Self-siphoning beads

I really like this demo. It is simple and surprising, yet deceptively subtle and complex.

It also draws my attention to explanations. The first time I saw Steve present this he didn’t explain it, but I was transfixed. Effective demonstrations don’t always come with explanations. Sometimes less is more.

I’m no physicist, but I’m not fully satisfied by the explanation of what’s going on here. In that sense, despite the beautiful slo-mo, I preferred the first version I saw. I find this demo intensely pleasing despite it leaving me hanging.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all go around deliberately producing unsatisfying explanations or consistently refusing to give any at all, but what works for me is that I’m left wanting to get my hands on a set of these to test it out, to explore and investigate the phenomenon to try to understand it better. Surely that’s one of the indicators of a great demo?

How not to present science

A few weeks ago I was part of a crack team of science presenters (James Piercy, Debbie Syrop  and Matt Pritchard) presenting a session at the Science Communication Conference, How not to present science. It consisted of our favourite pet hates, brought to life, and a number of people have asked for notes on the session. I thought I’d provide my ‘script’ on one section, titled The World Cringing Championships.

The premise had my co-presenters on a sofa with ‘buzzers’ commenting on my cringeworthy performance, whilst I attempted to break every ‘rule’ in the science communicators’ handbook. This was very peculiar to put together, as I was deliberately trying to insert comments and foibles that I’ve spent over a decade deliberately minimising, or intentionally inserting comments that don’t come naturally. It was joyfully liberating, however, to know that whatever went wrong on stage I could assert was my intention all along.

Continue reading How not to present science

Simple accelerometer and circular motion

I’ve just started teaching circular motion to my Year 12s. There are some obvious demonstrations you can do when teaching this topic, such as spinning a bucket of water around your head, but I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve only just discovered the floating cork accelerometer which can be used to illustrate a key idea for this topic. Watch the video to see what I mean.

Massive thank you to my colleague Ronan McDonald for making the big accelerometer and volunteering to get dizzy.

[Edit 18/6/2013 – this post inspired a lively discussion at the Institute of Physics PTNC mailing list for physics teachers, which is a hidden gem of a community and a list every teacher of physics should at least be aware of. Sign up via the web interface. Thanks to everyone who cross-posted their comments here.

Joe Rowling had a nice blog post a few days before this, too – well worth a look if circular motion is your thing.


Maker Faire UK

One reason for this site’s very existence is to try to connect the worlds of teaching and science communication. They have different needs and objectives, and they’ll use demos in different ways, but they’ll be the same demos.

So, teachers – here’s something from the world beyond the school lab, Maker Faire UK:

Maker Faire is very much its own brand of lunacy, but it captures something that for a specific type of geek is spectacularly good for the soul. And it turns out that type of geek is everywhere, in every field. The range of disciplines and the way they weave together (sometimes literally) is staggering. This year’s was the biggest UK Faire yet, with 10,000 visitors over the weekend.

I’m a huge fan of Maker Faire, and the softly-spoken, quietly-enthusiastic Dale Dougherty is a wonderful host.

Evidence and irony

The point of science is to be evidence-based. Teaching science in a non-evidence-based way is a deeply ironic way to miss the point.
— Ian Horsewell.

The Nuffield film (see below) has also been published on the Guardian website, and the comments there are worth reading. Grit your teeth first, but do stay until you read Ian Horsewell’s masterpiece. Of course, the standard of comment on Guardian blog posts is one of those things people on Twitter get angry about. Ahem.

“Blowing stuff up” in chemistry

The i-Biology blog writes a terrific response and meditation on the film in our previous post, and also includes this wonderful rant about chemistry demonstrations:

I think chemists have it tough when it comes to demos. Tougher than physicists, but in an odd way tougher than biologists too. Sure, there are precious few well-known biology demos (a subject for future posts, I’m sure), but chemistry is… hmm.

Look, I did a year of degree-level chemistry. I loved IR spectrometers. The only proper research paper to which I contributed was in computational chemistry. But I never really “got” chemistry. I never found that the practical work I did gave me confidence in the models I’d been taught, in part because of the bizarre ‘atomic model of the week’ strategy of late-80s A-levels. You know, the one where you’d just got comfortable with one particular version of How The World Works, only to have it pulled out from under your feet and replaced with something even more implausible. I found my eventual introduction to quantum mechanics a blessed relief, but then I’m weird.

My point is: I love chemistry demonstrations as theatre, but I’m squarely in the camp of not being able to remember any of the chemistry involved. What I think of as a ‘good’ physics demo reinforces or challenges my understanding of the principle behind it, but I rarely find the same sense of satisfaction in chemistry demos.

Is that because I’m a physicist; because chemistry demos are often used inappropriately; or because chemistry is somehow different?

Answers on the back of a £50 note to the usual address. Oh, and do check out the post at iBiology.

Are your practical lessons effective?

Alom and I made this film for the Nuffield Foundation’s new Practical Work for Learning website, which they’ve recently launched and are building up into a sizeable resource. The film tries to point up some of the pitfalls of practical work in the classroom context, and suggest approaches for improvement.

My problem with the film – and I write this as its director – is that I think it’s dull. Which I believe reduces its effectiveness, ironically. So it’s something of a relief to read comments like this:

Watching this video has definitely made me think and reflect on my own practice and I am looking forward to exploring the readings and resources on the Nuffield Foundation website

…from teacher Nicole Hinton’s blog.

Alom and I come at practical work from opposite directions, almost at opposite ends of the ‘exciting’/’educational’ spectrum. One of the things we hope to hash out on is why we agree on so much – including, for example, how ludicrous it is to present ‘exciting’ and ‘educational’ as somehow mutually exclusive.

Ben Craven’s arch demo

Science communication legend Ben Craven was in London over the weekend, giving me the chance to grab a quick bite with him while he waited for his train at King’s Cross. It also gave him time to show me a surprising demo related to his love of arches and for me to try out filming on my new iPhone 5. The picture quality is way better than my crappy old iPhone 3GS but the sound is problematic for doing something like this. Might need to invest in a lavalier mic of some sort…

[Oh, I see: requisitioning equipment via the blog. That’s your game, is it? Tsk. – Ed.]