Christmas cheer – scientifically speaking

by Ed Walsh

I tend not to tell funny stories when I’m leading CPD sessions: it’s the quickest known way of dividing an audience (me from them). I have been known to sneak in the occasional one liner – you can move on before they’ve realised what’s happened. I said to my children that I needed to get some new material, to which they responded that I needed to get some material.Father Christmas and his reindeer

Many readers will be familiar with the physicist’s analysis of Santa Claus. If you are, you’ll know it starts by making certain assumptions about the mass of presents to deliver, the time available and the average distance between homes. From this the acceleration necessary, the force to accelerate that mass and the number of reindeer required are calculated using classical physics. What becomes clear is that at the speeds involved the leading reindeer would reach temperatures at which they would vapourise and slough away, indicating that the whole enterprise would be less of a jolly jape and more a furious, though pretty rapid, spectacle of energy transfer.

If this kind of humour does work for you, here’s a suggestion as to what to ask for this Christmas: ‘What if’, by Randall Munroe, ISBN 978-1848549579. Munroe is a Physics major and has applied his knowledge, cartoon abilities, witty writing and research skills to answering questions that people have submitted. Try the one on flying a Cessna 172 aircraft in the atmosphere of various planets and moons in the Solar System (having fitted it with an electric motor to get round the lack of oxygen). Or the one about what would happen if you actually assembled cubes of each element in a particular period of the Periodic Table and put them next to each other. He goes through it period by period. I bought a copy in Southampton Waterstones after running an SLC course and read it on the train on the way home. Well, actually I had to stop as other passengers were getting worried about me (though admittedly the book might not have been responsible).

OK, you have to be keen on science. And to have a certain sense of humour. But, hey, you read this far. Merry Christmas.

Christmas teaching resources and ideas

Fun Christmas science experimentHere, in one place, you will find all of our Christmas teaching resources and ideas. Many of them can be done as a Christmas science experiment in the classroom or at home around the table after a huge Christmas dinner!

Christmas science demonstration videos

This first set of Christmas science demonstrations are available to download as an ibook from the National Science Learning Centre iTunesU pages. The ibook includes full instructions and curriculum links for the experiments as well.

Fun Christmas science activities for the classroom or home

You will also find a range of ideas from one of our earlier posts with 12 fun Christmas science activities and experiments which includes one of my favourites, Norad’s track Santa.

Our 2011 Christmas science ideas for the classroom post breaks out a range of activities for primary and secondary science.

Finally the National STEM Centre, which has over 8,000 online resources available for free and has highlighted 12 Christmas resources you might find useful.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Lego, Girls, Physics, Triple Science and Subject Identity

By James de Winter

Earlier this year, Lego launched a new set, called the Research Institute, featuring a paleontologist, astronomer Lego Research Institute Box Coverand a chemist. It was a limited run and sold out almost straight away with copies now available online only at inflated prices. The fact that Lego chose scientists was perhaps not that unusual but what raised many eyebrows was that they were all female scientists. In recent years Lego had launched their Friends range that had a more traditional gender stereotypical ‘girly’ feel, but this was quite something else. They were scientists at work who just happened to be women. Whilst there were some comments on the make-up that featured on all three – one blogger noted that “that she strongly discouraged wearing makeup in the lab because of the potential for contamination”, this set was seen as a really positive step of portraying a female scientist as nothing out of the ordinary. Frivolous or not, this does raise a serious issue about gender and STEM and provides food for thought for those of us working in and with schools when considering the perceptions young people have of science and the individual subjects.

In 2006, the Institute of Physics (IOP) launched their Girls in physics project, beginning with a research review that aimed to draw together much of the work in the field. Following that was a classroom-friendly action research booklet full of explicit suggestions, taking the research evidence and providing some answers to the question “so what can I do about all of this in my own classroom?”. Both of these are well worth a read for anyone interested in this area.

At the time of the initial reports, the schools that were seen to be doing well in terms of the uptake in physics post 16 identified as schools that, on a school wide level

  • had a strong ‘can-do’ culture;
  • raised staff & students’ awareness of stereotyping;
  • encouraged collaboration not competition;
  • raised confidence through well-informed discussion of subject issues;
  • were active in promoting physics.

And they made physics ‘girl friendly’ by

  • reducing curriculum fragmentation and emphasising the ‘big picture’;
  • separate timetabling of biology, chemistry, physics topics with maximum staff continuity;
  • emphasising quality and consistency of teaching rather than role models.

This second list certainly suggests that subject identity is a key factor and in schools that offer Triple Science and expand their provision beyond a single ‘top’ group, the course creates a space to build and extend a sense of what physics, chemistry and biology actually are. The initial work came from a gender and physics specific angle but none of these suggestions offer a second best to boys. By developing and promoting a clear subject identity between the sciences at school we can give all students the opportunity to make up their own minds of what to study, based on a grounded view of what the subjects really are, as well as the opportunities that they offer beyond school into further study. Many schools are taking this further, working to promote STEM beyond the school, putting on more events for parents that raise the profile and identity of science and the individual subjects. Thus acknowledging that potentially misplaced perceptions extend well beyond the school.

The IOP project continues to goes from strength to strength with more government funding and an expanded remit. But many of the issues still remain and there is certainly no easy fix. Much of what was of concern when the project began is still of concern now, in some cases even more so but that doesn’t mean we should be dismissive and give up. It’s impossible to know how many people ‘should’ or ‘could’ do A level physics (or chemistry or biology), but certainly no one would want students steering away from choices because they have a misplaced understanding of what the subjects actually are.

At the moment physics may be perceived to be all about particle colliders or landing satellites on comets. All positive, but if that is all physics is seen as, then this might end up becoming just as limiting a stereotype as those that we have had in the past. Even with slightly healthier A level numbers, I am sure biology and chemistry colleagues can think of similar, limiting perspectives for their subjects that prevail in some homes and other parts of school that we want to try and address.

Triple Science Links

Triple Science community pages

Free Triple Science resources

Triple Science training courses

Linking Primary Science and Computing Technology

by Helen Spring

The new primary computing curriculum is a pretty daunting thing to get your head around. Before the summer Primary Science Anatomy 3D app imageholidays, most of us had no idea what algorithms, abstraction and data representation were. The idea of teaching Key Stage 1 children how to create and debug programmes seemed like an impossible task. The Key Stage 2 computing curriculum may as well have been written in another language.

Most primary school teachers know the subject that they lead inside out, and the rest of the curriculum pretty well. The new computing curriculum can be a bit of a stumbling block.

Computing at School (CAS)  offers some excellent support. Their website has some fantastic resources on it; one of which is the CAS Primary Guidance document, which breaks the computing curriculum down into three key areas and then goes on to explain those tricky terms and suggest some activities that children could do to help them to learn about these new concepts.

There is also a link to Barefoot Computing, a project funded by the DfE to develop cross curricular resources incorporating key parts of the new computing curriculum within existing lessons. The computing curriculum states that computing has deep links with mathematics, science, and design and technology. It is important that children learn to apply what they have learnt in computing lessons in other subjects and in their lives outside school.

There are countless apps on the iPad which support primary science. One of my favourites is Anatomy 4D which allows you to look at different organs in the human body in 3D. I’m sure most schools are using dataloggers and digital cameras in teaching of primary science, but have you ever thought of using coding programmes such as Scratch to support your teaching of primary science? Or considered that algorithms could be used in science lessons and that evaluating investigations uses the same skills as debugging computer programs?

At the National Science Learning Centre, we are running a course called ‘Linking Primary Science and Computing Technology’, presented by a range of experts in their field including Boffinmedia. We also have teachers who are coming to show us what they do in their own classrooms. Gemma Taylor (@GTaylorSTEM), our resident Technology expert, will also be leading a Scratch workshop, and focusing on computational thinking. The course will develop ideas on how to link computing technology and primary science; the opportunities are endless.

Other primary computer science courses for teachers you may be interested in:

Enhancing the core primary curriculum through technology

 Primary computing conference

New primary computing curriculum: teaching algorithms, programming and digital literacy

Using Scratch to enhance the understanding of KS2 maths and science

Practical skills at A level – flavour of the month or a nasty taste?

By Ed Walsh

Barely a week goes by now without another A level science specification being approved by Ofqual. Although the awarding organisations have given their courses a distinctive flavour, there are of course certain common characteristics. Irrespective of how much shopping around is done, this is the common headline.Assessment for Learning in practical science

Assessment of practical skills

The one that’s had the most coverage is, of course, the assessment of practical skills. There’s a bit of folklore in circulation that, as there will no longer be a practical examination in the A level exams, that practical skills count for nothing and aren’t being valued. I have to say, that no one I’ve spoken to who has had any involvement with this development, has questioned the importance of scientific enquiry or the skills and processes that make it up. The issue is how to assess them in a way that doesn’t distort the focus of teaching, make students ‘jump through hoops’ or result in data with questionable validity.

Each specification lists stipulated practical investigations that students are expected to carry out. Most teachers will go further but all will do these specifications…. For the following reasons;

  • a good practical, well introduced and effectively supported, is a good way of developing the understanding of key concepts
  • students are going to be repeatedly questioned on their understanding and application of them. To the tune of 15% of the marks in the final exams
  • teachers will be assessing practical competencies. These lead to a separate endorsement but will also provide a good opportunity to provide developmental feedback in a formative way
  • someone is going to come visiting and will want to see evidence and talk to people.

Still in any doubt that practical work is important?

These are important messages and ones that people in your A level team need to know about. A great way of getting up to speed on this and other issues is to come along to one of the events that the Science Learning Network South West is running on the new A Level specifications. The same course, Introducing the new A level specifications is also running in the North West. Each is supported by AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas (WJEC’s English operation) and OCR so you can compare the offers. See what’s the same, what varies and which ones are best for you.

Also worthwhile seeing is what else is changing? For example, the mathematical content. In developing the new courses, awarding organisations had to talk to universities and see what they thought about the existing A levels. They were pretty happy with the content but less complimentary about the mathematical skills that newly recruited undergraduates were starting out with – so a fire has been lit under this one. Final exams will now have at least 10% of the marks in biology going on questions with a level of mathematical challenge equivalent to a GCSE grade C, 20% in chemistry and 40% in physics.(Source: DFE paper DFE 00356 2014: GCE AS and A level subject content for biology, chemistry, physics and psychology)

There will be more Science Learning Network courses coming along next year to support the implementation of these specifications, including exploring how assessments are changing. Things are cooking up – make sure they’re to your taste.

Other relevant courses;

Resourcing the New Mathematics Curriculum

Developing the STEM Curriculum through Practical Learning

Practical Work in Biology

Practical Work in Chemistry

Practical Work in Physics

The UK Teachers at CERN Programme

Alaric Thompson

This CERN education programme is run by the National Science Learning Centre and CERN Education and I was delighted to be able to attend with around 25 other teachers during October 2014.Cern Visit. Inside the dome

After calculating that the ENTHUSE Award would be enough for fees, costs and cover it was not difficult to persuade Senior Leadership Team that the course would be worthwhile in terms of personal continuing professional development (CPD), benefit to my school and students, and even benefit to the staff and students in my local network of schools.

My visit to CERN included a series of lectures which extended my knowledge of the history, function and engineering of CERN, the way the accelerators and detectors work, the particle physics involved and some of the spin off benefits like antiproton beam therapy.

The afternoons were spent visiting various experimental facilities and of course the high point of the week was seeing the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS )detector, wide open in its enormous cavern and almost close enough to touch. However other experiments were just as interesting and in fact added more to my knowledge and experience than did the CMS. The anti-proton decelerator experiments and the CERN based, control centre of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on board the International Space Station are two examples.

Dining in the legendary CERN restaurant is an experience in itself, surrounded by physicists in all stages of their careers as well as engineers, programmers, technicians, administrators…the list goes on. We were at CERN during a relatively quiet time as the beams were being tested and the detectors refurbished, but he number of people still going through the restaurant gave an impression of the sheer scale and truly international nature of the venture.

Of course an important part of any course is the networking that goes on in between sessions and there was plenty of opportunity to get to know the diverse range of teachers on the course; physicists, chemists and engineers teaching GCSE, A level and Scottish highers. Conversations didn’t just include particle physics and the immense engineering project that is the Large Hadron Collider and I benefited hugely from the chance to spend time with like-minded people, away from the pressure of planning and marking.

CERN Visit. The CMSThe return to school after such an amazing week was made easier by colleagues and students who were really keen to know how the course had gone, what CERN is like and to discuss the new physics that I had learned. In fact three weeks later I am still getting lots of questions, which is fantastic because the aim now is to spread that knowledge and experience amongst colleagues and students not just in my own school but also in the network of schools in my area.

I’m putting together presentations based on the slides shared with us on the course and also using the many animations available at CERN Education (which I didn’t know about before the course and are publicly available).

I have returned to school with a renewed passion for particle physics, a desire to share my awe of the engineering involved and a confidence to talk about a subject that previously I ‘kind of knew a bit about’.

For a detailed look at the programme we followed visit and for the next UK Teachers Course to CERN I highly recommend it.

You will also find a full range of images on my G+  photo album of the CERN visit.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

by Gemma Taylor

What do you want to be when you grow up?


“Doctor”Cad design of a car to support teacher industrial placement scheme


“Fashion designer”

Sound familiar?

When asked at the age of 14 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered “football player or coach.” Maybe I was still riding the high of watching Leicester City beat Tranmere Rovers in the FA League Cup. Maybe it was the years of playing football and my love of PE that let me imagine it was the only career that ever existed. At the age of 19 I found myself at university, about to start a mechanical engineering and design degree, so you may ask – what made me change my mind?

Life is about answering questions – both big and small

We seek evidence from the world around us, we consider our own experiences and we act to make the best decisions that we can. As an engineer, I used my education and training to answer business questions every day. However, life became a little more complicated when I started my role as a secondary school design and technology teacher. A typical day of questions starts with the obvious, “Do you have a pen I can borrow miss?” From then on, don’t be surprised if the topics vary from what you have watched on television over the past 24 hours to personal health and the top speed of a Bugatti Veyron. We are seen by students as a complete source of knowledge, but “with great power, comes great responsibility” and when a student is asking you for advice on what they should do with their life, never is this responsibility felt more.

With great power, comes great responsibility

As a teacher of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject I always try to encourage my students to achieve their best in all the areas of STEM, giving themselves the best chance for the future. But what futures are available to them? Students need real world examples of the careers their favourite subjects can lead to and what the next steps are to achieve them. A great example of this is given in the recent collaborative report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, together with Mindshare. The report is titled Project STEM: A Book of Insights and discusses the findings of research conducted into the views of a selection of Y9, Y11 and Y12 students. The report’s findings on the negative perceptions of STEM subjects’ makes for tough reading but rings familiar with the students I have met in my classroom. Maths “It’s not relevant”, technology “Lacks social kudos” and science is “difficult beyond GCSE”. Our job as STEM teachers is to bring the reality of our subject into the classroom and break these perceptions apart. We need to show our students the variety of career options that are available to them, the diverse range of careers that use the STEM subjects and the different entry routes that they can take to start their career. My dream is to have a school of students that never need to ask the question. “What should I do when I leave school?” because they will already know the answer from their years of studying.

So, if you agree with the above and you want to incorporate more STEM relevant careers information into your lessons, what is there to help?

The National STEM Centre has a library of online careers resources that are available for you to download.

The STEM ambassador programme will support your school to engage students in STEM careers through visiting STEM professionals.

The National Science Learning Centre has courses running throughout the year that include careers specific learning for STEM. They are also running a two-week teacher placement scheme in partnership with the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Placing teachers of STEM subjects with engineering and technology employers for a ten day hands on experience of what it is like to work in the engineering and technology sector.

Finally, if you were wondering what it was that changed my mind from pursuing a football career to becoming an engineer, simple, my physics teacher.


P.S. You may also be interested in reading Jo Cox’s blog about her experience on the Teacher Industrial Partnership scheme.


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