Birdsong – Connecting Physics with the Real World

Friend (now Hero, surely?) of the Podcast James de Winter talks birdsong and uses it as an example of how to connect physics with the real world in more imaginative ways.

We all know how it goes, you teach newton 3, you talk about a rocket, you teach momentum you talk about trucks and cars colliding. Vectors? Aeroplanes… pressure? stilettos and snowshoes… friction? car tyres. It’s not that these examples don’t give context; they do! And mightily useful it is too, but James challenges us to find something a bit different. Go outside our comfort zone and bring in an unfamiliar example. James makes the case for birdsong when teaching frequency and he’ll be back in a couple of weeks to talk about an everyday object that is an almost limitless source of physics context that every child can relate to. Spoiler alert: there’s probably one rusting in your shed.

James makes a great case. Variety in examples and contexts broadens the appeal of physics and students’ idea of the relevance of this wonderful subject. Physics is so ubiquitous that it is a bit odd that students leave school doubting its relevance. So follow James’ tips and advice and reverse engineer something new and different into your context. Cooling rate of a dead cow, anyone?

S02E11 Timestamps

  • Physics in the News: 3D Display with a polystyrene bead @ 01:15
  • James de Winter @ 03:36
  • Ogden Trust @ 19:20
  • Finding an interesting context @ 20:45
  • Thomas has a cover lesson and uses Quidditch as the context with the expected result @ 24:14
  • Robin suggests ideas for friction @ 26:00
  • Thomas is pleased with the Monkey Hunter at Open Evening @ 28:00
  • Favourite Resources – The Nuffield Red Books @ 29:46


James has wanted to talk about birdsong for a while but surprises Thomas and Robin with what he actually does with it – he teaches graphs as part of a way to make the physics meet the real world. If you fancy a lesser spotted grebe in your lab, then James has lesson plans and resources available at – just a beautiful set of resources. And if that has got you in the mood for some bucolic physics, how about for some convection with mushrooms, or bees that ‘see’ electric fields?

James is a font of ideas and particularly likes perusing for things he could use. Another of his hats is the Ogden Trust, and Robin reassures Thomas that getting involved is well worth it. Robin then helps Thomas with some real World ideas for contexts that will be more accessible for the students. Robin imagines a fruit machine that gives three words that someone has to use in the lesson (and Thomas duly obliged).

Nuffield Red books:

Nuffield Physics has loads of resources for download, but here are the two Thomas uses for A Level, they are based on the 1980s version of the course. (Selected purely because that is the A Level he first taught in 1993).

Thomas also found his ancient TES Resources:

Stories from Physics – Richard Brock

  1. Weird units and wonderful measures
  2. Forces and Motion

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The music is used under the Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License