Science in the Media

This week’s Inside Health had not one but two great items for science lessons. I just wanted to put together a quick post so this will be mainly links and ideas rather than detailed resources.


You can follow the title above for the programme page, complete with transcript and their own links. My focus is on the two very different approaches to sharing ‘discoveries’ demonstrated by the programme.

The recent decision by NICE to use Tamoxifen ‘off-label’ for the prevention of breast cancer, in high-risk groups, has had a lot of media attention. @drmarkporter and his studio guests nicely referenced the negatives as well as the positives, mentioning side-effects and comparing the benefits to pre-emptive surgery (as chosen by Angelina Jolie).

As a contrast, the press release a little while back about the use of antibiotics to treat lower back pain seems to have been wildly optimistic. As I tweeted during the programme:

The authors had an undeclared financial interest and the trial was very small; it also seems that the media were encouraged to hype the results far beyond the very small group of back-pain sufferers who would actually be eligible. I strongly recommend listening to the programme, which can also be downloaded from the Inside Health podcast page.


Lots of useful questions and lots of likely arguments! My personal choice would be to have a class (probably an able GCSE group or perhaps A-level?) split into pairs or threes to research different aspects of reading a paper. There’s a fantastic page at NHS Behind the Headlines, where you can also see their own take on both of these stories (antibiotics for back pain, preventing breast cancer).

The ideas for the students to consider will revolve around three main concepts: benefit, risk and (financial) cost. These can be approached in several ways:

  • Claimed vs actual benefit
  • Conflict of interest
  • Placebo effects
  • Other choices (eg lifestyle changes) offering equivalent benefits
  • Side effects
  • Definitions of high-risk groups
  • Who pays for treatment
  • Number needed to treat (NNT)

It might also be useful to provide students with printed copies of news stories, as well as a good summary of each piece of research, to see how well the downsides as well as advantages are covered. Cross-curricular links with literacy and media studies, anyone?

As I’m not teaching students who would benefit from these kinds of discussions, I can’t speak from experience – but I hope my ideas will prove useful to colleagues. Please let me know if so!

Herd Immunity

A very quick post as I’ve loads of other things I should be doing. Like ironing shirts for the first day back tomorrow. But I got into a brief discussion on Twitter about measles data being a topical way to get kids thinking about patterns, and it was pointd out to me that I never finished off my mini-scheme about MMR from ages ago. Obviously this is topical (and tragic) at the moment. I don’t have time to do this properly, but this is the easiest way to share the ‘herd immunity’ activity I put together then.

Herd immunity is a simple idea; if most of the population are protected against a disease, then it is much less likely to spread and so even those unvaccinated are effectively protected. Scientific views about the precise percentage that need to be immune vary, but it’s certainly well above the current proportions, especially for MMR. This can be blamed on the media, who gave headlines and airtime to Wakefield (struck off for poor ethics, not to mention falsifying data) and many of the anti-vaccination groups. Some organisations, like the BBC, say they need to provide ‘balance’. Others know better but seem to like the increased sales the scare stories bring in.

Anyway, enough ranting. Back to herd immunity.

Some people aren’t vaccinated yet or their vaccinations, for many reasons, have resulted in them being less than 100% protected. This group includes young babies, the immune-suppressed and so on. This is less than ideal but unavoidable. Others remain unprotected because they or their parents believed the media intead of the science. There’s some interesting research to show that people feel more guilt when they have acted to cause a problem, than when their inaction causes an equivalent problem. I just can’t find the link – anyone?

If you never meet anyone who can pass the pathogens on to you, then you won’t get the disease. It’s simple. So more people protected means less chance of bumping into someone who gives you horrible germs. Yes, I’m simplifying, partly because I’m a physicist and partly to put this in classroom-suitable terms. This is herd immunity, where the whole population is effectively protected because enough of them are actually protected. (It has the additional benefit that by removing possible reservoirs there’s less mutation and outbreaks tend to be less severe.)

Herd Immunity as a pdf

The above worksheet gives students a chance to see why even those who are unvaccinated get protection. You’ll need to give them the background, or send them off to research it. Hopefully not just on Wikipedia.

Finally, some extension questions:

  • should immunisation be compulsory when medically possible?
  • should vaccination be required before starting school (true in some parts of the USA)?
  • is it unethical to rely on herd immunity if you are not prepared to risk the small but measurable (millions to one) possibility of adverse effects of a vaccination? (I mentioned this in a guest post for NoodleMaz in January)

Fears, Rules, Words, Questions

A quick lesson description here; I’ve been far too focused on political stuff recently. I thought I’d blogged this before, but apparently not. (And while I’m reviewing – 120 posts. Yeah, really.)

Anyway. It’s the time of year, after summative exams for our KS3 classes, that we teach Reproduction to year 7.

Stop giggling at the back there!

This is my approach to starting off what can be a challenging topic. It comes with no guarantee, and you need to be pretty confident – especially with the ‘Words’ section. Of course, you can adapt or use parts of it, and probably already do. I’ve found that the combination works pretty well, so far at least. I assure them before we start that there will be no practical work during the topic.


“What might make a student nervous about this topic?” I ask. I am careful not to ask why they are scared. They discuss it, then I write their ideas up on the board, rewording as needed, and ask the class to write the bullet points down. There are no solutions, yet. This is to identify potential problems, and it’s fairly easy to predict what will show up. “People laughing at me/what I know/what I don’t know/what I say” is usually near the top of the list. “Being taught with boys/girls” is another. It’s usually straightforward to adapt one of the comments to be “People making it personal” or something similar.


I remind the students of the rules we have agreed and followed all year. We talk about how applying these will solve some of the problems, but that it’s worth having specific Dos and Don’ts for the topic. Your students probably did something similar in PSHE. After a few minutes discussion time, we draft some fresh rules, ticking off the fears as we go. It’s easy to include something about the language we will use – sometimes I do the Words exercise below first. Addressing the ‘personal comments/questions’ fear is a good chance to remind students of trusted adults, in and out of school, who are good people to turn to for individual worries. I emphasize that what we do in Science will be Biology, rather than the ‘social’ side of reproduction. Again, students write the rules down. It’s then time to put away folders.


I write ‘F***’ on the board, with asterisks, and explain over the gasps and giggles that we all know which word this is. I then point out that all kinds of words can be used in all kinds of situations that link to this topic, and invite them to suggest them. Anything. No holds barred. Everything gets written on the board. Keep a straight face – I raise an eyebrow over the more obscure or silly ones, but have so far managed not to laugh or let my horror show. (I mean, they’re eleven. You’ll be surprised.) If needed I remind them that we’re considering words used by people of all ages, and prompt them to think about a primary school child’s language.

I then circle the ‘polite’ words and explain that we can consider these as ‘classroom English’. These are scientific language, so no need to blush or be embarrassed by the word (even if the body part would be shocking). These aren’t used as insults or swear words, so less mature students won’t get distracted from learning. I also point out how odd it is that some body parts owned by half the human race are used as insults.

Important: clean the board very thoroughly. 🙂


I give each student a piece of paper and ask them to spread out, as if doing a test. This is their chance to ask a question about the topic. It might be something they’ve always wondered about, or something they’ve heard in the playground, or anything. Everyone has to write something, even if it’s a line from a song or a quote from a film. This means that nobody will know who’s asked a question at all, let alone who asked which one. As they write I explain that I won’t answer them now, but make sure that where needed I’ll address the issue while teaching the topic. Many of them, of course, will not write a question. Those that do, ask questions that probably would have been answered anyway. But it means they feel involved. And as I collect them from the box they’ve been put into, I assure them that we’ll repeat this exercise at the end of the topic.


Obviously this is only one way to start a topic which is guaranteed to get some giggles. I’d be interested in other approaches, obviously. And I’ll try to make sure a few more posts are pedagogy-relevant before I get overwhelmed with something political again!

Speaking of which, I’m seeking volunteers who would like to contribute thoughts, comments, criticisms on Science controlled assessments at GCSE. I’m going to blog my thoughts in a little while, inspired by the current call for evidence from Ofqual, but I’ve no experience with boards other than AQA. It’ll either be one epic post or more likely a series, one for each board. So if you’re interested in a guest post (or just a link to your blog!) please get in touch, by email or twitter.

#asechat and #pimpmydemo

#asechat and #ukedchat

It happened completely by accident. I happened to be on Twitter yesterday evening and some interesting posts showed up in my timeline tagged with #asechat. So I joined in.

I already sporadically take part in #ukedchat. If you don’t, it’s worth a look; you may have recently read the Guardian article about it (which they ironically tweeted about without the hashtag). Once a week, on Thursday evenings from 8-9pm UK time a bunch of teachers discuss a topic. It gets crazy, as the 40+ page archive testifies, but it’s well worth the time. The topic is voted on during the week beforehand, then the chat is moderated by some brave soul. You miss lots of stuff – the sheer pace guarantees that – but can catch up with the weekly archive, if you want. When I can make it I come away having picked up a few good ideas and wanting to try them out. I suppose the idea is to provide the same environment as the coffee break during a TeachMeet – also a great idea.

Anyway. So this chat was the first one, a trial run specifically for science teachers and educators to share ideas. You can read the archive, if you want. The name #asechat is a convenient label, but you don’t need to be a member of the ASE to join in. (It’s worth considering, but I don’t think anyone’s planning on pressganging.) All you need to do is be prepared to listen, or even better to join in. It will be much easier if you use a twitter interface with a decent search function; for what it’s worth, I like TweetDeck. (If you don’t ‘get’ Twitter, and you’ve still read this far, check out this video.) The plan is for it to happen each Monday evening from 8-9. Maybe I’ll ‘see’ you there.


A few weeks back I swapped a few tweets with other science teachers about the little tips and tweaks that make demonstrations better. For a while now I’ve been collecting these ideas for myself, like we all do. This has usually involved scribbling on printouts or textbooks, less often an electronic ‘cheat sheet’. I’ve used books like The Resourceful Physics Teacher (out of print I think but he’s now got a website, SchoolPhysics) and there are regular features in magazines and journals. But why, I asked, don’t we share these ideas with each other on Twitter by coming up with a useful hashtag? And so #pimpmydemo was born (probably inspired by the book I’ve seen called Pimp Your Lesson). There were a few dozen responses of colleagues who felt it would be useful, then real life got in the way. During the #asechat I raised the idea again and there was enough interest it seemed worth taking it further. Of course, as it was my idea, I couldn’t exactly pass it on to somebody else…

I’ve set up an archive through a site called TwapperKeeper. The archive URL is and it should be automatically updating from now. And to be honest, that’s about it. I’m not trying to run anything, or take credit for anyone’s ideas. I’d suggest that if you can’t explain your idea in 140 characters, including a link to a details page would be worthwhile. If it gets going – and I hope it does – I suspect we’ll see links to blogs, sites such as Getting Practical and YouTube. Perhaps people will ask for help, by using the tag, as well as offering it. We’ll just have to see if anyone except me and a couple of others are interested.

If you think it’s a good idea, all you need to do is tell your followers. This isn’t going to happen by me or you putting out a few ideas and waiting for magic to happen. But it would be interesting to see what happens if the idea spreads…

ECA: Boosting Grades

It is – as it always seems to be – revision time once more. This year the AQA B2 exam is early and Easter is late, so I’m more than a little concerned about the level of preparation of some of my students. Maybe they’ll surprise me. But as an additional strategy, I’ve tried something this year on the board that I’ve now turned into a printable revision resource.

Students often struggle to make progress from lower grades to higher ones, even if they have the understanding. What I produced was a table on the board with three columns, marked E C and A. In the first column I wrote a few simple, but correct ideas. I then explained to the students that as these facts were something they all understood already, they would all be able to get past an E grade. The challenge was to add more information so that they could achieve at least a C grade, and perhaps an A.

Regular readers of the blog will recognise that I was asking them to Organise what they knew, and to Simplify their notes into brief bullet points. You could argue that by doing this activity a few times, they would be Rehearsing their understanding, and by approaching the notes in a different way that they would be Extending themselves. Yes, this is one of those activities which ticks the MORSE boxes once more. (and much to my pride, a few of them were able to tell me that too; it’s sinking in!

But it’s also about showing them how close they are to improving their grades; I wanted to encourage those who are convinced that they can’t better their D grade, or that a B is out of their reach. With a few exceptions, all of these students could have told me the first, basic idea from my table – albeit some without the key vocabulary. By practising this method, students learn the cues which mean they can use higher-level facts in the exam. We talked about how the material in the A-grade column, rather than facts to learn, was about evaluating or comparing, using flow charts or considering causes and effects (they had recently used Bloom’s Taxonomy to evaluate their own revision resources during ‘speed dating revision’).

The improved, printable version will be made available to them through the school VLE. I’m going to combine the idea with a B2 summary leaflet I produced last year, having them complete it with information, then decide what information they’d need for each grade boundary. We’ve always used the idea of  ‘all must, most should, a few might’ to differentiate material in a lesson. Perhaps by asking the students to divide up the content, they’ll be able to see not just where they are, but how they make the next step. That is, after all, the whole point of formative assessment – and of education generally.

printable: eca boosting grade as pdf

printable: AQA B2 leaflet as pdf

Immunisation 4/5 Choices

This is the fourth of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together into one downloadable scheme if there is enough feedback to make it worthwhile.

Starter: Making a Choice

Ask students to spend a couple of minutes considering the choices their parents have made for them – school, part of the country, hobbies etc. Were these choices always right? Were they well-informed?

Main: Roleplay


Put students into groups – aim to mix them up in terms of gender and ability. Each group will be assigned a role and asked to discuss arguments for or against MMR vaccination. They need to be able to justify their arguments as well as quantify them (perhaps using an opinion line?). If there is time you might want to give them a chance to research their position, perhaps in their own time. The powerpoint includes printable slides which will give them a starting point, as well as information they may choose not to share with the rest of the class. These slides can be used in the plenary, after they have chosen from the point of view of a parent. Some ideas about producing a roleplay can be found here (and I’m sure at many other places too).


There are many ways the students could share the arguments they have considered. If they produce a group poster or display then the decision could be run as a marketplace activity, with one ‘stall-holder’ left to explain the ideas and the remainder considering all the opinions before making their choice. Alternatively each group could present their ideas for a couple of minutes before answering questions, or make a video explaining their thoughts – perhaps as interviews for a TV show? The most challenging would be an open discussion, hard to manage and time consuming. In some ways the ideal would be brief presentations first, then ask them to speak to each other and challenge ideas one-to-one before reforming in groups for any final questions.


Finally, all students should record their choice, perhaps using anonymous votes or personal whiteboards. It is worth pointing out that although scientific questions can’t be settled democratically, people’s choices – such as whether or not to vaccinate – are much more likely to be based on persuasion.


Tally the total score, perhaps asking them to predict the result first. How does this compare with vaccination rates, nationally and locally? (Useful figures are summarised in this report from the House of Commons Library.)

As before, I’ve put this together as immunisation4 saved as ppt. The last six slides can be printed as briefing cards for the role play, although you may have other/better ideas. If so, please share them below!

Immunisation 3/5

This is the third of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme. Sorry this post is a little late but real life got in the way (more about this in a later blog post).

3 Data in Context


School A gets 25 A* grades in GCSE Science. School B gets 44 A*s. Which is better? (Not enough info as don’t know how many students in total, how they have chosen courses, exam specification <cough>21st Century.)

Main Activities

Numbers published during news stories about Implanon can be used to practice calculations. Ask students to consider view from each ‘end’ of the spectrum – those who suffer ill effects or for whom a product fails, compared with those who are satisfied with result. All cases have odd factors/coincidences – this is why we look at large numbers. You could point students towards the news stories (or have them look themselves using Google) or use the downloadable pdfs listed below. These include Ben Goldacre’s Guardian column and an excerpt from Dr Petra Boynton’s blog post about the media coverage. These should provide an interesting balance to the newspaper’s approach. The powerpoint asks students to read and discuss their assigned article in groups before comparing to other contraceptives. (Warning: check compatibility with age and PSHE in your setting.) They then compare the coverage between groups.

To bring the focus back to MMR, students could do with examining figures of incidence and mortality for each of the three infections. Numbers are available at HPA if you’d like them to graph it themselves, electronically or by hand. Getting hold of autism numbers is trickier, but most reputable sites agree that it’s hard to tell whether it is more common or just more diagnoses. WikidScience has an activity comparing absolute numbers in California with numbers per 100000, which might be useful. Ask students how we could explain increasing numbers.

Important to give a few facts – or guide the students to finding them – showing the consequences of measles, mumps and rubella. This is the route I’ve taken in the powerpoint below.


Challenge students to explain the difference between anecdotes and data. Realising the power of personal experience will set students up nicely for the role play in lesson 4 of the sequence (coming soon, I hope).

Printable media articles: www-bbc-co-uk : www-dailymail-co-uk : www-drpetra-co-uk : www-guardian-co-uk : www-mirror-co-uk : www-telegraph-co-uk all converted to pdf in one way or another.

immunisation3 as ppt

Any and all feedback and suggestions welcome – many thanks.

Immunisation 2/5 Correlation and Causation

This is the second of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme.

2 Correlation and Causation


Ask students to explain ‘links’ between things that happen at the same time:

  • boys growing facial hair and starting to produce sperm
  • height and shoe size
  • final exams and sunny weather (in the UK, more or less)
  • ice cream sales and deaths by drowning at the beach
  • star sign and academic success

Alternatively use the card sort and ask them to find the pairs of linked variables. You could perhaps add in one or two pairs that are causatively linked.

Printable: correlation cardsort as pdf.

Main Activities

Start by defining correlation and causation. It might be worth going back to tricky examples from the starter, pointing out when two variables are controlled by a third. (Flow charts show this nicely). Explain why observational studies can’t easily distinguish between correlation and causation, but that a link is often interesting and may help to suggest a hypothesis. Examples such as the British Doctors Study (more detail at the MRC) might be useful. Individual facts about this study could be used to produce a ‘murder mystery’ activity.

Recap definitions of variables (independant, dependant and control) and elicit ideal experimental design. Discuss limitations, especially with health-related research (compliance, ethics, comparison to placebo etc). We try to look for a pattern once other factors are excluded, then investigate links without endangering patients. Cue debate about value/ethics of animal trials!

A few weeks back Matt Parker produced a fantastic bad science/stats trap – explained here in the Guardian – suggesting a link between mobile phone masts and fertility. It is of course simple – we put mobile phone masts where there is demand. Most students should be able to suggest that this is because that’s where the people are. I suspect the correlation is enhanced by the fact that demand is linked even more closely to the section of the population aged 15-45, who are both more likely to have mobiles and have babies. He’s archived the data as an Excel file, available through his website StandupMaths. Students could plot (some of) this data and then try to explain the pattern.

Give students a simplified version of the original claims about MMR, according to Wakefield and authors. Challenge students to suggest (1)possible other factors/explanations (2)best ways to investigate this possible link. What would they have done if they had been involved in medical science at the time? What would they have recommended to parents/GPs? Instead of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it can be useful to have students show their feelings on an ‘opinion line’. This allows more subtlety, for example by letting them position themselves between ‘Cancel all vaccines’ and ‘Don’t even bother researching a possible link’ – both unhelpful extremes.


Why is this funny?

Above cartoon is of course from the wonderful xkcd.

Some of these ideas and activities are introduced in immunisation2 saved as powerpoint.

As before, please let me know of any ideas, suggestions, improvements – through the comments here, by email or via Twitter.

Immunisation 1/5 Infection

This will be the first of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme.

1 Infection


Distinguish between conditions e.g. asthma and infections.

Main 1: Pathogens and Immunity

  • Recap types of pathogen, basics of how the immune system works.
  • Blog is refusing to let me upload a .swf animation which is a shame as the Brainpop one on disease is quite good.
  • Ask students about their understanding of immunisation and clarify if necessary. (Depending on age they may have recently had HPV to protect against cervical cancer, which is a tricky example).
  • Might want to give examples of difficulties e.g. polio if they are up to it.

Main 2: MMR

  • Have students investigate the symptoms, mortality rates etc of a range of diseases, including MMR. How many you use will depend on class and group size.
  • Give a range of websites – I found NetDoctor, WHO, HPA (follow link to epidiomological data, fairly technical but gives good data for graphs) but I’m sure there are others – and ask them to extract basic facts for comparison.
  • Using a comparison table, or having them use something like Venn diagram to show similarities and differences, will stop them simply copying and pasting.
  • Each group could add basic facts to a wiki (if you’re feeling technical) or to the whiteboard (if you’re not).


Why is it sometimes called vaccination? Finding out why it is named for cows (vaccus) will lead students to cowpox/smallpox and Jenner’s work.


MMR – use students’ figures to show how the MMR immunisation saves lives in the UK – compare total mortality rates for these three diseases now with those from previous decades. This graph from Wikipedia shows the dramatic change in cases (but not mortality).

One version of this teaching plan is immunisation1 saved as a powerpoint file. Please comment, both on the ideas above and the powerpoint. A full version will be produced once I have some useful feedback.

Adaptations of Santa and Rudolf

What better way to celebrate the festive season than to consider the adaptations of Santa and Rudolf to their annual tasks?

Don’t answer that.

Printable: christmas as pdf

I gave this exercise to my students today and they seemed to enjoy it. I asked them to start by giving me three serious adaptations for each, and we then continued along a more festive theme as we approached the end of the lesson. You could give hints or add arrows to get them started.


  • Use of hat/clothes for warmth.
  • Boots have soles adapted for ice and snow.
  • Reins, sleigh and reindeer are more examples of tool use.
  • Highly developed brain (assisted by written records) for naughty and nice lists.
  • Strong arm/back muscles to carry heavy sack.
  • Large belly acts as a camel’s hump allowing prolonged period of exertion.
  • Use of GoogleMaps for navigation. (You could also demonstrate NorADSanta)


  • Thick fur to cope with Arctic conditions.
  • Wide hooves for moving on ice and snow.
  • Herd behaviour.
  • Streamlined shape for higher speed.
  • Mutation allowing flight.
  • Red nose – adaptation to allow easier navigation (without loss of night sight) or result of friction?
  • Antlers could be sophisticated radar aerial.