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I’ve just been putting together a presentation for final year school children on the NZ scholarship physics exam.   NZ Scholarship is awarded to the top 3% or so of students in a particular subject in a particular year, and there is some big money up for grabs.

But the exam questions for scholarship are hard.  Really.  I find them hard (remember I lecture physics at university – I should be able to do school physics stuff).   I can open an exam paper and think …err…how on earth am I meant to do that? If that’s my response to a physics question, then I can only think that it will be the response of most people sitting the exam.

But what makes the exam hard (generally) is that the physics problems come in unfamiliar contexts, with unfamiliar wrapping paper on them. There is an infamous question from a few years ago about phugoid oscillations on a model aircraft. What the phugoid are phugoid oscillations? I bet the percentage of the population who know that is small indeed. But, think more carefully, and one realises that phugoid oscillations (go look them up – I’m not going to explain) are just an example of an extremely broad class of motion in physics called simple harmonic motion. (Simple harmonic motion is what a swinging pendulum does – moves one way, then the other). Once the student realises this, the question is not so daunting after all.

It’s often true with real-life science problems too. Once we unpackage the problem, and get to the bottom of the issue, often we find that the science is not all that complicated. However, solving the problem might not necessarily be so easy.