Riding BigTrak

A Rebel X-wing pilot driving a giant BigTrak is the most 1979 thing I’ve ever seen.

On the face of it this isn’t a very ScienceDemo sort of thing to do, but (a.) no, it really is, and (b.) over the next few days I’ll be posting a few things which caught my eye at this weekend’s Maker Faire UK. It was a wonderful weekend full of charming, talented and whimsical people… and that was before the Hitchen Hackspace guys let me drive their giant BigTrak. I’m the one in the purple hoodie in the film, grinning from ear to ear.


What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

The STEM engagement world is terribly naïve when it talks about audiences. Still. After all this time. Here’s an example:

Felicia Day is an actor who runs a very successful YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Which is pretty cool, actually: one of their top shows is a tabletop gaming chat show hosted by Wil Wheaton, what’s not to love about that?

Here, Day riffs on their audience, and the nature of ‘geek.’ She notes of ‘geek’:

Continue reading What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

Explanation anxiety

Do you suffer from explanation anxiety?

Do you purposefully shy away from offering a full explanation of your demonstrations, concerned that you might mislead, miss out, or misplace? Are you tempted to leave the explanation until after the demonstration not because you think that would represent good pedagogy, but because you hope your audience will be so thrilled by the effect they’ll overlook any descriptive inadequacy on your part?

Don’t be ashamed! The first step in dealing with explanation anxiety is recognising that you have a problem. You’re amongst friends here. No braying students will laugh at your stumbles, no academic will pick holes in your mostly-right-but-a-bit-rusty-if-you-really-think-it-through models, no science communicator will roll their eyes and tell you they saw this done better at the Exploratorium.

Just honest, constructive peer criticism. Together, we can conquer your explanation anxiety, and help you become the demonstrator you always wanted to be!

— I’ve sat on this post for months, and have rewritten it several times. Ironically, I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well. Time to heed my own advice and publish first, think through completely second. All I know for sure is that when I’m writing, I feel a degree of tension building as I approach ‘the explanation.’

Is there such a thing as “Explanation anxiety”? Do you suffer from it? Comments below, please…

UK Science is not going to be killed by the changes to practical work in schools

It’s understandable that many in the science community are alarmed about the changes to the assessment of practical work in A-level science subjects, but as a Physics teacher working under the current system, I don’t think it is a “totally, unequivocally shit idea”. And I’m not the only teacher to think that.

Proclaiming that Ofqual have sounded the “death knell for UK science education” betrays a lack of understanding and knowledge of the realities of school science lessons and of how broken and corrupt the current situation is. As my friend and fellow Physics teacher Alby Reid puts it, “The removal of coursework from A Level science is only “a death knell for UK science” if “UK science” depends on your ability to plagiarise”.

The decision by Ofqual to remove the contribution of practical work to A-level science grades may be a cop-out in terms of dealing with the problems of the current methods for assessment, but it is undeniable that the current forms of assessing practical work are deeply flawed. In my opinion, they’re actually detrimental to the quality of practical work that gets done in schools.

It’s possible, then, that the changes may ultimately lead to an improvement in the quality of practical work that is done in schools. I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the learned societies and others making a fuss about this to take practical steps towards ensuring that happens. By, for example, providing high quality resources to help science teachers integrate good, pedagogically sound, practical work into their schemes of work. Like this, perhaps?

I’d encourage those who care about science education to develop an appreciation of the complexities and realities of how practical work in schools is currently carried out, and of how much work is needed to ensure that practical work is genuinely doing all those things we’d like it to do for children’s science education.

The power of *****

Tricky thing, language.

Imagine that there was a communication tool that had an almost magical hold over learners of all ages and cultures.

Imagine how useful such a technique would be.

Imagine how frustrating it would be when working with science teachers, researchers and communicators not to be able to properly discuss this silver bullet. All because of the associations evoked whenever you simply mention its name.


There. I said it. What does it make you think of?

On the face of it stories can seem the antithesis of science. In my training courses I hear recurring objections. Stories are works of fiction. I can’t tell stories. Stories are childish. Stories over-simplify. Stories manipulate. I used to share much of this baggage about stories too.

Yet whether you’re trying to interest, explain, convince, or create memories, stories are unreasonably effective to the human brain. Yes, it isn’t fair.

When engaging non-specialists stories win. Always.

Get over it. Use it.

So what do I mean by “story”? Most formal definitions of story come down to:

“A sequence of events in which characters you care about face obstacles in trying to reach their goals.”

If you unpack this bland definition the secrets of narrative spill out.

Characters. Empathy. Curiosity. Conflict. Escalation. Resolution.

These are the irresistible ingredients we all crave when we try to make sense of our world. The deceptively simple power of stories lies in the many different ways that you can cook these elements together within the potency of the story framework.

Fundamentally, story is about structure, not about content.

  • How can you craft your demo into an edge-of-the-seat conflict between you and your telegraphed outcome?
  • Does your lesson or show flow as a gripping narrative journey, or are you just telling ’em what you’re going tell ’em, telling ’em, and then telling ’em what you’ve told them?
  • How can you share the roller-coaster of pain and joy scientists felt in making this discovery?
  • What’s the human story behind your fascination in this topic?
  • How can you reveal the awe-inspiring meta-stories of science – the overarching concepts that unify seemingly diverse contexts, the deep process ideas which underpin science as a way of searching for patterns?

I’m not arguing for everything to be communicated through story, but rather that stories are the most powerful known structure through which to communicate ideas.

What I’m asking is to give stories a chance.

Domino Computer

Stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and a team of volunteers build a functioning calculator out of dominoes, because… er… well, because they worked out how they could.

This has been festering in my pile of ‘unfinished hobby projects’ for longer than I’d care to admit, but just before I gadded off on holiday last month Matt prodded me with a very pointy stick. I’m delighted the film is finally seeing the light of day.

The film follows the domino computer build weekend at Manchester Science Festival with all its up and downs, and while we did try to explain how it works… well, turns out that’s quite tricky with hundreds of people milling around and thousands of dominos ready to fall over at a moment’s notice. So you might also want to check out this Numberphile film in which Matt explains the circuit with a little more care:

The team have also put together some worksheets, and can provide schools’ workshops (and dominoes!): think-maths.co.uk.

Elin also has a great bunch of stills of the weekend over on Flickr. Here’s one now. Note the breaks in the circuit during building, so an accidental fall doesn’t destroy the whole thing. There was a heap of work and expertise involved in building this thing, it really was a remarkable effort.

Set up