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.
I was very sad to hear this week about the death of my old high school physics teacher, Mr Livingston. I had him for five of my six years at school, and for all four years of my formal physics courses. It made me consider how important school and how especially important teachers are in getting us where to end up as adults, and it’s clear to me that without Mr Livingston’s influence there’s a good chance that I’d be (whisper it) a chemist…He was not the easiest teacher to get along with, being rather strict, and made of my classmates would probably say he turned them away from physics rather than on to it, but the fact that he really knew what he was talking about, and was able to communicate that understanding made him, in my eyes at least, one of the good ones. He was one of those teachers who was easily distracted. If he was asked the right sort of questions (often nothing to do with science) he would digress, often for a whole lesson, and it meant we often were very behind were we were meant to be. His stories about random things in physics stay with me even now, and I pass them on to my students and school kids in outreach events. The fact that cat fur used to be a mainstay in electrostatics experiments; the idea that you could learn which way German bombers were flying by listing to their engine noise; how to draw near perfect circles on a blackboard without any instruments; and of course the days when school kids were encouraged by teachers to bring in their fathers’ airguns for school experiments. I have lots of fond memories of classroom demos, and being closeted in his cupboard for my final year CSYS lessons. He was a great teacher, and I owe him a lot. May he rest in peace.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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!
My daughter’s homework this week wasn’t too unusual – a little bit of maths, a reading book and some writing and comprehension. Her writing exercise was linked to her current project work, which is related to science this term. For the past few weeks she has been looking at magnets and some of their properties (in a simple sense, as she is only in Primary 3). What particularly caught my eye was the picture used to illustrate her assignment, which was to write a few sentences using appropriate adjectives and descriptions, of a hugely stereotypical ‘scientist’ in the old man Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.
In a generic sense this is fine, take an image and write some descriptive words and phrases about it and then put these into more context within some sentences. I can’t really argue with that. What I do take issue with is the tired old cliche of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids brains, and while it maybe not put them off, it does add to their perception of science as being uncool. At the moment I think the kids love science, they like doing experiments, and finding things out – but give them ten years of these stereotypes and it begins to become a problem. This is where it starts.
Additionally, I like to imagine my daughters are capable of anything, and that being much better scientists that I will ever amount to is well within their grasp – but again years of reinforcement of scientists being slightly disheveled old men will ultimately take its toll (I should point out that I am a dishevelled male scientist, so maybe I’m on shaky ground here). I made this point to my duaghter, and as she is a good pupil, she stuck up for her teacher. Apparently the character is from a computer game they use at school. But in a way I hope the teachers can do better. Then, of course, I realised that the teachers at primary school probably don’t know better – these are the stereotypes that they have grown up with. Teachers don’t have my same concern about the lack of female students in, for example, physics and engineering subjects and jobs because they are, through no fault of their own, unaware this is an issue. Science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils.
I have watched with interest the development of, for example, projects like Sciencegrrl, and Geek Girl Scotland, with a dispassionate interest – I sympathise their cause and see the need for such iniatives, but I didn’t quite see how it fits in with me. Now I can – so I’ll get a Sciencegrrl calendar and pass it on to my local school, and as, for the moment, the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants, and explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and stop such stereotypes staying as wide spread as they are.
Update: I have now ordered a Science Grrl calendar, so will donate it to my kids’ school when it arrives. You should get one too.
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.