The quiet before the storm

I write this from the 0657 to Brussels, where I’m with greenlight4girls all day, and before the arrival of March. March boasts National Science Week, which basically means a full month of chatting science, doing science and volunteering for science.

A week of meetings, science and planning, February has been quite an eye-opening month. I spent Sunday in the lab with Aysha and Elsa from the Institute of Research in schools. They’re in year 13 at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys. Simon Langton is a crazily good school, thanks in large part to the wonderful Prof Becky Parker who has taken them under her educational wing for a couple of years of scanning electron microscopy, spectroscopy and excitement. We played around with a cross-polarised microscope and got some incredible images of beetle bodies (skins, wings, legs, you name it!)- who’d have thought they had hairy legs, then shined some lasers at their shells to figure out what their ‘molecular finger print’ was. The different peaks that popped up in our Raman spectrum came from chitin, the non-conjugated organic polymer that is in the beetle’s shells. Elsa has had an offer to study biology at Imperial and was lucky enough to chat with Lucinda, president of the student union and graduate of the biology program.

After his experience teaching maths at one of the most elite state schools in the capital, Luke Bacon knows what does and doesn’t work in the classroom. We’re not just here to ‘wow!’ young people- yes! Science is exciting! – but we’re here to inspire them for the long haul. After the insightful BSA #SciComm breakfast and a wonderful discussion with Peter Main, champion of the Improving Gender Balance project I’m so fond of at the IOP, I am more aware than ever of consider what the audience hears rather than worrying about what I’m saying. There’s a funny stage in talking about something you love, where you go from feeling totally underqualified and naïve, not realising how much impact you could have on the minds of the young, to feeling like you know what you’re doing- and that’s dangerous. It’s very unlikely that in a few months that school will remember you visit- perhaps they’ll even forget by the end of the day- but they will remember what you taught them. Luke and his crew of Westminster Academy teachers gave so many good tips on entering the classroom:

  • Don’t get too close to students and don’t embarrass them- these are really big / ‘formative’ times in young people’s lives
  • Carefully consider the structure and shape:
    • Order of lesson plans and activities
    • Teachers may not understand/ be familiar with what you are doing
    • OFSTED are particularly hot on structure: “activities should be in three stages”
      • Start, main plenary
      • Cater for all skill sets
      • Measure progress of each student
  • Don’t script a lesson
    • Be adaptable!
    • It will never be the same twice
  • They aren’t your friends:
    • Don’t make it about you: it’s not about what you say, it’s about what they hear.
  • Use questions wisely:
    • Warm-up/ gain trust: do you remember my name?
    • Encourage them to figure things out
    • Tell you facts
    • Instant feedback/ appraisal
    • Crowd control- subtly emphasize who is in charge

I’m in absolutely no way an expert, but I have some more to add:

  • Particularly relevant in subjects like Maths or Physics is to try and come up with inclusive activities that work for everyone in the classroom- boys or girls. That means shuffling groups up for practical work and delegating roles, it means using gender-neutral language and it means being really careful to make sure everyone gets heard.
  • If you can, integrate careers advice into any educational activity- don’t leave it to a badly informed careers advisor
  • Try and connect with the parents and teachers: they have the most impact on young people’s choices

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As night fell the entrance to the Imperial College Business School came to life with researchers from across the campus describing their efforts to study and develop the foods of tomorrow. When it comes to obesity epidemics and trying to feed the ever-growing population, Imperial’s doing some pretty cool stuff. There are scientists investigating new dietary fibres to control appetite, climate change initiatives tracking sustainable grocers and restaurants across London and soil-boffins analysing the chemical composition of mud. As the Fringe events become more well-established (this one had over 1,000 sign-ups) it’s important to consider how amazing they are- not only for the residents of South Kensington but for the scientists and their families, who all get a glimpse of what goes on in locked laboratories. I learnt about why mint wont grow in Hampstead (true fact, we have too much clay) and what actually goes on in the Grantham Institute for Climate Change.

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Learning about aurora whilst studying plasma physics at Imperial College London appears to inspire on a lot of different levels. It could be the spark of a new research project; you may pick up a text book or just download a BBC documentary with Joanna Lumley. Dr. Melanie Windridge is an incredibly compelling writer, who travelled the world collecting folklore and experiences in an attempt to understand the wonders of aurora. Amidst her friends, publishers, fellow scientists and sparking cocktails she launched her work at Daunt Books. Dr. Windridge is one of those truly sensational women who you envy but can’t aspire to be: she’s just too good. A published academic, absolutely beautiful and a talent for expressing herself in words that the general public understand. Her publishes are in awe of her too: she’s been to some incredibly cold (- 30 ℃), dark and isolated places on this journey to decipher something that is unbelievably complicated. Dr. Windridge is the “perfect person to explain the physics, who can also write beautifully”. I’m not sure whether they were talking about her or the aurora when they said “one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena” … She’s humbled by the reaction to her journey and “raises a toast to beautiful adventures”. High-point: aurora green screen for #NorthernLights selfies!

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