Science Club: Racing Balloons

A good turnout for the second week, although some pupils hadn’t shown up despite the stories about marshmallows and spaghetti. Apparently this is a regular issue for after-school activities in primary school. Several kids were enthusiastic about telling me the scientific things they’d been doing, including building more structures with kitchen ingredients. So I think we can count the first week as a definite success!
Balloon Car Racers seemed a good next activity; simple materials, a clear outcome and hopefully something to take home. As with the other activities, the materials from the Ri ExpeRimental project gave us pretty much everything we needed.
We had 12 kids but plenty of leftovers (most earmarked for future sessions). These cost £4 from the pound shop.
  • 250 straws
  • 50 balloons (x2)
  • 100 BBQ skewers
Plus tape, card and bottle lids from general classroom resources and the local scrap store. I’d suggest collecting milk carton lids in the staffroom for a few weeks if possible.
I started by asking about things that go and what makes them move. With each example – which I also used as a chance to get some more names – I added another step to the car. The video was blocked (primary school with YouTube issues) so I couldn’t use the section linking reaction forces to swimming, which was a shame.
I asked the pupils to tell me which they thought was more important – how far the car went, or how fast it traveled. Predictably, there was a mixed response! With more time I would have finished by running a ‘race’ and giving two different rankings, one for speed and the other for distance.
I used a timer on the IWB, set to 20 minutes, for the building time. This was a little ambitious, it turned out! All students had built or nearly built a car by the end of the hour session, and perhaps half had raced them against each other.
Some pupils struggled with the fine motor skills needed to use the sellotape. I don’t think I emphasized enough the need for the axles to be parallel to each other, and perpendicular to the ‘exhaust’ straw – perhaps next time draw lines on the card for them? With more time I’d have them make two, a ‘first draft’ and an ‘improved’ model. This would have been an excellent way to introduce the make/test/improve cycle, perhaps using photos of their cars to illustrate the progress. But it would have taken longer – this could easily be done over a week of lunchtimes, perhaps taking a photo each time to show the development visually. I suspect spreading it out over more time would be difficult with such young students, although at KS3 it might make a good structured project.
Pushing the skewers through the lids also proved difficult for many. Next time some preparation would have been useful – especially for some lids! I’d add an awl or corkscrew for the teacher, and blu-tack to press into. A balloon pump to make up for little lungs and reduce slobber might also have been useful!
For future sessions, I’ll think through a specific ‘skills list’ before we start. Ideally the class teacher would be able to suggest particular points likely to cause problems, but I can probably manage. I’d do this automatically for my usual age group – what can they do easily, what do I need to explicitly teach – but I made guesses based on my own kids, who have always enjoyed crafty activities from Lego to junk modelling, (They haven’t a clue about football skills however, just like me.)

A Science Generation

I’ve dug out some old markbooks – electronic and paper – because I wanted to think about who it is that we’re teaching, and why. It occurred to me that having universities contributing to A-level specification discussions assumed that the courses were for their benefit. In the classroom, we as teachers adapt our examples and contexts to suit our students. We can’t adjust the syllabus itself, even if we know that the majority of our students will be progressing to a route very different to an undergraduate physics course.
I’m relying on slightly incomplete data and scribbled marginalia, plus my own memory. It’s for one ‘generation’, from year 7 to year 13, at a previous workplace (specialist science, outstanding according to Ofsted, included sixth form etc). I’d be really interested in contrasting data, if anyone has it to share – I have no idea how representative it is generally.
September 2005 – July 2012
2005 (Year 7): 240 students starting our in-house course based on the QCA topics – remember them? The students were externally assessed (following an internal annual exam) by SATs. Remember those? After they were phased out we continued with our own internally marked version. The score was used to separate students into double and triple classes for GCSE.
2008 (Year 10): 64 students started the triple course (AQA Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were selected on the basis of good scores in their KS3 SATs for both Science and Maths, as we ‘borrowed’ some maths time for the extra science. The remaining 176 did ‘double’ (Core and Additional AQA). None could swap during the course.
At end of yr11, a large majority of those who continued to AS science courses came to our linked sixth form. A few extra students applied from other schools locally. The majority of those doing Physics had followed the triple route. (This was similar for the other sciences but not as clear.) Maths was recommended but not required,  and the entry requirement was a B no matter what GCSE route.
2010 (Year 12): 40 students started AS Physics (AQA), of which 33 were our students previously. By the end of the year, 11 had dropped the course for various reasons. Those who had studied Double science were not disproportionately represented in those failing or dropping, but those who had gained a B at GCSE were.
2011 (Year 13): Of the 29 students starting, 24 had been our students at GCSE. The cohort achieved grades from A-E, only five below C. Of these students, 14 went on to scientific degrees. Of these 14, 8 went to do physics or engineering. (6 of these had been our students from Year 7.)
science generation
Ignoring later entrants, this means of the 240 we started teaching in yr7, only six went on to physics and engineering courses: less than 3%. Even just looking at those entering sixth form as our starting point, only 20% went on to directly relevant courses.

For many students, this was exactly as planned. Some of the courses – chemistry, medicine, maths – would no doubt use the skills and knowledge gained. For other students, the more nebulous skills such as logical reasoning would be valuable in their future courses. And it’s much harder to track those who may not return to the academic content until after an apprenticeship or similar.

But as far as university physics admission tutors are concerned, those students are pretty much invisible. They’re irrelevant. What they know, or don’t know, never affects first year courses or the tutors who complain about this or that gap in their undergraduates’ knowledge.

The competing needs of ‘Science for Future Scientists’ and ‘Science for Citizens’ have long been identified, but not resolved. I’d argue that in many ways it is a situation which cannot be resolved. A few factors which we’d easily identified in our prep room cause clear difficulties:
  1. We ask our students to choose (or often, we choose for them) in year 9 or even earlier. At this point some are yet to gain confidence, while others will have already peaked, in ability or attitude. There will be a proportion of students who could go either way, but can’t be identified yet. As science teachers, we’d see this as uncertainty, not error. (Insert Schrodinger’s Cat joke here)
  2. The courses are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having different values. I’ve always said that I’d have a lot more confidence in the equal value of BTecs and similar if the same proportion of students in private and state schools did them. When an MP’s child, Tarquin or Poppy, do a college course in Leisure and Tourism instead of A-levels then maybe parity will have been achieved.
  3. Currently 16-18 courses feel very specialized. I would have loved to do more than four subjects, and it was seen back then that a broader curriculum was coming. And that, as my wife frequently reminds me, was years ago. Students feel they must identify as a scientist – or not – very young. I suspect for many it feels like a big commitment. (We looked at doing science vs identifying as a scientist in an early SciTeachJC).
  4. The very topics which might motivate students to carry on to further study are those which are less relevant for daily life. This means that it is easy for the open-ended, challenging ideas – the inspiring ones – to be saved for those students who will come to them again anyway. Those achieving at a lower level are taught topics which are less exciting – reinforcing their belief that physics is boring. A self-fulfilling prophecy!
I’m not expecting to solve anything. I don’t think I’ve even identified anything new. But when I went through the numbers, despite having taught over those years, I was surprised by just how small a proportion of our students are ‘pre-physicists’. Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the equivalent numbers at your institution?

Science Club: Building with Pasta

Quick and easy practical, instant gratification, cheap materials (that you can eat at the end). Yes, the first in our series of science club activities was always going to be Spaghetti Towers.
  • spaghetti (1 pack per four kids)
  • marshmallows (1 pack per four kids, no eating until the end)
Play, Look, Ask (from the Ri site)
  • Make a tower from spaghetti and marshmallows.
  • ExpeRiment with the construction of your tower to find out which shapes are best for building with.
  • Learn why some shapes are more stable than others when you build a tower.


I had a vague idea of how things would go. Some of it was right; a lot of it wasn’t. The kids had a great time and, I think, learnt a little bit too. We started by talking about buildings, then I challenged them to make shapes with the marshmallows and pasta. Several of the kids – aged 5 or 6 – enjoyed this so much it was hard to get them to move on. The next step was to try making something to stand up. Before too long we were able to lead them to the idea that squares fell over. A couple of better examples showed that triangles worked well, and soon there were many weird and wonderful structures taking shape.

About twenty minutes from the end I asked them to pause and showed a few pictures on the IWB of buildings. The kids were very excited to point out the triangles on the Eiffel Tower and the Forth Bridge. They were not, however, able to translate these to very regular shapes in their own building. There was a lot of discussion about whether we should test the buildings by pushing from the side or above – an interesting approach would be to add a fan to simulate wind. Perhaps with older students! Most of them were happy to explain that the buildings needed a strong shape as well as a strong material, which I was pleased with.


Next time – because we’ll be repeating the cycle each half-term with another group of pupils – I’ll aim for a clearer structure from the beginning. It was harder to get them back on track than I expected. I’m used to being able to ‘steer’ consensus in secondary, but the kids listened, nodded, then carried on doing exactly what they were doing before I’d spoken.

Next time

  1. Picture of a building (if the IWB is working and the blinds are drawn).
  2. Start with flat shapes (set time limit)
  3. What will happen when we stand them up?
  4. Try it out, then ask what the best shape is and how we know (time limit).
  5. What shapes are strong? (triangles are good, squares and more sides can be deformed.)
  6. What makes a tower ‘the best’? (tall, withstands load, withstands force from side?)
  7. Allow time to build the ‘best’ tower

Things to track more carefully:

  • different views of ‘scientist’ and engineer’
  • words used eg strong, bendy



Science Club: Shortlist

My son’s primary school was looking for more after-school activities. My wife was at the meeting where they discussed the possibilities. And I’m a science teacher with a bit of spare time as my current role is both part-time and out of the classroom.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The shortlist
I quite liked the idea of working with kids directly, but I was very aware that as a secondary teacher I needed help. Besides, reinventing the wheel lacked appeal. I had a look at various ‘bought-in’ structures, for example some of those presenting at the ASE Conference. But they were quite expensive. I checked out ideas through STEMnet, many of which were aimed more at KS3. In the end, I presented the science coordinator with two options I felt would provide interest without a huge workload.
The first, predictably, was via the British Science Association: specifically the CREST Star awards for ages 5-11. (I have fond memories of BAYS from my own school days.) There’s a library of activities and kids gain the award after completing a certain number of them. Depending on the age and ability you choose different themed sessions, all of which have support materials ready to use.
The other was slightly less formal. I was fascinated by the ExpeRimental project from the Royal Institution last year, and blogged about it. The idea of providing materials for parents to have scientific fun with offspring is a great one. The second series of videos looks as enjoyable as the first. And I happen to know one of the people behind it, my good friend and virtual colleague @alomshaha. So it seems a natural step to suggest it for a science club for ages 5-6.
The choice
We’re going with ExpeRimental; partly because it’s free, and partly because it means we can provide easy links for interested parents. But mostly because it looks great fun. I’ll be blogging each week about how it went, good and bad, and sharing a few photos of the results (but not the kids). Hopefully a longer piece about the experience will make it to the RI website once we’ve finished the first half-term cycle. I really feel that many of the activities would work well with older students, too. In fact, I’d argue that some of them would provide a challenge for sixth form students if you simply changed the questions you asked. And isn’t that a great recommendation for practicals built from kitchen cupboard and junk box materials?