Contexts for the Physics GCSE Required Practicals – Inclusive

The required practicals allow us opportunities to relate science to our students everyday life in terms of giving a context to the practicals as well as the roles of scientists and potential careers.

Many of these ideas are stolen from my colleagues at the IOP in particular Nicky Thomas @NickyThomas1

Research has shown that giving students contexts and purposes for scientific activities increases their engagement and likelihood of taking STEM subjects at a higher level. This is particularly true for girls (at no disadvantage to boys) and the Institute of Physics have produced a helpful 10 tips for teachers.

I have tried to include ‘hooks’ to provoke curiosity using the concept of Three Act science.  The principle is also is the student has a task to do/ problem that the experiment will give them the answer to.  This may be contrary to the findings of PISA that students ‘outcomes’ were improved by not engaging in enquiry based learning  but follows the ideas of Professor Mazur and amongst others recent Institute of Physics Research .  One of the issues of teaching physics is that our students often have a belief system about concepts that is wrong. Tackling a belief system with rationality is never an effective ploy and so we need to shake their beliefs and explore their thinking 

AQA Guidance here

Edexcel Guidance here


Why do we need to know about density? What kind of jobs do that people need to consider density?

To find out if things float or sink. To create new and more effective and efficient materials see Material Scientists

Why do things float or sink?

Explain why the Titanic with a mass of 47 million kg could float? Why did it sink when a hole was made in it by an iceberg?

You are a materials scientist asked to make a set of bowling balls that are all the same size, but different masses. what do you need to know?

You work for a toy manufacturer and have been asked to make a Galilean Thermometer.  What do you need to know? Instructions for a DIY one here

You work for an auction house. How can you tell if the items being sold really are solid gold? what do you need to know?

You work for the Royal Mint detecting forgeries. How might you tell if a coin is counterfeit? 

You are a boat designer.  Challenge: who can build a boat using 100g of plasticine that can support the highest number of coins and still float on water.

Why does a peeled orange float but an unpeeled orange sink? Does having a floating fruit have any evolutionary advantages for the orange tree?

There is a theory that diet cola cans will float whilst sugary cola cans sink. How might you test this?  What would happen if you added salt to the water?  How might you find out which of a poured drink is diet cola and which one is cola?

You are a Craft Beer Brewer. How does a hygrometer work and why is it important in brewing ?

How can you make a teabag fly?  Why does it fly?

You are a geophysicist. Explain why we think that the Earth has a solid iron core?

What would happen to the water level in a pool of water if someone sitting in a kayak dropped a rock they were holding into it? This is advanced! 


You are a climate scientist. Would the Antarctic or Arctic ice melting have the biggest impact on rising s sea levels. Explain why?

You are a Scuba Dive Instructor. Explain how a Buoyancy compensation device works / Make a Cartesian diver. Explain how it works

Why does a ball bearing on a bowl of sand sink and a table tennis ball buried in it float to the top when the bowl is shaken?  See 36 seconds in 


What happens to the measurement on the scale as a self-inflating balloon inflates? This may cause more trouble than it is worth.  It may cause confusion as to the conservation of mass and your chemistry colleagues may hate you for it.


Force and Extension

Why is it useful for us to know the relationship between a force and the extension it produces? Think in terms of car seat belts, a bungee jump rope, bridge cables etc

You run an extreme sports business and want to open a bungee jump attraction on a local bridge. What do you need to know? History here

You work for a toymaker who wants you to produce a version of a Wild Sling. What do you need to know?

A wild sling in action

Standard Hookes Law Experiment here  How would the extension be different if you used 2 elastics in parallel or two in series?

What would happen if a strawberry lace/horse hair/fishing line/ copper wire was used instead? What contexts could you use for these?

You are a trampoline designer, what do you need to know about the springs in order to design a child’s and an adults trampoline? How would they differ?

Compression experiment – Why might it be useful to know how materials react when being compressed?

A climbing company wants you to design a new crash mat. What do you need to know?


Why is acceleration important as a concept? What jobs involve understanding acceleration?

What is the difference between speed and velocity?

What is the difference between velocity and acceleration?

Which is more important, acceleration, velocity or both to a sprinter/ marathon runner/ footballer? Why?

You are a football coach. What do you need to know about Speed vs acceleration? Have a look at physics and football

Which is the best shape for a ramp so a ball  would win in a race to the bottom of the ramp? Would they have different speeds at the, bottom of the ramp? Explain. 

You are a skateboard ramp designer. Explain what factors you need to consider. What advice would you give Bob? 

Measure g using light gates, phone apps directly or via video Physics /tracker or all of them   or Google Science Journal 

Measure your own acceleration and top speed using smartphones and compare yourself to Usain Bolt. This is an ideal activity to use Google Science Journal 

Explain how crumple zones improve the safety of cars

What went wrong with the Philae .lander on the comet? Should it have had a suspension system?

<iframe src=”″ width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″></iframe>

What is your best strategy in trying to catch the cheese in the cheese rolling competition -acceleration vs speed

Would a full, empty or half full can of water/ rice win on a race down a slope? Why?

Why does a cricketer move her hands with the ball to catch it? Note in looking for a good video of this search, results threw up the ‘most attractive women cricketers’  


What do we mean by electrical resistance? Why do we need to know the effect of the current on the resistance? Think in terms of electrical power lines, the heating element of a kettle, a dimmer switch

What careers need to know about electrical resistance?

Could you make a dimmer switch from a pencil, 9V battery and LED? What do you need to know?

You are a materials technologist for a fashion company. What technology could you employ? There are some incredible ideas here

You are materials director at a major sports company – design gloves to be able to operate smartphones

You are an electronic engineer / designer of a machine to calculate the % fat. What do you need to know? How does it work?


Why do we need to understand radiation as a concept?

Why do marathon runners often get given shiny space blankets when they have finished their run? Why are the blankets shiny?

Why aren’t domestic radiators black? Would they be more efficient if they were?

How could a crisp packet keep your food warmer / drink colder?

What is the power output of the sun? How much mass does the sun lose each day?

How could you make a solar still out of a can and a large plastic bottle, or two plastic bottles) What do you need to know?

You are a materials technologist for a fashion company. What technology could you employ? There are some incredible ideas here

You are a fashion designer for a sports company. What do you need to know about designing sports clothes for an Olympic event outdoors in a hot/ cold country? How would your designs differ for hot and cold conditions?

Specific Heat Capacity

Possibly the most abstract concept in the way the required practical equipment is purpose made for the experiment and seems to bear no relationship to the real world. What is the point of understanding specific heat capacity?  Who needs to understand shc in their job role?

It may be an idea to look at misconceptions about heat vs temperature

What order do ice cubes melt on black tin, white tin, white plastic and black ceramic lids? Why do the results the second time not replicate the first?

You are a climate scientist explain why the average increase in temperature of the sea is particularly important in the effect of global warming? Here

You are a surf scientist. Explain why the sea is often warmest in the Autumn long after the hottest days have gone?


Why is the temperature of the sand at a beach much higher than the temperature of pools of water or Which would heat up faster a kettle of water or a kettle of sand? Why? And why does it matter?

You are the warden of a beach nature reserve why can barbecues places directly on the sand start grass fires some distance away from the site? Why would providing stones for the barbecue help prevent this?

You work for a company that generates electricity using wind farms. You are designing storage heaters that will remain warm for as long as possible so that ‘surplus’ energy produced at non-peak times can be used effectively. What do you need to know?

You are a designer of tableware. What do you need to know about materials used so your plates and bowls will stay warmer for longer? Should you use ceramics or metals?

You are a cake manufacturer. Explain why the jam in jam tarts is more likely to burn than the pastry.

You are an evolutionary biologist. Why does having a high percentage of water in a body help an organism maintain a constant body temperature?

You suffer from Reynaud’s Syndrome (with cold hands and feet). Would a hot water bottle or a hot bag of wheat keep your feet warmer for longer? How might you find out? 

Why does a balloon filled with water placed over a candle not pop when one filled with air does? Explain in terms of specific heat capacity.



Why do scientists need to know the properties of waves? What types of jobs do people do who need to know about waves?

You are a seismologist working to find the epicentre of an earthquake that originated in the Pacific Ocean. What do you need to know?

Alternatively: You are an environmental campaigner trying to measure the effects of Fracking on the local area / You are employed by the Fracking company to show how little effect your activities are having on local housing.  You can use smartphones as seismometers as part of a Citizen Science Network

You are a zoo vet asked to find out if one of the hippos is pregnant. What do you need to do? Scanning a pygmy hippo

You are a Glastonbury Festival sound engineer. What checks do you need to do before the main performances? Festival Sound   or classical Setting up a stage

You are a guitar manufacturer trying to make a smaller travel guitar that sounds as good as a full size one. What do you need to understand?

You are a surf forecaster for surfing competitions. What do you need to know about waves? See the often very optimistic (in the UK) Magic Seaweed

You are an environmentalist responsible for  checking the sustainability of fish stocks.  How can you use sonar to help you. Alternatively you are a marine biologist investigating how shipping noises affect dolphins. What do you need to know?

You are a physicist asked by an angling company to improve the design of their fish finder

Light – Refraction and Reflection 

You work for a broadband cable company that wants to improve the quality of its optic fibres. What do you need to know about refraction and reflection?  Could you make your own optic fibres?

You are a survival expert Could you light a fire with a bottle of water?  Which bottle works best?  Could you light a fire with a lens made of ice?


You are a forensics officer. How can you tell if a fragment of glass came from a crime science?

You are a development aid scientist. How could you improve the litre of light projects. Could you make solar tubes from rubbish?

You are a research scientist working for a phone manufacturer. What do you need to know in order to improve the camera lens on a phone?

You work for a company that produces accessories for phones. How could you design a selfie lens/ wide angle lens/ telephoto lens / macro lens?

Could you use water to carry an optical signal?

I-V Characteristics 

Why is it important to know the relationship between current and potential difference in components?

You are an electronic engineer working for a bike light manufacturer. How could you compare bulbs for their efficiency and brightness? You can measure brightness using smartphones and apps such as Google Science Journal

Make mystery component boxes containing filament lamps, diodes, resistors. Students need to determine what is in the box from its I-V characteristics.

You work for a ski/snowboard company. How could you make heated insoles for ski/snowboard  boots. What do you need to know?

You are a fashion designer investigating smartfibres. What do you need to know?


Thermal Insulation

Why do we need to know about thermal insulation? Who needs to understand thermal insulation for their work?

A coffee shop company has asked you to create an insulated coffee mug from recycled materials. Produce a design and test it.

You are the clothing designer for a company that is sponsoring a trip to the North Pole / Everest/ Mars. What do you need to know in order for your clothes to be effective?

Make a thermos flask out of rubbish

You are an architect designing an eco home. How can you reduce the heat loss through walls, floors, windows, the roof? Where does the biggest loss tend to occur?

This is currently still a draft blog of ideas. Please add more in the comments section or contact me @natkin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *