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.)

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?

A Scientific Summer

My eldest son already identifies as geeky. Maybe it’ll change, and that’s fine. But right now he’s got a Raspberry Pi, several electronics kits and a burning desire to make a robot that will allow him to take over the world. He likes coding (secret ciphers as well as Scratch and Python) and is getting into astronomy, microscopes and wildlife. He wants to be a zoologist (this week) and is learning to touch type so he can blog his discoveries. In the interests of fairness: he also reads continuously, rock climbs, draws really badly and has taught himself to turn cartwheels and do backflips on a trampoline. He’s as well rounded as the average nine year old, for which his mother deserves a lot more credit than I.
The thing is, supporting his interest in science always came easily to me. I get science. It makes sense to me. Although I mainly teach physics, I’ve enough of a grounding across the board that I know where to look for good explanations if I’m stumped myself. (Recently: what’s the difference between moths and butterflies?) Sport, drama, music – these are mysteries to me. But science I get.
Lots of people don’t. Which means lots of parents don’t.
The ExpeRimental project – the middle capital letter is because it’s being run out of the Ri, the Royal Institution – is about giving parents the tools to play scientifically with their kids this summer. Instructions for simple, kitchen science demonstrations that help kids explain basic scientific ideas. It’s free, it’s supported via YouTube and it’s led not by famous faces but by real kids and parents. Alom Shaha is part of the project which means both the science and the videos are top-notch. The focus isn’t on recreating something they could see online, but on thinking scientifically. This is about questions, not answers, and it’s something everyone can learn, young or old.
By this point you’re probably nodding enthusiastically, but you’re also realising, as I did, that we’re the wrong audience. This site isn’t intended for me, although I’ll use it. As science teachers, we don’t need this. Parents need this project.
I don’t need this site
Because I’m a geek.

There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference, answer in the comments.)

This doesn’t make me a character in The Big Bang Theory, which I see as undemanding (rather sexist) comedy rather than a life blueprint. It doesn’t make me a genius. I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. It makes me a person who recognises a fact about the world that I’d probably take for granted, if I didn’t have to make it explicit in a daily basis for my students.

Science is cool.

Not just because it leads to great stuff. Although it does. Not just because it involves big explosions. Ditto. And not just because it’s useful (candidate for this year’s understatement award) when facing crises like climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science is cool because it’s arguably the best way to answer one of the first abstract questions human beings ask.


Yes, I know that often the explanation of cause and effect involves people and their motives as well as scientific principles. Yes, I know that sometimes we’re answering the question in terms of justifying a choice rather than explaining how something works. But in its simplest possible incarnation, science is about describing how the world works and suggesting a reason for it. Magic and religion may have offered the first explanations, but science offered the first that actually worked. And still does. So science is cool, and thinking scientifically is useful to everyone, and lots of people think they can’t do it.

Who To Tell
share button 2
Is everyone too simplistic? It would be better to tell people who care. Parents who have six weeks of summer holiday ahead of them and know the summer reading challenge, great as it is, won’t be enough. ExpeRimental will be adding a new video each week over the summer. Kids and their parents will be encouraged to share their own contributions – videos, surprises, results, questions – via the project Facebook page.
Pass it on via your preferred social media, ideally a few times over the next few weeks. Email those in your family who are zoo keeping child minding this summer. Better yet, send it to older brothers and sisters and challenge them to help. Bribery is good – Horrible Science books are easy to find in charity shops and discounters, or the Klutz range provide great materials and ideas.
I’d love to see promotional materials in local libraries and their noticeboards – I might add a few myself. And perhaps bookshops might add something in their Science for Kids shelves? The point is to get the ideas into the hands of desperate parents who want to get through the summer without spending a fortune or shouting too much.
And next?
One approach that seems to have been missed; as well as primary teachers and those running science clubs, the resources would be great for youth groups. The project would be a great foundation for Rainbows or BeaversBrownies and Cubs. Pass on the link to youth leaders for a ready-made activity in the autumn.
Something I’m using with my own kids this summer is an American site, Kids can share projects, from Actor to Zoologist, and earn badges to show what they’ve done. The ideas would link really nicely with the PhilosopherData Visionary and Film Maker skills as well as the more obvious scientific ones.
Next stop would be visiting somewhere scientific. I’m sure there must be lists of science centres, museums with dinosaur exhibits and wildlife centres suitable for kids. This could be as easy as printing off a checklist and heading for the park to look at bugs. Or as involved as staying overnight in the Science Museum. Just like science, this project is about starting to ask questions, not about giving final answers. And this post isn’t really about science teaching, any more than visiting the Roald Dahl museum is about teaching literacy. Instead, it’s about being a parent.
Which is what I’ll be up to for the next six weeks or so. Probably armed with a Pringles cannon…