Neither the Bang nor the Butt

Before I get started, I would like to define, “science” for the purposes of this post. Please note that science does not equal academia. Academia has its own problems and I am not going anywhere near those (right now)…

science noun
  1. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Like a lot of the things I come out with, this is a preemptive explanation.

This week I filmed a three minute segment for the NBN children’s show, “So There!” One of the producers contacted me after seeing a piece about my outreach work in the Newcastle Herald aaaand I got quite excited.

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It’s a pretty straightforward segment. I perform three “experiments” (which can be easily repeated at home) whilst narrating the science behind what’s happening. This is the basic premise of my kids’ parties, with the obvious difference being those are interactive!

Now, because I am me, and because I am not the most optimistic of individuals, I’d like to think I am aware of most of the pitfalls and judgements attached to science communication – especially with children. Hence this pre-emptive explanation, which should hopefully roughly translate as: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Most of the attempts to get children interested in science is based on the (other) Big Bang Theory. This is the theory wherein, if something makes a big enough Bang, then kids will be impressed – and the job is done. Now, I’m all for making kids happy, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to science than Bangs. The Big Bang Theory is one of the reasons why IFLS has been so popular – but it’s also one of the reasons why many scientists feel the site can really let the side down when it comes to science communication.

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All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out http://explosm.net/comics/3557/

It’s one of the reasons scientists can shy away from communication and outreach. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues who is very pro-active about spreading the word about his work, but yet he is disappointed by this mentality. He was telling me about a trip to a science museum where he witnessed a kids’ science show which consisted entirely of things which go Bang. Now, because I am me, I took this as a slight towards my TV work (hehehe “my TV work”). I asked him how he proposed we SHOULD get kids interested in science – and of course he didn’t know.

Good scientists need to be a number of things. We need to be inquisitive, organised and creative. We need critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. If we can encourage kids to develop even a few of these skills, we’re getting there. And remember, we’re not trying to cultivate a generation comprised entirely of scientists. We do not need a world full of researchers – we cannot support a world full of researchers! What we’re really trying to cultivate is a culture. A culture wherein everyone would be aware of science, everyone would respect science and everyone would appreciate science. In this ideal world, logic would prevail – and also there would be more funding for scientific research (!). No one would have to waste their time explaining why Paleo is nonsense, why vaccinating your children is the kindest thing you can do (unless they are immuno -compromised or otherwise unable to receive the injection! Can’t catch me, anti-vaxxers!), why coffee enemas are never going to cure cancer or why climate change is real (just ask John Oliver). People would make decisions based on evidence. People would ask intelligent questions. People would face the world with an open mind.

The truth is, the science is not the Bang – the science is in the asking WHY? In showing kids something so surprising or loud or colourful, we’re encouraging them to ask, “Why?” – this “Why?” is the first step to encouraging a scientific mind. Yes – the kids are looking at Science’s butt as it walks by. And THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Anyone can drop a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s making the explanation accessible and interesting that’s the tricky part. Also encouraging further questioning – leaving some things unsaid and waiting for the dots to join so you can make way for hypothesis building and fill in the blanks when the time comes (this can be tough on TV…).

My point is, that just because I am taking advantage of the Other Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean that I am “selling out”. I still consider myself a scientist, and I still hold the values of science very close. I’m using the Theory as leverage. It’s my “in” for building the foundation for inquisitive minds.

Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

As far as developing this mind even further – beyond the Bang, beyond the butt– what do you think? How can we encourage appreciation for the scientific method – hypothesis forming, how to scrutinise sources, critical thinking – as children get older and we have a bit more faith in their attention span?

I’ve had a few lesson plan/ outreach activity/ museum ideas around this theme and I’d love to share them with any interested teachers or communicators!

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Mission: Birthday Party

My mission was clear, though far from simple.

It was my responsibility to recruit and train the next generation of scientists, such that they may find a way out of this terrible mess we had gotten ourselves into. Global warming, food shortage, antibiotic resistance: it was clear that we stupid adults were fairly inept at taking care of ourselves and our environment. My recruitment officer, Mollie, had taken it upon herself to use her birthday celebrations a way to bring together the best minds of her generation (*ahem* classroom) such that I could hope to prepare them for what lay ahead.

Many people told me I was foolish to expect so much from 8 year olds. Did they really have it in them to understand the fundamental states of matter AND their transition states? The complexities of pH, density and chemical reactions?

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The recruits enjoying some vital R&R in preparation for their rigorous training

It is true, I cannot lie: at times I did fear I had taken too much on. But I held onto my hopes that my students, though short and easily distracted, would have a number of other key qualities which would render them perfect scientists.

Indeed, when I finally coaxed them away from their chocolate, footballs, trampolines and playhouses, I quickly realised that 8 year olds are not lacking in these qualities. In particular, I am of course talking about creativity, playfulness and inquisitiveness. Vital skills for any scientist worth their salt! I was also made to feel much more confident when I saw the quality of the resources at our disposal. The laboratory was beyond satisfactory.

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Our first task (I brought along my trusty aide, confidante and housemate to assist on the day in question) was to introduce the students to the three major states of matter. This lesson was very straightforward, and it was streamlined with the provision of:

  1. A simple diagram,
particle model

Solids, liquids and gases

2. Hands on examples (ice cubes melt when you transfer them some heat energy from your hands, water turns into stem when you transfer heat energy using a kettle)

3. Thought provoking questions relating to a familiar context i.e. the human body. (who can name a GAS inside the human body?! 😉 )

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FART JOKES

We were ready to enter the laboratory. Inside, I had prepared learning materials such that the recruits would become familiar with several new concepts.

Unfortunately, the laboratory had taken on the smell of wet cabbage; it was integral that we had buckets of red cabbage water on hand for the duration of our experiments. Reb cabbage water has the interesting quality of being a colour change “INDICATOR” – which just means it can tell us things when it changes colour. In particular, it can tell us whether a chemical is an ACID, BASE or NEUTRAL.  “What do these strange new words mean?”, my curious little students asked. I assured them, “Scientists are really keen on grouping things together. How many ways do you think I could separate you into groups? That’s right: eye colour, are you wearing a dress or pants, hair colour, girl or boy… CHEMIALS can also be grouped together into ACID, BASE or NEUTRALS.”

“Acids tend to taste SOUR and be CORROSIVE – like how eating lots of sugar CORRODES your teeth: it makes holes in them.”

“Bases tend to taste BITTER like coffee or dark chocolate, and feel SLIPPERY.”

“…Now who wants to test out some of our mystery CHEMICALS with the INDICATOR?”

IMG_3574Soft drink, sherbet, vinegar and lemon juice are all ACIDS: they are sugary and/or sour– that’s why it’s so important to brush your teeth after eating!

Mylanta, toothpaste and soap are all BASES. Mylanta helps to make your stomach LESS ACIDIC when you have eaten too much of the wrong food. Toothpaste helps protect your teeth from ACIDIC food. And soap feels SLIPPERY – remember?!

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Meanwhile, my assistant was taking on a more creative project: making lava lamps (as well teaching humans born in 2005 WHAT a lava lamp IS).

“Remember those molecules that are packed REALLY TIGHT in solids, LESS TIGHT in liquids and are LOOSELY packed in gases? Well, that tightness is referred to as DENSITY.”

The students then partook in an experiment and creative exercise involving six major components: an empty plastic bottle, water, vegetable oil, dissolvable aspirin, food colouring and air.

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Their first task (with the help of adults and an abundance of funnels) was to pour some oil and water together in their plastic bottle, then MIX it together. Of course, this was a clever trick. Why, you ask? Well of course the oil and water will not mix! It is because the oil is MORE DENSE than the water that it will sink to the bottom.

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Now for the creative part: the children could pick their favourite colours such that the water would change colour.

“What happens when you blow bubbles through a straw into your soft drink, other than your Mum and Dad getting annoyed?

The bubbles FLOAT: because they are full of AIR. What is AIR? It’s a GAS. What do we know about the density of GAS? Is it higher or lower than that of LIQUIDS? Of course it is LOW – which is why the bubbles rush to the top! So what do you think would happen if we put some GAS in the bottom of your bottle?

OK, but how are we going to get the GAS IN the bottle AND at the bottom?

Let me tell you about CHEMICAL REACTIONS. They are happening all the time! They happen in your tummy after you eat, they happen in the car’s engine, they happen when you cook food…and a lot of the time, these reactions will cause the production of GAS.

So we just need a chemical reaction to happen in the bottom of the bottle! And how do we do that? We use these special fizzy tablets (dissolvable aspirin) . They CHEMICALLY REACT with LIQUID…and give us a lovely lava lamp in the process!”

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Fantastic. It was time to move the scientists outside for the final installment of their training.

“What happens when you get in the bath? You have a wash? You get bubbles all over the floor? You splash your brother and sister? Great. Guess what else happens? The water moves up the edge of the bath – your body DISPLACES the water – so the water level rises.”

“What do you think would happen if we could DISPLACE the liquid from this soft drink bottle?”

“Do you think it might explode…?”

“OK how can we get GAS in the bottom of the bottle? I seem to recall having this problem before…? A CHEMICAL REACTION? Great, I have just the thing! These sweeties react with the soft drink and produce LOTS of GAS! Stand back…”

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I was so proud to have my recruits graduate with flying colours. We celebrated with cake and hand-ball, and I am more than confident the students will go on to have a promising future in science.. saving the world, curing diseases, rescuing near extinct species. Nothing too lofty.IMG_3632 IMG_3671

Not A Psychic

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get involved in the Science and Engineering Challenge, a University of Newcastle initiative to get high school students thinking about careers in (you guessed it) science and engineering.

My task for the two day competition was to supervise and score the students participating in the “Future Power” challenge. This was one of 7 activities we ran throughout the day, which also included catapult, hovercraft and bridge building. The aim of my activity involved supplying power to a city and making the most money. ALL of the kids (as far as I can tell) enjoyed the challenge and there was a lot of excitement buzzing through the room as teams raced to complete their task.

Due to a bit of an administrative hiccup, some of the students had been told they would be attending a building activity when they were in fact scheduled to spend their afternoon with me and 8 power boards, which looked like this:

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Pretty daunting at first, right (except for the fluffy headband I guess)? Hence I made a point during my task brief to the students that I’d give them plenty of time to learn how to use the equipment, and that I’d come and talk to each team individually before we got started.

A certain cluster of girls took an instant dislike to me and my power boards. We were not what they were expecting and they weren’t having any of it. As I worked my way closer to their table, I could hear them complaining loudly. I approached them tentatively…

“So, how are you going? Do you have any questions?”

The ringleader folded her arms and huffed at me: “Miss, we don’t get it. It’s too hard. We want to build stuff.”

The other girls nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

And in a moment of sheer eloquence and confidence that I will likely never re-live, I replied:

“Well, it’s just as well you don’t get it already because you only just got here and you haven’t even tried. If you already got it, then it would mean you had psychic powers and I’d probably have to hand you over to the government so they could do crazy experiments on you.”

Unfortunately I didn’t get a laugh (unless you count my laugh), but I did win enough favour to be able to sit down with them without getting evil eyed into the next dimension. By this point, some of the other teams were getting pretty into it, yelling (nicely, mostly) over the top of their boards at each other. Surely enough, once they took the time and energy to try and understand what was going on, the girls grasped the concept and were keen to get started with the competition.

I was reminded of this incident today when I sat down to plan a series of experiments. I felt anxious, frustrated and annoyed with myself for taking so long to plot it all out. I wanted to give up, go home…

But wait a minute. Of course it was taking me a long time. I had never done it before. It was always going to take time and energy to think it out properly. I was never going to be able to jump into this without committing myself to understanding it first.

I’m not a psychic. And just as well,really.

roswell