10 Apr 2014

Challenging the flaws of physics: howlers in GCSE syllabus

“Sir Isaac Newton would be turning in his grave”: physicists are appalled at the gravity of equation errors in the government’s new GCSE combined science syllabus.

The new syllabus published on Wednesday covers everything from photosynthesis to chemisty analysis, and is intended to be a guide for GCSE level teachers and exam boards. But those looking closely discovered that the department had released the new publication with major clangers in two standard physics equations.

The authors of the new paper confused “velocity” for “acceleration” in one mechanics equation used to calculate kinetic energy.

The second error was in an equation used to measure movement, where what should have been “distance” was replaced by “time”. Other terms used in the first appendix, while not incorrect, were also considered problematic by some physicists and teachers.

It’s as if I gave you an equation to calculate your height, and it gave you an answer in kilograms Alby Reid

That the howlers have come from a department whose head is Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has insisted on higher teaching standards and rigorous testing, will strike many as ironic.

Alan Fitzsimmons, a leading British astronomer and professor at Queen’s University Belfast, told Channel 4 News that “incredulous laughter could be heard throughout physics departments across the land.”

He added: “Given all the fuss that the department for education makes about standards, they can’t even get their own syllabus right that’s meant to be adopted by all schools… Sir Isaac Newton must be turning in his grave.”

The errors can be found on page 35 of the syllabus, within Appendix 1.

The first incorrect equation is: kinetic energy = 0.5 x mass x (acceleration)2
Instead of: kinetic energy = 0.5 x mass x (velocity)2

The second is printed in the new syllabus as: (final velocity)2 – (initial velocity)2 = 2 x acceleration x time
This should be: (final velocity)2 – (initial velocity)2 = 2 x acceleration x distance

It would be hoped that most physics teachers would quickly spot the equation errors. Indeed, some pupils might also pick it up.

But as a combined subject, science is not always taught by specialists, so a teacher with a biology or chemistry background may be using this syllabus as a guide.

Alby Reid, physics teacher at Reigate Grammar and chairman of the south central branch of the Institute of Physics, said that the equations could be embedded by mistake within a scheme of work.

But he said the fact that they slipped through the net is more worrying. “It’s more than just a typo… This is a completely different word, with a different meaning, and completely changes the way the formula works,” he told Channel 4 News. “It’s as if I gave you an equation to calculate your height, and it gave you an answer in kilograms.”

Weighty mistakes

He was one of the first to pick up on the errors, and tweeted them hours after the syllabus was published on Wednesday. “These mistakes are absolutely glaring,” he added. “It’s a couple of words to be replaced here and there, but this must have been consulted on. And the fact that it can get to the stage where it’s been released, is kind of worrying.”

Other terms, while not necessarily inaccurate, struck some within the physics community as unusual. For example, the term “gravity force” which appears in the syllabus is not the term used by physicists, or those who teach it: the correct term is “gravitational force”, “force due to gravity”, or simply, weight.

Another problematic term was the use of “gravity constant” in two equations. This should be “gravitational field strength”, meaning the acceleration due to gravity, and could easily be confused something completely different: the “gravitational constant.”

A Department for Education spokesperson told Channel 4 News: “We have had two minor errors in the drafting of the new GCSE science syllabus pointed out to us. We are amending it and a corrected version will be available shortly.”