This film interleaves several stories, then brings them together (we hope) neatly at the end. There’s the obvious ‘Alom’s road trip summer holiday’, but there’s also the story of that bottle you’ve glimpsed at the top of Pikes Peak, and there’s a little tickle of a story about a remarkable guy by the name of Oppenheimer.
This is going to be another day of your wondering just what we were doing in the US. Running around filming demos in pretty places, certainly, but surely there’s more to it than that? There is, but… well, I’m not going to reveal everything just yet. Partly because I’ve only just finished logging all the shots, so it’ll be a while before we know what’s made the cut and what hasn’t. But also because I don’t want to spill the beans about the main story and content of the film until we’re much closer to publication. And that’s likely a few months away.
So enjoy the holiday snaps, and watch out for clues peppered through.
The Council for Science and Technology (CST) says that without practical lessons, science in schools is “like studying literature without reading books”. I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect, if I had to, I could teach my students “science” without ever giving them a single practical lesson, provided I was allowed to use demonstrations and videos. As long as I was allowed to show my student the phenomena I’m trying to get them to understand, I think I could teach a meaningful science course and that they could go on to become scientists if that’s what they wanted to do. Sure, it wouldn’t be the most complete or satisfying way of teaching science, but it would be better than no science education at all and, dare I say it, it might even be better than some approaches to science teaching which include lots of practical work. The CST’s analogy is inaccurate – practical work is not as central to the teaching of science as reading books is to the teaching of literature, just ask any GCSE student who has managed to pass their science exams by simply reading the textbook.
I’ve written about practical work before and even made a short film about it, so I won’t re-hash those arguments here except to say that it’s not unreasonable to assume that “doing” science (it’s debatable that this is what really happens in practical science lessons) might be a pretty good way of learning science. However, we should be aware that this is, as leading education researcher Jonathan Osborne puts it, a “dangerous assumption”. According to Osborne, the role of science education is:
To construct in the young student a deep understanding of a body of existing knowledge. In doing so, it needs to show why this knowledge is valued; that it was hard won; and that science is a creative process – that it offers you the opportunity to free yourself from the shackles of received wisdom by creating your own knowledge. However, that is not the same as the doing of science and there is a clear line in the sand that needs to be drawn between the two activities. (E-NARST News, July 2007, from conference speech)
As good science teachers we should be wary of people who over-emphasise the importance or benefits of practical work in science teaching and we should look to the research and evidence on how to improve our practice to get the most effective learning for our students. Science is about ideas. We should make sure our ideas about science education are as sound as the ones we attempt to teach.
I remembered two things from the previous day: we did a bunch of props shopping in the morning, and I found out what ‘Chicken Fried Steak’ is. On reflection I could happily have seen out my days without such knowledge.
Day 2 – Thursday 15th August – Buena Vista to Durango/Silverton
OK, so the plan had been for us to blog as we travelled across America filming the segments of this documentary, but… well, that didn’t happen, what with us being back now and all. Jetlag, altitude sickness, thunderstorms and 14-hour days will do that to you. So let me present: the retroproduction blog. Just like what we planned, only two weeks later.
That screenplay we mentioned a couple of posts back? We’re filming it.
We’d hoped to post regular updates, but we’ll have to run them as retrospectives over the next few weeks. The script is fairly straightforward, so we’ve been making our lives harder by trying to film classic demonstrations in fabulous locations. Which means we’ve been up early, filming in morning and evening light, and trying to find weird places to shoot. Several of those locations have been above 10,000 feet, which does wonderful things for bicarb and vinegar but is less pleasant for brains and lungs.
The above is perhaps my favourite shot so far, though we’ve several contenders. I hope you like lens flares.
update: There are a bunch of posts in this series:
 [1a]           [Post]
What kind of example is set by the organisers of the largest STEM engagement event in the UK when they book Brainiac Live – Science Abuse as a headline show? What possessed STEMNET and the ASE to think that collaborating in a ticket promotion of Brainiac Live’s recent West End debut was a good idea?
Faked demonstrations. Mistakes in basic science. A disregard for copycat risks. A counter-productive desperation to ‘make science fun’. A profound lack of passion for science. Are these really qualities with which these organisations want to associate themselves?
Faking your results is the very antithesis of science demonstration shows and, in fact, science. Also, if you fake demos, the damaging subtext is that science isn’t interesting enough in itself, so it has to be enhanced by trickery. The rocket-powered spinning chair routine is symptomatic of most of what is wrong with Brainiac Live and its choice as a headline act for the Big Bang Fair:
Incredibly, it is claimed that the stage pyro “rockets” create the additional thrust rather than the fact that the performer is firing the extinguisher almost continuously on the second occasion! This could have been a high-impact demo with strong theatrical production values and good audience interaction. However, it is completely compromised by a shameful disregard for the science and a preference to trick the audience with a stage firework. It’s so frustrating – a single line at the end of the routine, humorously acknowledging the real role of the “rockets”, could have saved it entirely. This has been pointed out to them. But they don’t seem to care.
The biggest irony of Brainiac Live being booked or promoted by STEM engagement organisations is that it is self-evidently written and performed by people who refuse to believe that science is interesting. This is a capital crime in science communication.
I despair at seeing the wonderful art and science behind science demonstrations being exploited by a theatre production company who do not seem to care about either. There are many passionate, knowledgeable, professional science demonstrators in the UK for whom this caricature of science communication is ludicrous.
I’ve written an open letter of concern explaining my criticisms in more detail. If you share any of these concerns, I urge you to express them to the STEM engagement organisations which book or promote this show.
I wasn’t completely … er … complete in my previous post, in that the demo films aren’t the only thing we’ve been beavering away at behind the scenes. There’s also this:
That’s a screenplay. For a documentary. Which we’re about to start filming. On Friday. Then we fly to America, and film some more. Then we fly back to the UK and … film the bits we missed.
It’s terribly exciting. Once the thin veneer of panic has worn away we might even believe that.
We’ll keep you posted here: expect ScienceDemo to turn into something of a production blog if we can (a.) find a US 3G card for the iPad, and (b.) get any signal. Where we’re going they do need roads, but possibly not modern telecoms infrastructure.
We appear to have been quiet here primarily because we’ve been busy. It’s one of those weird zen tricks, and it looks like this:
Yes, we’ve been filming again. Aficionados of the Physics Demonstration Films will recognise Alom’s lab at Camden School for Girls, and it was good to be back there after a couple of years. However, you may also notice the lab glassware. A beaker, in a physics film?
We filmed some chemistry too. And not all of it was with Alom. Though Laura did wear a purple shirt to fit the house style.
Oh, and if you wonder how much effort goes into these films – we slave over the scripts, but the first time we’re all in the same room with the props and the camera is when we’re set to shoot them, so this happens:
So, yes: science demo films, coming soon to a website near you. Yay! Oh, and: Biologists, don’t despair! We’re featuring squishy things too (rather than merely things that blow up or don’t work, obviously), we just haven’t shot those films yet. We’ve another surprise to reveal before then.