Chemistry Champions Challenge

One for our US readers: the American Chemical Society is launching a “Chemistry Champions” search for chemists who excel at performance and communication.

I’ve a bunch of concerns about the competition (judging by number of YouTube views? Really?). Also, their suggested two minutes to talk about your research is an extremely awkward duration – 2:30 is a great length, but 2:00 is on a difficult cusp. My advice to anyone entering would be: write something stellar that’s 90 seconds long. Two minutes will encourage you to try for too many ideas which you won’t, in the end, be able to cram in, so do one thing well, even if it’s shorter.

Anyway, this launch video is terrific. Endearingly low production values show that a great performance shines through regardless, which is exactly the message of the competition. It’s very well judged.

More details and rules on the ACS website. Deadline for submissions is 6th June. #chemchamps


I threw this together last night to try out an arrangement for a practical demo Elin is planning to build for a new show at the Centre for Life. I thought it might find wider use than just us sitting on the sofa saying “Coo!”. To be fair, it already has found wider use: Rosy from Cambridge Science Centre is staying with us, and was also saying “Coo!”.

One of the things that’s rather hard to wrap your head around when looking at waves in water is that the individual bits of water don’t translate with the wave propagation. Which rather obviously has to be the case once you realise you’ve been staring at the waves coming towards you for quite some time and yet the sea (tides permitting) hasn’t swept you away. Nevertheless, it’s one of those situations where a diagram helps, and an animated diagram helps a lot.

So here’s that animated diagram. For anyone who cares about such things, I built this in Apple Motion: it’s one (rotating) object, replicated with a rotation shift, which makes it very easy to play with different arrangements. It’s particularly interesting when the movement discs overlap. Maybe I’ll build another animation of that…

Anyway, you’re welcome to use the clip, though you’ll want to download and use this high-definition version (3Mb .mov, right-click and ’Save target as…’, and all that). It should loop smoothly enough.

Using Algal Balls to Investigate Photosynthesis

As you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, we’re big fans of using demonstrations for science teaching and have made a bunch of films about how and why to use them in the classroom. Our latest films are different – they’re about class practicals and we hope they show how these particular practicals could be used to teach specific aspects of Biology, as well as demonstrating how practicals in general might be approached to ensure their effectiveness.

The film above shows various ways to use “algal balls” in Biology practicals – they’re fun to make and a fantastic tool for doing quantitative investigations of photosynthesis. There’s more information and detailed instructions over at the SAPS website.

We’re grateful to the lovely people at Science & Plants for Schools (SAPS) for asking us to make the films – we had a blast working with them and staff from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

Treatment, demonstrations, and complexity

Vikki Burns was one of this year’s FameLab UK finalists. In this film, she describes her experience of drying on stage during the final, and what happened next. It’s a terrific, brave, positive film, and I’m hugely impressed with Vikki for saying what she does here. If you’re an academic thinking about entering FameLab, or of taking part in Bright Club or Science Showoff or the like, watching this film might reassure you that audiences are lovely.

It’s worth watching right through, though, because in some ways the second half of the film is even more useful. It’s Vikki’s final piece from FameLab. Get past the inevitably-artificial feel of watching a performance crafted for a stage being delivered to the unblinking gaze of a video camera, and I think the piece is instructive.

Continue reading Treatment, demonstrations, and complexity

Arduino: first steps

Pick a random stall at Maker Faire UK and there’s a fair chance it’ll have flashing LEDs. And where there’s a flashing LED, there’s usually a little blue circuitboard driving it. The blue board is the famous Arduino, a family of open-source microcontrollers designed to allow easy interaction between code you write and real-world sensors and actuators.

There’s a complex and ever-expanding ecosystem of Arduino-compatible boards and interface units, and to a novice it’s all a bit overwhelming. I am that novice. Indeed, the list of Arduino projects I’ve completed looks like this:

  1. [insert list of future projects here]

However, awareness of what’s possible expands one’s set of available tools, and Arduino feels like the sort of thing I might, at some point, find useful. So every now and then I tinker a little. My tentative, toe-in-the-water approach to Arduino goes like this:

Continue reading Arduino: first steps

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.

Theatre, props and explanations, oh my!