Friday, 2 February 2018

A day in school as an observing science communicator

2018 has been declared the year of engineering by the UK government as part of “a campaign to tackle the engineering skills gap and widen the pool of young people who join the profession”. The country is threatened by a STEM skills shortage as more young people turn away from the sector. Stakeholders within the education and STEM industry are increasingly looking for innovative ways to encourage the uptake of STEM related subjects at school after GCSE’s. In my experience of working with young people in Essex to promote the sciences, I have seen first-hand the high rate of young people who turn away from taking up STEM related subject at higher education. Biology and Physics is usually the first of the sciences to be dropped after GCSE.

To understand how best to support the STEM experience at school, it is important as science communicators that we understand the dynamics of lessons in schools. A few hours in a school with a select group of pupils is by no means an indication of requirements. This week, I arranged with a local school to have an experience day. This was a main stream school and not a failing, private or grammar school. I observed and supported four lessons until lunch time and spent the afternoon interviewing some teachers. (I’ll write about the teacher interviews in a different post). At the end of the day, I came away contemplating four things;

  • 1-      Private / home schooling education for my kids,
  • 2-      How I can enrich my kids learning experience outside school
  • 3-      How best I can support my local schools so there is a change in the attitude towards STEM by young people.
  • 4-      Perhaps I’ll better serve as a school teacher.

My first lesson was with a year 12 chemistry class. They were about 12 in the class and they were having a lesson on the properties of the various group of elements. The lesson was interactive and the kids were engaged. It’s a familiar topic from GCSE although some struggled with the more complex reactions. I was pleased.

I then moved on to a low ability year 10 class and just as the teacher before warned, I was in for a shocker. It was a class of about 30. Half the lesson time was spent controlling the class due to 1 or 2 disruptive kids. The teacher was doing his best to encourage the kids to appreciate the lesson on the earth’s atmosphere and how it has changed over the years. I spoke with a number of the girls about why they were so disengaged. One particular girl just went on about how dump and unworthy she is, another girls said she was bored and a third said she just wants to do sports and doesn’t need science. One guy said, he’ll be working with his dad who is a builder and electrician and he doesn’t need to be in school. Unfortunately the few who were paying attention and wanted to learn couldn’t maximise the lesson time as the teacher’s attention is taken up with the disruption. As a science communicator working to build a science literate society, how can we engage these kids?

My next lesson was with a year 8 class and the lesson was on particles. It was a practical lesson. After the teacher’s introduction, the kids had to work in groups and each group given salt and water at various temperatures. The aim was to investigate how temperature affects dissolution. When each group called out their reaction times at the end of the practical, it didn’t follow the expected trend and I wasn’t surprised considering the chaos in the lesson. I doubt the kids understood the applications of understanding how particles behave with different conditions. If anything at all, they were having pointless fun playing with water and salt. I asked two kids; do you understand the science behind your practical and the answer after a laugh was ‘not really’.

Considering a class size of about 30 and 1 teacher, how can science communicators support schools to deliver effective practical science lessons?

The final lesson of the morning was another year 8 class and it was a biology revision lesson. The aim was for the kids to get use to the habit of revising, as according to the teacher, they struggle with self-study come GCSE’s time and at further education.  For the 1 hour lesson, 1 table I went to were discussing Instagram and snap chat, of the 20+ questions they had to revise through practise they barely made it past 3 questions. A couple of tables were focused on the task. One girl who was being distracted by her noisy table decided to sit on the side by herself so can get on with the work.  Although the kids had their text books to help with the questions, several of the answers were wrong. With a 1 hour lesson, there’s no time to check everyone’s work nor is there time to review the questions with the class.

It was only 1pm and I was exhausted. With the exception of the year 12 class, every lesson had disruptive kids who were sent out of class for a period of time, every class had kids who wanted to learn but could not maximise the lesson time and every class certainly needed a teaching assistant for lessons to be effective.  

There is a definite need for school initiatives and for science communicators to work with schools to change attitudes to STEM among school kids if we are to bridge the STEM skills gap threatening the country and create a literate society.


Image credit: school work helper. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

I'm moving

Update: As promised, my new home is now live. Come along this new journey with me here

I'm migrating to a new site. Thank you to all my readers and followers since inception in 2011.
New site launching in 2018.

Farewell till we meet again ...

Monday, 7 August 2017

How micro organisms clean your water

I visited the Anglia water education centre at Linslade, Leighton Buzzard for an educational tour of the centre and came away feeling comfortable with drinking tap water.  Prior to this trip I've always been skeptical about drinking tap water. 

So what changed?

The processing plant at the centre recycles sewage water and whiles the process is different to that of processing drinking water, it became clear to me that the product at the other end was safe to drink. Haven said that, I'm not quite sure why bottled water is still being sold and why mothers are advised to boil water before giving to babies. This will suggest that perhaps the pipes through which the water travels are not without contaminants and neither is the final product or perhaps as no process is ever 100% efficient, it's more of a precautionary advise to boil or filter tap water before drinking.

I wont go through the whole sewage purification process as I'll like to encourage you to visit your nearest recycling center to better appreciate the efficiency of this well thought out recycling process. One thing I was really impressed by is the thought that has gone into reducing the carbon foot print of the process and the fact that water purification is achieved by a pure biological process using biological filters.

The micro organisms displayed on the boards above are a selection of the micro organisms found on the stones which purify the water and the image on the right is the biofilters. The overall recycling time for the purification process from sewage to river is about 24 - 36hrs.  

One of the major challenges currently facing the recycling industry is to recycle the landfill waste product from the sewage?

The image on the top left is all the waste that is removed from the sewage and on the right is a tomato plant growing from the seed in poo from the sewage. How interesting!
Image on the  bottom right is excess grit used in construction of roads and buildings. The waste product on the left goes to land fill and the industry is in need of new innovation to recycle it into a useful product.

The water that eventually comes out into the river at the end of the process is as good as new and the fishes love it. . 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD: True stories of imaginary illness.

Book Review.

This book came on my radar in October 2016 after it won the 2016 Royal Society of Biology book prize, in the general biology category. Interestingly, of all the shortlisted books on display prior to the winner being announced, it was the one I bookmarked to read.
IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD,  was also the winner of the 2016 Wellcome book prize.

The author, Suzanne O'Sullivan shares a selection of case studies on psychosomatic disorders -  the term that describes illness without disease. It personally got me assessing my outlook on mental illness to better appreciate the various degrees of the condition.
Suzanne's experiences also sheds light on some of the challenges faced by medics in diagnosing patients and the inter disciplinary connections involved in tackling complex cases.  

The stories are fascinating and the author inter twines sympotoms presented with historical facts and studies on psychosomatic illness. It basically sums up the notion of 'mind over body' in a scientific and medical context. What is even more interesting is the conclusion on gender influence.

An intriguing and educative read. Grap your copy here

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

From Law to Engineering – Impact of engagement

Saturday mornings are usually for lay-ins but on this day, it’s 7.30am and I’m headed to Birmingham with a group of young people from my BME community in Basildon. Three trains later we made it to London Euston to board a virgin train to the Birmingham NEC for the Big Bang Fair.

For many of the young people with me that day, neither they nor their parents had come across the Big Bang Fair and this is the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK which has been running since 2009. I see myself in a lot of these kids because once upon a time, I too was alien to many of these enriching events and experiences. I’ll save the reasons for another post but what I really want to share is some of the feedback from the young people on the day  and messages from a couple of the parents which highlights the importance of outreach and public engagement with science. 


The journey from Basildon to Birmingham on a Saturday in itself was a chore but the experience for the kids and feedback received from both the young people and their parents reminds me of the essence of engaging young people with STEM and particularly my role in promoting STEM to the BME community. 

Impressions from the day (NB: You may need to magnify images to read text)

I'm looking for a bursary/sponsorship to accommodate more kids next year so if you wish to sponsor us then please get in touch with me: