Practical Physics

Practical Physics is a collection of experiments that demonstrate a wide range of physical concepts and processes. These resources are for the use of teachers of physics in schools and colleges.

Some of the experiments can be used as starting-points for investigations or for enhancement activities. Many have links to carefully selected further reading and all include information and guidance for technicians.

Most resources have been migrated over to this website - IOPSpark - from practicalphysics.org but if you find any mistakes or missing content, please let us know via spark@iop.org.

Why use practical work in physics?

Physics is a practical science. Practical activities are not just motivational and fun: they can also sharpen students’ powers of observation, stimulate questions, and help develop new understanding and vocabulary. Good quality, appropriate physics experiments and investigations are the key to enhanced learning, and clarification and consolidation of theory.

Practical Physics is part of a group of projects that include Practical Chemistry and Practical Biology. There are also a set of resources to support the teaching of practical science at key stages 3 to 5. The resources are part of the Practical Work for Learning project which explores how three different teaching and learning approaches can be applied to practical work.

Astronomy

The following collections of astronomy experiments show how science explanations can be built from careful and systematic observations. We include observations of the night sky and demonstrations of the models which have been proposed to explain them. We also follow progress from the ideas of Copernicus to the predictions and explanations that followed Newton's theory of gravitation.

Atoms and nuclei

Through the following collections of experiments in this topic, students can develop their own ideas of what is inside an atom. They will experience the wonder of seeing the path of beta particles change when they pass through a magnetic field, and realising that even these invisible particles obey known laws of physics by moving according to Fleming’s left hand motor rule.

Electric circuits and fields

Collections in this topic begin with simple DC circuits, introducing ideas about current, potential difference and resistance. Next come experiments involving conduction through liquids and gases. Experiments with AC circuits start from an introductory level and go on to include phase relationships. Finally, there are collections dealing with electrostatic effects and electric fields.

Electromagnetism

These practical activities range from simple field patterns of bar magnets through to the laws of electromagnetic induction. We also include engineering applications of magnetism, such as the variety of clever electromagnetic machines used everywhere in industrial societies. Or magnetic materials used for computer hard drives, repeatedly magnetised and demagnetised at tiny length scales.

Energy

Energy is an abstract concept that requires lots of discussion with students about physical observations and their interpretation. We begin with simple experiments that introduce the language of energy, and go on to include more advanced topics such as the energy shared amongst the particles of matter - the internal energy in hot objects, often called 'heat'.

Forces and motion

The relationship between forces and motion is counter-intuitive and so needs careful explanation. We provide experiments that show a variety of ways of measuring position and time. These measurements lead to concepts of speed, velocity, momentum and acceleration.

    Light and optics

    Optics provides lots of practical opportunities for students, most of which require a limited range of simple equipment. These activities progress from an introduction to rays and images, to the more complex arrangements in optical instruments, and an introduction to colour and spectra.

    Molecules in motion

    Kinetic theory is one of the 'big ideas' in science. All matter is made of atoms (often molecules), but with an enormous variety of arrangements and different motions.

    These experiments lead students from the classification of solids, liquids and gases into considering why there is this variety of forms. They might build theories about the atomic structure of matter, guided by the hints given by many experiments.

    Physical quantities

    Physicists try to describe and explain everything from galaxies to quarks. The measurement of physical quantities is an essential part of the toolkit for this work. Making simple measurements of quantities such as mass, length and time can provide students with a good introduction to more complex and sophisticated physics.

    Physics applications

    Many applications of physics use concepts from across a range of physics topics. These practical activities illustrate some of these.  

    Waves

    Waves come in many forms. There are mechanical waves, such as water waves, sound waves and earthquake waves. There are also electromagnetic waves, such as radio, television, microwaves, visible light, and X-rays. All waves have properties in common, and these activities enable students to discover what these properties are and to learn to visualize them.

    Working scientifically

    Science teachers who use experiments only to draw attention to physical phenomena and to illustrate scientific ideas run a risk. Their students may get the impression that science is nothing more than facts and laws that need to be understood and remembered.
     
    Science education can also help students understand the processes that make science a reliable body of knowledge: experiment and observation; data analysis; prediction and falsification; and critical scrutiny by a scientific community (peer review). These aspects of science need to be taught explicitly, and given sufficient teaching time.
     
    Some of the resources here suggest particular experiments that can help develop science skills, while others enable students to explore the nature of science, through case studies from the history of physics.

    Teaching and learning

    Here we offer guidance on general issues related to teaching and learning practical physics. These guidance notes apply across two or more, sometimes many, physics topics.

    Practical Work for Learning

    Practical work is an essential part of science education, but to make it effective, we need to decide what we want students to learn from any particular lesson, and to consider the best approach for achieving that.

    Practical Work for Learning provides exemplification of three different approaches to practical work: argumentation; model-based inquiry; and, science in the workplace. A comprehensive introduction is provided for each approach, along with five standalone lessons comprising all necessary teacher and student materials. The resources cover topics from physics, chemistry, and biology, and are suitable for Key Stages 3-5. Research summaries are also provided, for those who want to delve further into the evidence underpinning the development of the resources.

    The project, Practical Work for Learning, was undertaken in partnership with the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology. All resources are available to download free of charge.

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