Teaching general relativity to upper secondary students

4TU Delft
4TU Eindhoven
4TU Twente
4TU Wageningen

Teaching general relativity to upper secondary students

In 2015 the physics curriculum was updated for upper secondary education. Reasons for this update were: declining numbers of students that continued studying sciences at University, lack of clarity for students what physics is actually for, and a consensus that the curriculum contained too much 18th century physics. There was hardly any room for achievements of modern physics. The updated curriculum contains topics such as quantum physics and relativity.

To the disappointment of Stanley Delhaye, researcher at TU/e, relativity only meant special relativity, whilst it is general relativity theory that led to the most recent achievements in physics: the discovery of gravitational waves and the first picture of a supermassive black hole. Delhaye felt he had to do something about this omission.


Research grant

“Through a DUDOC-postdoc research grant, I am now developing and evaluating curriculum materials to teach general relativity to upper secondary students in the Netherlands since September 2017”, says Delhaye. The grant is meant for didactic academic research of lecturers into renewal of science subjects and allows teachers to spend two days per week (over two years) to conduct their research projects, whilst teaching in their schools the remaining part of the week. Such research projects are expected to build STEM teaching capacity in schools. Delhaye: “I conduct this research in collaboration with the Eindhoven School of Education of TU Eindhoven under supervision of prof. Birgit Pepin and dr. Lesley de Putter, and the Jan van Brabant College where I teach.

Design principles and key concepts

Delhaye used the Design-Based Research (DBR) approach to investigate the research question:

What are the characteristics (design principles and key concepts) of an intervention aimed at creating opportunities for teaching and learning general relativity for upper secondary students in the Netherlands?

Typically, in DBR the researcher-teacher actively involves teacher colleagues and content experts in the process.

Based on the initial literature review, a textbook analysis and expert opinions, a set of design principles was formulated which included key concepts of general relativity. This past school-year the designed intervention was used by five teachers in four different schools for teaching general relativity. Data have been collected based on questionnaires, interviews and logbooks.

Preliminary results

Preliminary results show that the teachers not only find it possible to teach general relativity in upper secondary, but also that they see merit in teaching it. Delhaye: “Working on problems within the domain of general relativity touches on almost all topics students need to revise for their central exams”. Another positive note was that students are motivated to work on the assignments not only because it helps them revise for the exams, but also because they are interested to find out how general relativity theory influences their daily lives. “So far the results look promising”, remarks Delhaye.

More information

For more information on this research or on the materials on GRT, please contact Stanley Delhaye at: s.delhaye@tue.nl.

Teaching general relativity to upper secondary students

Teaching general relativity to upper secondary students

In 2015 the physics curriculum was updated for upper secondary education. Reasons for this update were: declining numbers of students that continued studying sciences at University, lack of clarity for students what physics is actually for, and a consensus that the curriculum contained too much 18th century physics. There was hardly any room for achievements of modern physics. The updated curriculum contains topics such as quantum physics and relativity.

To the disappointment of Stanley Delhaye, researcher at TU/e, relativity only meant special relativity, whilst it is general relativity theory that led to the most recent achievements in physics: the discovery of gravitational waves and the first picture of a supermassive black hole. Delhaye felt he had to do something about this omission.


Research grant

“Through a DUDOC-postdoc research grant, I am now developing and evaluating curriculum materials to teach general relativity to upper secondary students in the Netherlands since September 2017”, says Delhaye. The grant is meant for didactic academic research of lecturers into renewal of science subjects and allows teachers to spend two days per week (over two years) to conduct their research projects, whilst teaching in their schools the remaining part of the week. Such research projects are expected to build STEM teaching capacity in schools. Delhaye: “I conduct this research in collaboration with the Eindhoven School of Education of TU Eindhoven under supervision of prof. Birgit Pepin and dr. Lesley de Putter, and the Jan van Brabant College where I teach.

Design principles and key concepts

Delhaye used the Design-Based Research (DBR) approach to investigate the research question:

What are the characteristics (design principles and key concepts) of an intervention aimed at creating opportunities for teaching and learning general relativity for upper secondary students in the Netherlands?

Typically, in DBR the researcher-teacher actively involves teacher colleagues and content experts in the process.

Based on the initial literature review, a textbook analysis and expert opinions, a set of design principles was formulated which included key concepts of general relativity. This past school-year the designed intervention was used by five teachers in four different schools for teaching general relativity. Data have been collected based on questionnaires, interviews and logbooks.

Preliminary results

Preliminary results show that the teachers not only find it possible to teach general relativity in upper secondary, but also that they see merit in teaching it. Delhaye: “Working on problems within the domain of general relativity touches on almost all topics students need to revise for their central exams”. Another positive note was that students are motivated to work on the assignments not only because it helps them revise for the exams, but also because they are interested to find out how general relativity theory influences their daily lives. “So far the results look promising”, remarks Delhaye.

More information

For more information on this research or on the materials on GRT, please contact Stanley Delhaye at: s.delhaye@tue.nl.