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?

Demonstration or Class Practical?

It’s always a tricky one, isn’t it? Do we show them the experiment, knowing that a half-dozen or so will be messing around at the back or comparing nail varnish with their friends? Or do we let them loose with glassware and clamp stands, waiting for the crashing noises or the blank looks to begin?

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit. But for most of us, it’s probably taking a bit of time to think about the kinds of practicals we do, and why. Are we focused enough on what the students will learn from it? Or are we doing a particular practical or demonstration because it’s in the scheme of work, or because we’ve always done it?

I’ve used among other sources David Sang and Alom Shaha’s workshop at the ASE Conference and materials from Getting Practical and SCORE Education to produce a checklist (downloadable below, simply click on the image). The focus is about the benefits of a demonstration or a class practical. It’s an easy way to think about what can be added to an activity, or ways to tweak it to improve outcomes. Simply sharing with the students what they might be trying to gain from a practical is worthwhile – although in some cases as a plenary to avoid spoiling a surprise or insight. Simply take a moment to read through the lists, and see if you can justify the activity in terms of learning. If you’re not sure, what could you change?

There’s loads of good ideas online – the National Stem Centre eLibrary is of course one place to look – and it’s often possible to convert a practical into a demo or vice versa. For example, I demonstrate heat transfer in fluids using the two chimneys apparatus and a convection square, plus hot and cold water with food colouring in gas jars, which I first saw in ‘Nina and the Neurons’. By the third demo the kids can predict and ex0plain what’s going to happen quite well. I then give them coloured ice cubes to float in water, and to predict, explain, describe and explain again (PEOE) what they see. Bonus points for a commentary that uses key ideas such as ‘density change’.

I hope this kind of reminder is useful, for experienced teachers as well as those more recently joining the profession. Feedback would be very much appreciated, as this is my 100th post and I’ve had less than 1 comment for each on average…


Demonstrations (#aseconf 2/3)

I managed to make it to the 2012 ASE Conference for just one day, the Saturday. My plan is to blog it in three chunks for the sessions I attended, in order. We’ll see how it goes. These will be edited versions of my Evernote summaries of the sessions and my commentary (in italics), although I’ll link to other resources I’ve since found that I think are relevant. Apologies if I mix up any names or misquote any of the people involved. I really enjoyed the sessions and the social side, but will cover this in more detail in the third post.

Presented by David Sang (among many other roles, editor of the Practical Physics site) and Alom Shaha (teacher, film producer etc)

In an electricity and magnetism public lecture, Oersted noticed compass movement during public demo – real public science.

I’m now thinking about reenacting this for the students, perhaps as a plenary after more ‘interactive’ work.

  • Use webcam to make it visible.
  • Mark north/south without magnet, make sure kids see change, note alteration.
  • Show range of effect, compare strength of wire and earth magnetic fields.
  • Equal strength when at 45degrees.

A demo has many possible purposes, but should always – like everything we do in a lab or classroom – lead to a better understanding of some of the ideas. It can be used as a stimulus for them to do investigative work. While explaining the demo, we can give differentiated possibilities. A useful mantra should be ‘hands-on, minds-on’.

For any demonstration, there are some things to consider:

  1. Visibility/clarity
  2. Preparation and practice, e.g. clamps and where you stand
  3. Prepare for failure, be ready with explanations
  4. Ensure kids focus on important aspects – what are we changing, what is happening
  5. Involve students in practical (holding equipment, readings, recording data)
  6. Contextualise (history, application, consequences, possibilities for the future)
  7. Predict, (explain), observe, explain. (I already used this myself but now I’ve added a prompt poster to my wall)
  8. Q&A are a standard way to check ‘takeaway’ understanding (why not ask students to ask their classmates a question?)
  9. Extend (possibly via Q&A)
  10. Give correct explanation, try not to give misconceptions (although this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use appropriate levels of model)
  11. Good opportunity to repeat the demo, perhaps with more involvement or explanation from students (giving commentary?)
  12. Summarise (giving a summary as part of a L2L split plenary would work well)
  13. Safety – nobody died.

For this one in particular (link between magnetism and electricity) can show same principle with generators, generator handles, cheap wind up torches. A wind up torch vs cell/switch/bulb would nicely demonstrate different energy changes (classic misconception is that closing switch is KE) in energy circus.

Why not do demos?

  • Safety (rarely for most – see guidance e.g. CLEAPPS)
  • Unreliable
  • Technician time/materials cost
  • Prefer to ‘learn by doing’? (NB see evidence for/against this)

All worth considering, but use them as prompts to improve quality rather than going straight for a video.

Why do as class practical?

  • Small groups can be fun/hands on
  • Practical skills
  • Know/appreciate problems eg ‘messy data’
  • Make (and justify) plans
  • Experience non daytoday phenomena

Best reason to do demo (from Alom)

We can promote ‘awe and wonder’ by showing them something they could not have observed (or perhaps appreciated in isolation) – this is worthwhile. (eg induction with lenz law in copper tube – sleight of hand helps!). This will often involve an unexpected result, perhaps because we set up the situation with an unnoticed or unappreciated ‘tweak’ or ‘cheat’.

Alom: Nobody goes into science because the science was like ‘magic’ – but because they wanted to figure out magic. Emotional engagement is a good thing, and kids link enjoyment to both teacher and subject. This improves performance, recruitment and retention.

My plan is to turn the choices – reasons to use a demonstration vs a class practical – into a checklist or flowchart for a later blog post. If you’ve any particular ideas, I’d love to incorporate them so why not comment below?

Further reading

Entering The Virtual Staffroom 1/2: Blogging

It was probably from Alom Shaha that I first ‘heard’ the term virtual staffroom to encompass the ways in which Twitter and blogging can help teachers improve their professional practice. I’m not the only person who likes the concept, and there’s some excellent discussion elsewhere about the benefits it can offer. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas in passing before, and I’m not going to try to tell you that you must blog about teaching, or why Twitter will change your (professional) life. But I’ve gained enough from both that I thought it was worth highlighting a few things.


I started with a blog because I figured it was a shame that other people couldn’t learn from my mistakes – after all I’d made so many of them! Partly it was disappointment with the poor quality of the resources available through Memory4Teachers, which seemed a good idea blighted by poor execution. I’ve seen several benefits:

  • For me blogging provides a sounding board – sometimes it doesn’t even matter if anyone else is reading it. Reflective practice is really important and after training it’s easy to lose the habit of writing out what worked and what didn’t, and why, and how you plan to improve. Have a look at the NQT Bloggers  to see what I mean. And as you gain an audience, comments can really help you with new ideas or different viewpoints. (To any readers who habitually lurk rather than commenting, you have no idea how much it would be appreciated…)
  • Having that audience really encourages me to raise my game with resources, just like students improving their presentation because their friends will see it. Because I don’t produce anything I don’t plan to use at work, I can spend extra time without resenting it so much. I’m not encouraging style over substance, but those few moments probably do help.
  • Actually writing blog posts often gives me new ideas; because of explaining something, or trying to find a good example, I understand it better myself. Making the posts readable encourages me to break the ideas down so they really make sense. This is why writing a paragraph summary of any INSET session is worthwhile, by the way – it makes you focus on what matters and why.
  • As people start to read your blog, it’s hugely encouraging. Just the traffic is nice; WordPress gives you stats, and I’ve carefully never tried to figure out how much is bots. Comments are fantastic feedback, whether positive or with suggestions. Even better are those who tell you that what you’ve written has made them think, given them ideas or solved a problem. If you tweet (see below) then you’ll see people mentioning your blog or thanking you online, which is a huge confidence boost. Getting a mention from some people can have a huge effect; it’s a little pathetic how much I treasure the literally hundreds of hits I got after links from Ben Goldacre and Ed Yong.

If you are going to blog, there’s loads of advice around. There are several teacher-specific aspects you may wish to consider.

  • Stay professional. Everyone grumbles, but don’t say anything in a blog post you would be ashamed to hear a colleague say in public or to read in a newspaper. Never name a student or be specific about a class or colleague. Take care with the language you use to describe bad days or challenging students. If you use photos of resources and/or demonstrations, ensure pupils are not visible. You may wish to check these guidelines on blogging about work or check with a union rep, or ask a member of your SMT. Most policies cover social networking in general rather than blogging in particular. Alternatively…
  • I blog and tweet under a pseudonym. I think of this as working discreetly, rather than secretly – it would not be hard for a determined reader to figure out who I am. It allows me the freedom to blog without it affecting my school, colleagues or myself. (Partly this is because with an unusual surname my students would find the blog on a casual Google search.) This may be particularly important if while blogging you end up discussing how outside issues – perhaps family events or illness – affect your professional practice. Of course I will have to ‘out’ myself if I want to use the blog itself, rather than describing benefits I’ve gained from it, at interview in the future!
  • Think about resource sharing. What you produce could also be shared through the TES or Guardian resource sites, stored locally, linked through Google Docs or sites such as Dropbox, or Slideshare (which allows live presentations to be hosted on your blog). There are lots of possibilities, some of which may mean setting up a blog-specific or pseudonymous account. Plan ahead and be systematic.

As a final thought, I’d strongly recommend the Creative Education blog for lots of ideas, on blogging and other stuff. In particular, the article on Writing Blog Posts has lots of good, sensible advice. I don’t always follow it, but if not I usually regret it.

EDIT: @dannynic has a great blog post on starting a blog with more practical advice, well worth a look.

Part 2: Twitter now online.