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IoP Schools Outreach Meeting

May 23, 2014 2 comments

Yesterday I took an early flight down to London to attend an Institute of Physics (IoP) School Outreach Support Network meeting. I’m reasonably active in schools outreach work, and a little support never hurts. Overall the day was very positive, and I took home lots of little hints and tips that I might try and apply here, while it was also a chance to speak to range of academics that I might not normally come across. The slightly disappointing thing was that the flagship IoP activities in this area are funded in and for English schools exclusively. This ticks me off a little – a co-ordinated approach across the UK would seem appropriate, but I often find that people from ‘down South’ have difficultly dealing with a wholly different education system: there is a little of ‘I did A-levels, I understand them, the majority in the UK do them, so I need not concern myself further with anything else.’ This is disappointing, but it is a fact of life considering how eduction in the Uk is funded through devolved means – but I pay my membership fees to the IoP in London, and it’d be good to see maximum efficiency through shared schemes.

The main instrument the IoP is pushing is the ‘Stimulating Physics Network‘ which is designed to offer practical support and mentoring for physics teachers; pilot schemes are being set up with a range of partner schools who traditionally do not have much physics uptake at A level, with 35 support ‘coaches’ being available within the 420 partner schools to facilitate this. There is a great push to try and look and gender balance in physics (and through some of the schemes on offer, the wider school community) through direct work with girls, running workshops, offering peer mentoring support and senior pupil mentoring of junior pupils, increased STEM Ambassador support, highlighting gender aware pedagogy and the like. In general all positive and fairly sensible stuff, much of it on the back of previous IoP reports in this area: “It’s Different for Girls” and “Closing Doors“. The funding is there for 2-3 years and we’ll see how it all pans out. Additionally there is a scheme aimed at just London and surrounds funded by the Drayson Foundation. Physics does appear to have quite a big gender imbalance problem, and it’s good to see it being tackled head on on a number of fronts.

Other schemes currently include the ‘Your Life‘ initiative, which is led through private funding and is designed to promote better female participation in STEM subjects, aimed especially at 14-16 year olds. [Having just looked at their website, I am not quite sure what it’s all about, but hopefully the industry input will be a positive step]. There is also the Researchers in Schools project which will pay a premium of £40k a year for trainee teachers in physics and maths (for two years I believe), although I think the target number for the scheme is very low. This is aimed at PhD students and postdocs. It sounds attractive, but I can’t help feel that it would be somewhat divisive in a staff room.

We also heard from Gareth Edwards from the Open University about a RCUK funded scheme , the Schools-University Partnership which at the OU is designed to look at a number of different activities to promote engagement – open lectures, open inquiry, open dialogues and open creativity. The study will then look at the evidence base for the success of such projects. Gareth’s talk and little activity session was designed to highlight how one might measure success in these areas. The example used was in the ‘Open creativity’ section where students received media training, just like staff at the OU would and then were going to make a video making use of an element of current OU research. I think we’ll need to wait a wee while to see the project outcomes (it runs to 2015).

We also heard from a few physics academics on their outreach projects, one from Phil Furneaux from Lancaster about making better use of PhD students for outreach and the types of things they need if you are training them for such events; another from Heather MacRae from Venture Thinking and Helen Mason from University of Cambridge who produced an excellent project engaging pupils from an East London school to produce an iBook about the sun, “A big ball of fire“. The students got to visit Cambridge, took in a special lecture and worked on the multimedia aspects of putting their book together. The researchers were surprised at the range of media they got back. The idea can be readily ported to almost any subject area, although a lecture in your University might not be quite as swanky as one at Cambridge.

In the final talk we learned about the University of Bradford’s Robotic Telescope Project. This allows schools access to the telescope, which is in Tenerife, and to take real data and interact with astronomers. The idea being to provide a cross curricula opportunity which will hopefully also inspire pupils to stay with STEM.

So all in all a pretty good day, aside from the delayed flight home which mean to bed after 1am, and I have a few new ideas to try and push here, should I get a spare few minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiring the kids and vice versa

I was a judge today (14th June) at the Big Bang Fair Scotland at the SECC in Glasgow. I have had the pleasure of taking on this role several times over the past few years and this year the event was the biggest yet. There were an estimated 4000 kids due to attend with hundreds of competitors from schools all over Scotland, even from as far away as Shetland.

One of the big things that the judges are told is that the judging is actually a highlight for the kids, that the discussion with a professional scientist or engineer is a big deal, a form of validation, and it helps to add a little to the inspiration that hopefully they are all privy too as part of being involved with the competition and the event. Equally we are told not to be too hard on them, and to focus on the positive, as this can shatter the experience and put them off science and engineering.

I never have a real problem with the judging – the kids are always fairly enthusiastic and rightly proud of what they have done – the projects are often amazing – 10 year olds building working wave electricity generating machines, teams building little satellite sensor systems in a juice can, volcano investigations, Raspberry Pi controlled racing cars, Robots (lots of robots) and more renewable energy houses than you can shake a stick at – and it’s clear that they have the bug. They have been inspired. And this is in very large part due to a group of very dedicated, hard working and brilliant teachers who are the ones to help pull all the projects together.

What I found this year was that I was inspired to actually try and do something myself – one of the science club projects was sponsored by the Weir Group, and it was to look at using 3D printing to build a water wheel system. This involved giving those schools participating a 3D printer. On speaking to one of the teachers from Eastbank Academy in Glasgow it was also clear that the printer had hugely impressed some of the teachers and that the possibilities were huge – the kids had used it to print all sorts of stuff, from minecraft objects to jewellery. The comment we both made was that soon every school will want one.

3D printer at the Big Bang Fair Scotland

3D printer at the Big Bang Fair Scotland

So that got me thinking – one of the things Universities are supposed to try and do is engage with the local community – so why don’t I (or at least my School/College) try and get one of these devices in every high school in Dundee? I haven’t quite thought through the details yet, but I’d hope the University, some local businesses and maybe some crowdfunding might allow me to get to the target needed. There are other details to consider such as ongoing consumable costs, but let’s not let them spoil my afternoon vision. So my goal (and making this pledge in public might actually focus my mind) is to try and give the local high schools of Dundee a 3D printer as a Christmas present. I see this part of the “Transform Dundee” vision that the University of Dundee has.

If anyone wants to help in this endeavor, let me know. If anyone wants to point out the fatal flaw in my idea, that’d be good to know as well. If anyone wants to pledge money to support it, drop me a line and I’ll work out someway to take that from you.

Printing the Moon

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a conference (in a loose sense) that was a million miles away from my normal academic meetings – South by Southwest (SxSW). This is a huge multifacted event, with over 100,000 attendees covering interactive. film, music, education and every other form of tech meets new media that you can think of.

I was there because I know a man who knows a woman who happens to work at NASA. My brilliant colleague Jon Rogers, a product designer in our Art School, works on a range of projects exploring how to make data ‘physical’. NASA, who have a desire to make their open data more used by interested parties have been developing a ‘Space Apps‘ challenge to try and focus people, in a crowdsourced manner, around certain topic areas. As one might imagine these challenges and their solutions are fairly software based, but NASA also wanted something a bit more hardware oreintated – hence ‘Making Space Apps Physical’. Jon wanted to try and broaded this idea out and so asked a couple of other designers, Sandra Wilson and Jayne Wallace and myself to get involved, adding to the team that already included Ali Llewellyn from NASA. This led to us submitting a panel proposal for SxSW this year, which was (surprisingly) accepted, based around this idea of making space a bit more immediate, a bit easier to interact with.

And so the “Print the Moon” project was born – my little contribution. The idea arose from an Advanced Higher (final year Scottish high school pupil) who wanted to try and do an experiment on Astronomy. We lent her a telescope and then suggested that she could try and do some measurement on craters on the moon looking at their shadows. Even with a decent telescope like ours this is not so easy, so I thought about how you might be able to do the same thing in the lab. With the ability to 3D print objects it seemed like it should be possible to print out a crater and then just use a torch or other light source to do the experiment, and this was the challenge I sent to a group of our keen undergraduates.

Essentially the problem was to find the right data and then take that and turn it into something readable by the 3D printer (or rapid prototyper). The data was provided by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisence Orbiter with it’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument providing 3D surface topography. The students then ported this into Matlab to plot the surface, sent it over to Meshlab for cleaning up and then sent it to Solidworks to output it to the printer. As an educational tool this has proved very valuable, as the students had never really used any of these before (expect Matlab). A copy of the Korolev Crater is shown below, from the dark side of the moon. You can then do a bit of trigonometry to try and get the crater dimensions based on shadow data. So all in all it works quite well.

3D version of Korolev on the dark side of the Moon.

3D version of Korolev on the dark side of the Moon. Spot the deliberate mistake.

And we took this over to South by Southwest and talked about it on the panel, and I even got to meet an astronaut. I’m very proud of my students getting stuck into something like this – a project that has no academic bearing on their courses – done just as it’s a bit of fun and it helps you to learn some new skills. I also think we could maybe push this towards a publication in something like the American Journal of Physics and will hopefully have some Nuffield Bursary students working on this over the summer to try and gather the necessary data.

Our students were also on hand at an event organised by New Media Scotland, the LateLab, as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival to talk about their work. And there is still more to come, with other events still to make use of out little chunk of the moon. Oh, and if you want to get involved, there is a Space Apps Challenge: “Dark Side of the Moon“.

Science Grrl and the Community

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Last year I noted that as the new head of physics at Dundee I should do more to promote women in STEM fields. This came after a bit of homework that my daughter received highlighted the stereotypes that schoolkids get all too readily when thinking and discussing scientific issues. As it turns out part of my role is to try and help guide the Physics Division towards accreditation in programmes such as Athena Swan and the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno. These have certainly got me thinking much more about the diversity issues that both Higher Education organisations and the wider community face.

The first thing I am pleased to be able to announce that we are doing is a small bit of community engagement. I am very much of the opinion that Universities have an important role to play in their local communities, and that we can in our own way help to transform the environment around us by opening up new opportunities, introducing new ideas and providing the best education we can to our local young people. I wanted to try and let schools know that there is an issue with the way in which girls at school interact with and perceive science, and that this ultimately impacts on the number of girls who end up on STEM courses and in STEM jobs, and that this, in my opinion is a huge waste of talent. I think this dovetails quite nicely with the goals of the Science Grrl group and the idea that “Science is for everyone”. To try and highlight this idea we have sent out a Science Grrl calendar to all the schools in Dundee. This is just a small action, but I hope, from a personal point of view, that it is just the start of wider engagement that we can make with these issues, and just the start of a processes of making more of an impact in and around Dundee.

The Science Grrl 2013 Calendar

The Science Grrl 2013 Calendar

if you happen to be a Dundee based teacher, I’d be interested in hearing your views on these ideas, and if we can help in anyway, just get in touch.

Many thanks also to Heather, Louise and everyone else at Science Grrl for sorting out all the calendars!

Nuffield Scheme for Teachers?

July 6, 2012 2 comments

The Nuffield Foundation runs a bursary scheme for (mainly) school pupils about to enter their final year of study. In Scotland this is for pupils who have just completed their Highers and going on into S6. The projects are typically 5-6 weeks long and take place in the school summer holidays. They are aimed at giving pupils experience of a STEM project in a real world setting and are either industrially based or within an academic research group. My group has hosted pupils for a number of years (although not this year) and I hope that we’ve helped to encourage most of them to continue on with science and engineering studies at University – our ‘alumni’ have gone on to study physics, medicine and engineering.

When I say that these are ‘real’ projects, I mean that they are supposed to provide the pupils with experience of doing something properly useful, and one of our pupils even got his name on a paper on the basis of some of the work he did on the optical manipulation of aerosols. Doing something significant is difficult in 5-6 weeks, especially in my lab, but the projects tend to be designed to allow some useful and productive output within the time allotted. I tend to get the pupils to build me something from scratch, so they have some idea of what they are doing, as opposed to sitting them down in front of a bit of kit and telling them to press a button and record the answer in their lab book – so even if the data sometimes is a little sparse, they do manage to ‘make’ something.

A thought occurred to me though – it’s great having keen young people in the lab, showing them how we do stuff, showing them the process, and the effort that goes into to getting something to work – but wouldn’t it also be useful to allow teachers to do the same thing? Now teachers obviously have a degree in their primary subject and will have done a major project as part of that, so they should all have some ‘skills’, but wouldn’t it be interesting for them to update their knowledge with modern stuff, not in the form of a CPD show and tell day, but with practical experience back in the lab? Wouldn’t it be great if rather than simply telling kids, ‘yeah, study biology and there are loads of great jobs waiting for you’, you could say, ‘well during my holiday I was using this idea to help design a new drug’?

There are, of course, issues. Teachers can’t give up such a big chunk of their time in the holidays as easily as school pupils can – they have other commitments in terms of family holidays,  recharging batteries and starting to do prep for the new term. But maybe there could be a way to offer teachers short placements, say a couple of weeks, to gain some new practical experience, and to maybe get involved in short term research projects. In doing so they can also start to build up different networks that can help out with school projects, outreach activities and possibly work experience placements for pupils.

I am not a teacher however, and it may simply that there is no interest in something like this, although I would hope this is not the case. So do any teachers out there have any thoughts on this issue – does it have merit, or is it a non-starter? What would be the practical constraints?

Update 11/7/12 I asked the Nuffield Foundation about such a scheme and it seems they are considering it at present, so it may come to pass. Watch this space.

The Geek Manifesto

May 30, 2012 1 comment

It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error,’ he said. ‘It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.’

So (more or less) ends the Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, with a quote from Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court Justice. I don’t think I am giving anything away though when I say that this is the core message of the book.  This is the crux of the book, the idea that in all spheres of life, from the media to government and the healthcare to the environment, science is misunderstood and misrepresented. This is often unintentional, but sometimes is willful. The clarion call is that those of a scientific bent need to stand up to those who would use scientific evidence in inappropriate ways, or indeed to simply ignore it, and to try and correct mistakes and lack of understanding.

There are numerous clear examples in the book, covering all walks of public life, of how scientific evidence has been used and misused over the past decade or two – most of these, I suspect will be very familiar to the intended readership – MMR, evidence on drugs, nuclear power etc, but the narrative flows well, and the argument largely hangs togther in a cohesive manner.

My only major criticism is that some of the argument makes thigns a bit too black and white, and at the end of the day, making decisions at a societal level is statistics based, and that can be tough politically, not to mention disenfranchising for many. For example, it may well be that one way of teaching reading is better than another, and national policy can take that into account, but what if the evidence is that it is only better for 60% of pupils (I am making these numbers up)? That’s clear cut – the majority would benefit, but the reality not picked up in that type of ‘only look at the numbers’ geekfest, is that you may end up damaging the other 40% more than if you stayed with the ‘worse’ methodology. You could then argue hybrid systems could be brought in, but that makes things so much more complicated and leads to extra testing to find out what is optimal for each child. This sounds ideal, but probably isn’t realistic. So we have to be mindful of how data is interpreted and made use of, but we also have to be sensitive to a large number of other factors that shape government decisions. I think the book is not so great on dealing with nuance. Where there is clear cut evidence that policies are nuts, we should complain and demonstrate why, but sensitivty to broader issues and concerns is needed too, else the clinical ‘geeks’ come across as arrogant and patronising.

And we want science and critical thinking to become central to the national conversation. We want as many people as possible to appreciate not only what science achieves, but how it achieves it. We know that that has to start at school.

I think this idea is important, and I give a school’s talk myself on why I think learning science for it’s own sake is important, even if you never go on to work in a science or engineering field, but I do wonder sometimes if the idea is oversold. The book tells the great story about the school kids from Blackawton Primary School who undertook original work in studying how bumble bees decide which colour of flower to get nectar from. The children designed an experiment and then went through the scientific process of iterating the experiment to try to prove and improve their hypotheses over what was happening. My question is, that having down this once, have they learned their lesson over how science works? Clearly we should try and encourage this type of thinking in school kids, but beyond a certain introductory nature will kids not understand how an experiment works, how science works? A different question is: do kids actually know how science works when they leave school, but when they get to the real world they just forget or ignore it, as it seems far removed from what they do on a day to day basis? I’m all for a better science educated population, I’m just not completely sold it makes that much difference in the types of decisions discussed in the book.

Another of the arguments of the book is that it appears that scientists and engineers are under represented among MPs. I’m not entirely sure on the stats here, but it may just be that people like lawyers and doctors are over represented. I suspect more people work on shop tills that as bench scientists, but there is no big call for more of them to be elected as MPs. I suspect that getting certain types of people into politics will be difficult – my general impression, at least among my online contacts, is that often scientists align with political factions that tend to lose elections ;-). I also think, at the end of the day, politics is about going out and talking to people and persuading them about why they should vote for you – and to do this, your have to have much further motivations than the deisre to see evidence win out.

I really liked the Geek Manifesto, I took much of it to heart, but maybe I’m just pessimistic that it will result in much, but maybe there are signs that the geeks (which I find an ugly word) are really starting to find a voice. Alternatively maybe I should just chuck all this academia in and go and get elected or become a teacher. Do something more directly meaningful. You should all read this book.

Manfred the Baddie and clean air clothing

April 9, 2012 2 comments

I recently won a number of free tickets to the Edinburgh Science Festival, courtesy of the Blogging competition. Sadly I haven’t been able to get to too many of the events, but last week managed a quick few hours in Edinburgh. My short blog piece will appear on the main site tomorrow, I think, but here’s a slightly longer version. You can follow the other bloggers on twitter via the hashtag #esfblog.

My kids were intially unimpressed when I told them that I had won some tickets to the Edinburgh Science Festival. One of the good things of being nearish to Edinburgh is that there is always lots of Festival action of one kind or another. We were already booked into to see Bang Goes the Theory on the last weekend, so in the absence of  a concrete show example they were a bit, “That’s nice Daddy.” But their interest picked up when I told them that one of the events we could go to was run by John Fardell, author of “Manfred the Baddie“, which my daughter owns, and which we all enjoy very much. Manfred kidnaps scientists and inventors to force them to build amazing devices to help in his robberies and Fardell – an award winning illustrator – is superb at bringing these machines to life. Three of my kids and I travelled through to hear about how he got inspiration for his weird and wacky (but plasuible functional) inventions, and to help out design our very own story. And so it was that all the kids in the audience helped come up with a story and illustrations called “Squadalump Trouble”, all about how two brave, friendly monsters escaped from the fearsome Squadalump. Not much to do with science, you might argue, but all science starts with a bit of creativity, and the bigger our dreams and imaginations can be, the bolder our future science will be. I think with the evidence on show last week, our science future is safe in our kids’ hands.

The second thing that I went to see was a discussion of catalytic clothing by the inventors Tony Ryan and Helen Storey. There’s is an interesting story as Tony is an academic chemist and Helen is an academic fashion designer, and the discussion touched on how people from different disciplines can more effectively interact, and how academic science can be translated into rather more esoteric real-world applications if you start to talk to people with very different ideas about how things work. I think the main take home message was that it’s very much a case of personal chemistry, which is generally true for most collaborations – in general you need to hit it off to be able to work most effectively together. Also you need to be open minded about ideas.

(Fe) Catalytic Clothing from Protein® TV on Vimeo.

The science bit in this talk was that by spraying clothing with titanium oxide nanoparticles you are able to remove gaseous nitrogen compounds from the air and ‘sequester’ them into aqueous nitrogen compounds such as nitric acid. The process works by using the TiO2 particles as a photocatalyst to enable the chemical reaction removing the gaseous pollutants from the air and turning them into aqueous products. They then can simply be washed away when you next clean your clothes. The nanoparticles themselves will be loaded on to clothes through washing powder. There wasn’t much discussion of the science of the delivery mechanism, which might be a bit of a stumbling block, but the main obstacle to market seemed to be that this is largely an altruistic project, and there isn’t much in the way of profit for the washing powder manufacturers. So it seemed that Ryan and Storey were having trouble getting a big industrial partner on board. The selling point is that we can remove significant amounts (on paper) of harmful polluting gases from the atmosphere just by going about our day to day business, which sounds good to me. One of the quotes from ryan was that four people wearing such catalytic clothing could ‘take out a car’, which sounds good to me.

I found the discussion very stimulating and it got me to thinking about what else you could do with it. I’ve been toying around with things one might be with paper microfluidics, and I think it could be possible to make a paper based gas sensor using this technology, possibly using paper printed electronics to do some of the readout. But then again, maybe I’ve been taking too many lessons from my kids on weird and wacky thinking.

Below: my kids helping design the “Squadalump Trouble” story with John Fardell.