Yesterday I got the 07:23 from Euston to Birmingham New Street to attend a quarter of the annual conference of the Association for Science Education (ASE). ASE host over 400 professional development and training courses for teachers from across the world; be it chemistry teachers from Croatia, biologists from Bolivia or physicists from South Kensington. Trainee teachers can attend for free for a day; ASE members for £89 and non-ASE members a staggering £156 per day! And it doesn’t even get you lunch! But it does get you an overwhelming programme of sessions; from designing tactile science diagrams for the visually impaired to updates on the Rosetta mission. The schedule is so jam-packed there’s not even time to sample any of the University of Birmingham’s gastronomic highlights- but Birmingham New St. has the full Wasabi/ Yo Sushi/ Pho/ M&S/ Pret range, so I didn’t go hungry for long.
What of the actual conference then? Well there certainly were a lot of trainee teachers, which I guess is good to see, only it means there weren’t as many actual teachers and that most of the people in the audience had very little practical experience. Instead of perfecting techniques the trainers had to lay the foundations, which I’m not sure they were aware was part of the job description.
I arrived a little late thanks to some train problems getting in to Birmingham, so I snuck in to an IOP session about Medical Physics, which was fine because there was such a busy schedule that most people were late for most things. The IOP had a little ultrasound kit with some coupling gel and a small baby in a chamber, with some worksheets about the frequencies of an ultrasound wave and how you’d calculate the depth of a baby from a mom’s tummy. They had a spinning speaker on a motor and a laptop with a microphone and audacity, an app which lets you record and analyse wave forms. The spinning speaker is a bit like an ambulance’s siren. When the speaker comes towards us the sound becomes high-pitched, i.e. the wavelength decreases and the frequency increases, and when it goes away it becomes low-pitched, the wavelength increases and frequency decreases. The free link to audacity lets you see the shift of the waveform, as the waves spread apart and the wavelength increases (red-shift) or vice versa. There was a CT scanner and a pulse oximeter, and some very nice people trying to explain how it works. A pulse oximeter is a little photodetector, which clips on to the finger and shines two wavelengths of light into the finger. The oximeter then measures how much the absorbance of the light changes when blood pulses through our body.
I left the IOP’s medical lab to see a talk about the Rosetta mission by Laurence O’Rourke from the European Space Agency. This was SO cool. He’s even got a TED talk. From a physics point of view it was like everything I’ve wanted to ask but couldn’t quite face saying aloud. The Rosetta mission is orbiting a massive comet, ‘67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’, which has some pretty cool properties. How big is 67P/C-G? Check out this artist’s comparison to the footprint of LA.
At the ASE conference is an unfamiliar audience- they aren’t all physics postgraduates- so we have to start off by saying why it’s called Rosetta, and what a comet is (NB: a comet is an icy gas ball, whereas an asteroid is a rocky little fellow). Laurence was on the board of people who had to decide where the probe should land, he was there at the launch and he celebrated when Philae woke up. He’s loaded with great stats, awesome diagrams and epic videos. To leave the earth’s gravity the 3,000 kg Rosetta spacecraft had to travel at 11.1 km s-1, but the comet is travelling at 14 km s-1. It’s pretty hard to pick up speed in space, so the spacecraft had to boost its speed by swinging around Earth and Mars in a series of ‘gravity assists’. When the spacecraft got to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter it got some pretty awesome shots of Lutetia, a cratered, 100 km wide metal-rich rock moving at 19 km s-1.Now, back to our comet, which is covered in a pattern of sinkholes resulting from particularly active gas emissions and huge dune like structures. The huge gas explosions + a rotating ball of ice mean that there are huge flat areas, which excites space explorers no end when they’re trying to decide where to land. There are some 900 m cliffs, which is taller than any building on planet earth (the Burj Khalifia is 828 m tall). Gravity on our C67P/C-G is super weak, so if you just jump you’d escape the atmosphere. Laurence plays us a soundtrack of the comet, which is the sound of the gas emissions interacting with the solar wind and generating an electromagnetic wave. First Laurence’s plan was to land Philae. Only, it went a bit wrong. First two harpoons failed, then a thruster failed, then Philae bounced…into the shade. Germany celebrated the touch down, but the team at ESA noticed a fluctuating solar signal that could only mean one thing: the solar signal was changing and the Philae wasn’t secure. The good news was that it came close enough to the edge to feel the comet, get a bit of data, and then bounce to the edge of a crater, which was enough to keep it from escaping gravity. It’s loaded with two batteries, one that holds 72 hours of charge and the other charges in the sun. The Philae probe is a fully loaded 100 kg science lab with dust collectors, cameras, UV sensors and spectrometers. Philae has told us so much cool stuff. The MUPUS (MUlti-PUrpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science) hammer has told us that the comet’s surface is tougher than concrete (C67P/C-G actually broke the MUPUS) and that it’s 90 % porous (it would float on water). Basically, C67P/C-G is an icy armadillo. Philae’s only awake for a couple more months, then the plan is to get Rosetta itself to touch down later in 2016.
I raced across campus for the IOP’s session on gender balance. Think long-distance race. Over the course of ASE, my iPhone says I walked 10 km. Natasha Plaister and Jessica Rowson, two of the finest people on Portland Place, gave a good presentation of facts and figures behind why girls struggle in physics classrooms. DID YOU KNOW that the top five A-levels for boys are Maths, Physis, Chemistry, History and English. Last year, 4927 boys took A-Level Computing. For girls, it’s a slightly different situation: English, Psychology (!), Biology, Maths and Art. Last year 496 girls took A-Level Computing. Jessica and Natasha started by saying where initatives have gone wrong, with IBM’s #HackAHairdrier, EDF’s #PrettyCurious and the EU’s “Science: it’s a girl’s thing”. Only, it was all very PC/ like a BBC radio show- Jessica didn’t explicitly name the offending companies, just said ‘some people thought this was a good idea…’. They showed a super ‘cutesy’ YouTube from a group of girls in America who were NOT impressed by the videos; saying that they were being drip fed messages that science wasn’t for them (albeit they communicated via the medium of a talking outline). The Americans say if you look at the past three winners of the Google Science Fair, they were all girls. They want people to ‘stop trivializing science’. And, for the most part, I agree with them- only academia should be trivialized ;). The audience are introduced into unconscious bias and things they do subconsciously: mark work differently, talk about subjects being ‘really hard’ and use sexist language. They’ve got some sensible suggestions on embedding careers advice with every topic: linking it to the teaching at the start of a lesson, making it big around option time and even rolling it out as a homework activity with parents. They have loads of links about how to convince people physics is useful. The teachers share their experiences teaching physics practicals: girls are quick to make detailed, neat notes, whereas boys just jump straight in, usually get it wrong, but always interact with the kit. The IOP suggest assigning roles, which are rotated every week and tell people to be ‘data collectors’ or ‘technical advisors’. They emphasize that the teacher-student relationship is super-important for girls, as is feedback. Whilst girls are usual praised for their hard work, boys are celebrated for ‘understanding and ideas’. The teachers in the audience say that boys are great for ‘short answers’, whereas girls were less confident, and wanted time to check they were 100 % sure before answering. The IOP’s big thing is that they’re not pushing people to physics at university, just trying to best equip them for the big bad world, where physics is a very valuable degree to have. By teaching resilience, by equipping the girls with skills and loading them with careers advice, we’re giving them the best opportunities in life.
Next, I had intended to make it to a University of Oxford seminar on unconscious bias, but couldn’t make it across campus before the end, so snuck into an AQA workshop entitled ‘Chocolate Science’. In short, there was very little chocolate and not much real science. There was no intention for the students to actually understand what they were being shown, just a lot of ‘wow’ and ‘cool’ looking demos of ‘low ability’ students. Honestly, I’ve never heard low-ability said so many times in one hour. I think the room was packed because if you write ‘chocolate’ in your title over lunchtime any room will be packed. The cheap hands on ideas included building a Gauss gun out of a metre rule, ball bearings and neodymium magnets. I was ALL for this. Then there was the whole ‘ and the boys LOVE it because you tell them they’re making a rail gun’. Really, you’re teaching a classroom full of scientists about momentum. There’s some fun matchbox cars, interesting concepts about working out how much money you’d save by turning lights off, projects on home insulation. She said girls loved the home insulation project because they ‘got to make dolls’ houses in shoe boxes’…UGH. There was a sweet gold leaf electroscope made from a jam jar, a ruler, cardboard and a paper clip. There was the old magic duck I took to Greenlight4Girls Brussels two years ago (his head gets wet in a cup, the water evaporates, some gas condenses in his neck and he pops up). She was really into radioactivity, starting small scale: Brazilian brazil nuts, uranium glass, tilley lamp mantels, radium watches- you name it, she’s bought it on eBay. Her pièce de résistance is some rice krispie/ coco pops model atoms, which are made in cake pop holders and can be cracked apart to reveal three tiny toffee neutrons. She uses this to teach fusion and fission- although, I’m pretty sure I’d be thinking more cereal and chocolate and less about breaking and making bonds.
I went for what was SUPPOSED to be a small walk around the exhibition space, but ended up with me beaming like an idiot for an hour collecting flyers from happy scientists who all probably have doctorates and got phased by academia. When you meet people at these gigs you can almost always start with, ‘so what’s your PhD in…’, which is sad, but good I guess, because they’re inspiring the next generation not sweating on a minimal salary getting data for something they’re not sure they believe in anymore. I saw some familiar faces from the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, saw an awesome Japanese science kit service, the world’s biggest collection of MolyMods and some 3D models of organelles. There were some super sweet microscopes from the Royal Microscopical Society, who’ll send them to your primary school for free (!!) and let you play with them for a term, connect them to your own laptops and get some pretty awesome images…Only, I have two of the world’s most sensitive microscopes, using £500,000 worth of lasers and a range of surface sensitive probes. It was a bit like looking at a smart car when you’ve got a Ferrari. There were microbits from the IET and BBC, the British Physics Olympiad, the British Model Flying association, the Royal Horticultural Society. Oh man, these guys were awesome- they’ve sent Tim Peake to space laden with rocket seeds, which are coming back to Earth in two months. When they return home they’re being sent to schools and colleges along with a second packet of seeds that haven’t been to space. The school children are going to grow them and compare them and try and make their own discoveries. I asked the very sweet RHS lady whether she was sick of Tim’s face yet (which I am a little bit, sorry mate)- she totally wasn’t and absolutely loved him. The RAEng had some beautiful posters about the power of engineering, in health care, in structural design, in changing lives. I made it to an hour long lecture on gravitational waves, which was nice, if you’re in to super expensive experiments trying to prove something no one is entirely sure about. They’re on a quest for gravitation waves that come out of binary black holes.
My last talk was by far the highlight, Keith Gibbs giving his last demo lecture at an ASE conference. He’s been teaching physics for 50 years, he’s well in to his retirement and he’s so good it’s incredible. He has more energy than the rest of the room combined (it’s been a long day!) and he’s got the coolest demos in the biz. A few are here and he’s even got a website and resources. Keith’s demos all have negligible set-up costs and impressive impact. I’m left speechless for almost the whole hour. The audience are desperate to be involved as he moves through his circus of science, setting up standing waves with an electric tooth brush and piece of elastic, showing circular motion with a sparkler on a rope (Gibbs has little time for health and safety), and hiding pyrex in baby oil. He’s like the grandfather I never had. I’m going to illustrate a few of his demos, but for now, order the book.
I recorded the ‘best bits’- here it is, unedited:
After a good trip to Wasabi and a smooth ride home to Euston, I was pretty excited about the future generation’s prospects. If all of these teachers communicated just 1 % of Keith’s enthusiasm to their classes then we’ll be okay. If these teachers learn how to properly teach radioactivity, if they can get people to handle the concepts of circular motion, if they can explain forces and moments using a tug-of-war- then I’m happy. Please keep doing this ASE.