Civil engineer Graham Robertson is one of these: “I run my own company but I love getting kids enthused about engineering. I thoroughly enjoy my job. I’m always driving past buildings and telling my own kids that I helped to put them up. And they go ‘Shut up, Dad’. If I can get my enthusiasm across to these young people, and turn the light bulb on in just a few, it will be worth it.”

The physics light bulb has been turned on in over a third of St Columba’s fifth-years - to the extent at least of their taking Higher physics. But that still leaves a majority of non-physicists. So how much are they getting from the event?

“I don’t think ours is the most academic team and I’m not studying physics,” says Rachael Barker, who prefers art and languages. “But we’re getting on fine. I’m health and safety adviser. At the start, they showed us a set of skills for each job without telling us what they were. We had to find the one that best matched our own skills. Then they told us what the jobs were. I’m enjoying it. I like getting ideas down from essentially nothing. It’s creative and it’s hands-on.”

It’s a satisfying project too for the more analytic team members, says Elliot Gemmell, who studies all three sciences. “I’m the electrical engineer, so I had to make sure the electrical circuit was right, and that everything got the power it needed. It got quite stressful. There was a mix of working on your own and talking to other team members, and that worked well.

“It seemed a natural sequence. I had to wait until the lighting and sound engineers decided what they wanted, so I was helping other people with their forms at first. Then they helped me with mine. The best parts are that you had a blank canvas, you’re working as a team and you don’t have to take it as seriously as schoolwork. It’s fun.”

Setting the tone at the start was important, says physics teacher Iain Spencer. “We put on a bit of a performance, with the experts coming onto the stage to The Apprentice theme tune, and being introduced, before we told the students what the day was all about. It got them wondering. It got them interested.

“We also decided to treat them as responsible young people by allowing them not to wear school uniform for the day. It meant they could interact as equals with the experts. I wasn’t sure how they would take to it. But it’s going well. It has exceeded my expectations.”

STEM AMBASSADORS

STEM Ambassadors is a UK-wide programme set up in 2002, which has since recruited more than 20,000 volunteers to go into schools and work with young people. Four organisations co-ordinate activities across Scotland: www.stemscotland.com/seas-background.html

For schools in the west of Scotland contact Aileen Hamilton a.hamilton@physics.gla.ac.uk

Institute of Physics resources for the classroom, including Ashfield Music Festival: www.iop.org/education/teacher/resources and www.iop.org/education/teacher/extra_resources.


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