HSC physics left me and others ill-prepared for our engineering degrees, which begs the question: What needs to happen to narrow the gap between high school and university courses?
The NSW Board of Studies rightly comes under heavy scrutiny and criticism every year. After all, they play a huge part in the short-term future of more than 35,000 HSC students each year. This time however, they must be praised for changing the HSC physics curriculum, and hinting that the HSC physics content from the past 15 years had negative consequences for students.
This move has the potential to narrow the gap between HSC science and first-year university courses. As noted physicist Michelle Simmons has previously stated, the old physics curriculum left many students ill-prepared for what was to come in their tertiary studies.
For many students like me who had some idea that they wished to study in a quantitative discipline like engineering, the recommended subjects from university guides to enrol in include Extension 2 mathematics (hardest level of maths) and physics, while chemistry is also suggested.
I followed the latter two, but the temptation of wanting to cruise through year 11 and 12 meant that I took the ‘easier’ option of Extension 1 mathematics. To an extent, I found I was able to use the same studying technique for HSC mathematics for the maths courses at university, which is just establishing muscle memory by repetitively attempting exercises.
Science courses did not allow for that luxury. For example in the 2015 HSC physics exam – the year I sat it – one question asked how Heinrich Hertz set his experiments to prove James Maxwell’s theory that light was a form of electromagnetic experiment. This is more of an exercise in rote learning, rather than applying any logic.
If this is the kind of question an Australian school student was getting in their most important physics exam at that stage of their life, is it any wonder that Australia is behind countries like Kazakstan, Slovenia and Lithuania in the global year 8 science rankings?
University physics in the first year is much more about thinking for yourself as opposed to having the work cut out for you, which is crucial for engineering degrees. I was not used to this and found myself struggling to apply how first principles and calculus are used to derive formulas.
To be honest, it was probably through the generosity of physics tutors and senior engineering students who took time out to explain difficult concepts that allowed get me through the course. To go from reciting history in HSC physics one year to trying to work out the meaning of Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics the next year is no mean feat!
Aligned with the times
There were many other issues under the old physics curriculum that defied common sense. One instance of this was how the syllabus involved learning about cathode-ray tubes, which is a dying technology, as opposed to covering photonics in more depth, which has far more relevance today when considering the current importance of renewable energy.
The mainstream media is always hammering on about the need for students to go into more STEM degrees, but in the past fifteen years, the secondary school system in NSW wasn’t providing students the basics for their chosen field at tertiary-level education.
There are going to be challenges in the new curriculum if it does turn out to be more mathematical based. As noted previously on The Conversation, schools that are on the lower socio-economic end of the spectrum will struggle to find the resources to adequately teach their students, compared to elite private schools, where students have access to the best tutors and facilities.
However, I think the re-introduction of topics such as optics and thermodynamics in HSC physics will be hugely beneficial, as these topics are extensively taught in early year university courses.
Students who have an interest in science, technology, maths or engineering degrees will be better prepared to make a decision based on their HSC experiences, rather than racking up a years worth of HECS debt only to learn that their chosen subjects are unrecognisable at university.