Monday, 24 December 2012

Looking differently

It's Christmas eve and I am sat very quickly typing up a Blog post before the bourbon sets in! I wanted to write an article based upon this piece of research published this week. However rather than write about human evolution and the aggressive nature of our species, pondering on whether this is something that is still evident - having been shoved around a few times in Christmas shopping I can say it is. As well as wondering whether we should be ashamed of the fact that we are a species that has survived most likely through baser instincts and notions as opposed to the cerebral and more insightful creatures we tend to paint ourselves as.

Instead however - and because it's Christmas so I wanted to write something a little more cheery - I came across the following idea while trawling through the internet (yes the whole internet!). Now please don't shout at me I am only re-posting what someone else has said - and probably not 100% accurately.

"Pollen is basically plant sperm, people get hayfever from it! Which means hayfever is pretty much an STD from plants. Added to that the fact that we don't want to be covered in plant sperm. So we are getting STD's from trees that are trying to sexually assault us!"

Now I am not saying that is true but it is an interesting way of looking at things. Just like the research into the evolution of the human hand, most people look at it and see an appendage for using and manipulating tools. However look at it another way and it is a weapon, and an effective one. Even though I still believe that humans evolved basically because of this:

It is the art of looking at things in multiple ways that makes us. It's like the glass half full/half empty example. There is the expectation that I should say the glass is half full - after all I am trying to be positive as much as possible in my blog. However I am a scientist and I really like this idea:

Which is it, if you think about it. The point I am trying to make in this blog is that we need in life and in teaching and in science to always be looking at the world in different ways.

It's a little likes the people/person who came up with this:

A year ago I started this blog as a way of looking differently at my working day. That is why the name of the blog is 'Good things in life' I was originally aiming to look at the good things in my day and through that improve my perception of being a teacher. As anyone who has regularly read this will know it has worked and that I love what I do now.

Now I am not saying we should look at the world too differently (we don't want a parallax error - the only bit of science my Dad seems to know about!) however perhaps a different thought is needed.

So just like the people who looked at the hand and thought 'I wonder why that evolved in the way it did to be different to other great ape hands' or looked at the amount of data transmitted in a sperm and related it to electronic data transmission I feel we need to start looking at the same things in a more subtle way.

Just like Christmas and all the people wandering around and complaining about not having sorted their presents sorted, surely they are not looking at the holiday in the right way?

That said I am going to wish you all a Merry Christmas and I will blog again in the Happy New Year!

Keep happy, keep going and keep looking for the 'Good things in life'!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Last Week of Term Mixed Bag

Well we made it just about, Christmas is in sight and a long over due two week break stretches before us like some form of heaven (if there is such a thing).

I had planned a blog on some results from my year 9's however on reflection - and during the writing - I decided to write it up formally as some action research. I know get me trying to be all swish!

Anyway as I have very little left in the tank and much less creativity now that my main focus is missing I thought I would comment on two stories from this week.

And not the end of days predicted for Friday! I have been hearing this rubbish for 3 years from students now and it has gotten so very old so very quickly it does my head in. Although the best was hearing a year 8 explain what he would do if the world did end on Friday...

First story is this one to do with fracking. Now i am not going to talk about the merits of fracking as an energy source as I am not really qualified to weigh the pros and cons of it too seriously. I am concerned that this smacks of short term ism again. Once again the solution seems to be non-renewable fossil fuels rather than developing more renewable forms. Like I said I am not going to discuss the fuel source itself. Rather once again (from the sounds of it) we are going to go ahead with a technology without really considering the environmental impact. Now I am not saying we should not use it but do we know what the long term wide scale impact will be? Especially as I am sure I read somewhere that most of the sites for fracking will be greenbelt (or greenfield) land. Something just doesn't ring right with me here.I'd love for things to not be so determined by finances and for people to make more informed decision on what might be best in the long term. Yes I know its wishful thinking!

It's like we have not learnt any of the lessons from our industrial past. Next they will be saying that there is going to be new nuclear power plants in Somerset!


This reminds me of a conversation with a TA this week where we were talking about tsunami's and natural disasters and it made me wonder if that was the Earth's immune system. Maybe we have our place in the world completely wrong and we are no more than bacteria causing an immune response?

I wish things were not so determined by finances and people could make a more informed decision. Yes I know its wishful thinking!

Something to mull over!

Next on my stuff that caught my magpie like eye this week is this story about the X-37B space plane. Now this caught the attention of one of my year 9's so much he went and measured just how big it would be. It blew his mind that something so small could be in the air for so long (469 days on the last flight - epic!).  This lead to speculation as to what it is for - personally I find it hard to see past it being a spy drone - and a conversation about space travel and the future of our species going into space. Which unfortunately is something I do not think I will be able to ever afford if the stories about the cost of private space flight are to be believed, well if Britain ever catches up with other countries. Although my Dad sent me a picture of the Virgin Galactic space vehicle and it does look awesome! So maybe... However at the minute I console myself with the very excellent Zooniverse and their planet hunters website which really piques the interest of those students who like space.

Speaking of people who like space it was a shock to hear of the passing of the great Sir Patrick Moore. I watched the last Sky At Night he did before he died and found his message about next months programme very moving. He was one of those people who's life stories seem made up.

I remember seeing him on Room 101 (as well as him being the Gamesmaster), I can't remember what he put in the room but I do remember this at the end!


I'll finish with something for Dr Chris Linott's comments on Sir Patrick Moore;

'In short, Sir Patrick dedicated his life to talking about astronomy at any opportunity - not out of a desire to make a name for himself or to further an agenda, but because he thought the world would be a better place if he did so.'

Surely that is the best reason for doing anything?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Using Webcams in Lessons

OK so while making this video I came across a PowerPoint I wrote for a CPD session on using webcams as cheap visualisers in lessons.

So without further ado I thought I would share some ways in which I have used these before. There is also a small section on data loggers so I might include that as well (I am too kind I know!).

So here is my set up at home...

It is basically a cheap webcam held in a clamp stand, the web cam was about £4 and the clamp (with boss head) was £15 off eBay. So altogether this was less than £20 to buy. Compared to more traditional visualisers on Amazon which can cost into the hundreds of pounds. Curiously flexicams seem to have come down in price to about £40 which is good! I also am aware that some visualisers have specialist software in them, however I am looking at plug and play situations to allow teachers to quickly show work.

So other than filming experiments and time lapses what other use is there to webcams in lessons?
The one I tend to use is in the showing of exemplar work - normally by just opening up webcam software and using the laptops built in camera to show when a student has completed a piece of work to a high standard.

Yes the second one is my own model of a neuron! Great isn't it...

However the power of using a visualiser for showing students work is when you annotate the work to show either good practise or ways of improving.

I know what your going to say, 'does that take long?' well no it doesn't. Especially if you copy the arrows and just paste them into the picture. It saves on repeating instructions and on drawing out diagrams on a whiteboard (or searching for a suitable one online). Plus it has the added power of being students work, students love to know that their work is being shown off - most students anyway!

Actually I summed this up quite nicely here;

Right now a very quick note on data loggers - this is more for science/sports teachers but I really love using them (and they always come up as an exam answer for improvements in methods!).

Now I often use them in small quick practicals where gathering data and manipulation of data can show something cool - melting ice, sound at different parts of the school, ambient temperature around the human body. 

As well as the classic heart rate...

What follows is a comparison of two heart rate graphs. One of a 16 year old year 11 student drinking and energy drink. The other of me drinking a cup of water.

They may not be repeatable or the most accurate graphs in the world but one thing the did was to spark a debate among my class and get the students questioning just what chemicals they are putting into their body and the long term effects it may have.

As well all know getting students to actively think for themselves and consider the merits of evidence is always a hard task. So I took it for the win!

It made me feel like...

Although in this instance I didn't!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Staying excited by your subject

I write this while in the middle of a massive day of procrastination which I have cunningly disguised as illness (its is 2:30 pm and I am still in pjs!). In truth I have been considering this and how to word it as a piece of advice for a while but have always felt it is something that we in practical subjects can showcase more. Yes I am aware that is a massive sentence. Yes I am aware I need to explain myself more. Did I mention I was ill?

By ill I mean I have a sore throat.

Anyways the buzz following my 'demonstration' with the Bunsen burner (should be Faraday burner) and Van der Graaf generator (still need to see if they were a good band or not) has just about abated  Although students keep trying to get me to 'dance' again. Which is a weird situation to be in.

Before I get any more distracted let me get back on track with what I am trying to say. I have noticed that colleagues of mine as well as yours truly are very excited by our subject - which you would expect we are all geeky science types after all. However the point of this blog is do we show it?

I know I do, in small experiments and demonstrations and showcasing new science discoveries - which always seem to be relevant to what I am teaching - with my classes. This I feel is a great way of making science current and relevant. A physics teacher at our school recently produced and excellent display of the physics of angry birds which is epic on a grand scale. She claims there is more to add to it but I will share a picture of it when she has completed it (with her permission naturally).

Another colleague is in the process of planning a series of murals to brighten up our fairly drab science labs. I imagine the opportunity for students to paint the science rooms will be too good for most of them to resist and as a result they will jump at the chance help out.

The reason I use these two examples is that being excited by your subject isn't just in doing the subject it is in the way your share it and the learning that can create.

For example my other half is a primary school teacher and her class are currently doing Greek myths. As part of this she is sharing a modern take on the Greek myth (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief) and have gotten her students to write their own myths to very good effect.

I honestly think that in a world where everything is happening quicker and instantaneous knowledge of gratification is more and more the accepted norm, you have to show your students that your subject is important by displaying why it is important to you first and foremost.

There will always be classes who just want to get through school as quickly as possible because it is an inconvenience to them. However I do honestly believe that a lot of students who leave primary school keen and able very quickly loose that want to learn and engage because teachers don't seem excited by their subject anymore. It is hard and the demands of the job are increasing day by day but in my (limited) experience the best teachers I have come across are the ones who gather students up in their enthusiasm for their subject time and time again.

If none of what I have said makes sense or you don't agree with me well I will put it down to my being ill.

Off to mark some tests and time lapse a resurrection fern unfolding, because I am that cool!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Size of a Cow

*Disclaimer before I get into trouble with people I work with, this is not about anyone or any work place in specific!*

Got that? Good lets continue.

Just to remind you, not about anyone or any place.



The reason why I need to make sure is because I want to tackle a fairly controversial thing. I have no answers nor do I claim to have this sorted myself. However here goes.

Teachers have a habit of making their issues seem more than they are - building up our problems to the size of a cow, if you will.

Now we teachers are in a curious position, everyone (in most cases) has been to school so think they have an idea what we do and how we should do it. Especially politicians it would seem. We seem to get little sympathy from outsiders owing to our holiday durations it is only when people see the work we do first hand and the students we often have to deal with that they begin to understand the size of the task before us.

I am not though going to complain that the world doesn't understand us. In fact I am not going to complain at all. I am sick of complaints.

Instead I am going to challenge teachers to stop complaining as well.

I have done my usual case of writing and rewriting the next paragraph over and over and I don't have the words to explain why.

The way I see it separating you from the teacher is impossible. It is a vocation and every day we get a little more emotionally involved in our job. However if we focus on the negative and allow that emotion to purely be negative then the job will eat us, I know I have been there.

However if you can shift your focus to the positive, to face each challenge in a positive way then the job gets that little bit more enjoyable and easier.

It is hard, but nothing worth doing is ever easy and yes there will be days where you feel back to square one but we can’t quit. We can’t allow ourselves to be beaten by it.

We may have issues and problems that are the size of a cow and it make me standing on our foot. However we are better than this, we are stronger and more able than we give ourselves credit for.

Personally my way of looking at this is that I know what a good lesson is and how to deliver it. I know how to track my student’s progress and improve it. Everything else in my job is window dressing and likely to change.

The basics, like all core principles however stay the same.

Is that not what we should focus on?

(Yes I realise my blog wandered all over the place, don't complain about it though!)

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Power of Demonstration

Picture the scene you are explaining something to your students. You have a practical activity to enhance the learning but the lesson still feels a little flat. You try to do a demonstration that has never worked for you but it doesn't work - predictably- so you put a video of someone doing it correctly on.

You get annoyed at this person on YouTube or whatever being able to do something and make it seem so easy. In this case lighting a Bunsen burner with a Van der Graaf generator.

So you step into the plastic box to isolate yourself. Get a shock on the VdG when you put your hands on it and charge yourself up. After a minute you ask a student to turn the gas on and with one slightly shaky hand you start to touch the Bunsen. You get shocked but are now determined. Your class is drawn in with you because they know you have never done this before. You keep going and after what seems like an eternity (a whole 30 seconds) a flame appears!

In stead of professionally smiling and explaining what has happened your euphoria gets the best of you. You start to dance around the room like a Leprechaun on drugs, the students are laughing and cheering and then you realise one of them has been filming you.

Yet this isn't some sinister students getting one up on a teacher. This was a class who genuinely wanted me (this happened on Tuesday) to succeed. The student e-mailed me the video (which I would love to share but can't as students are in view). It reminded me of the power of a good demonstration. Especially ones that show that you love your subject or that you are showing them something special.

Now people who read my blog know I love the practical nature of science, especially letting students discover scientific principles through experimentation - a practical that doesn't work is just as useful as one that does as students can evaluate it and gain skills experience - but I often neglect the demo as being a second class of practical.

However the success of Tuesdays demo is making me reevaluate my thinking on this area of my teaching.

Especially as the next lesson in my series was to do with the dangers of statics. The the students had spent the next few nights watching my lighting of a Bunsen on FB meant that they all knew the dangers of sparks in areas with fuel vapours (and yes I played Sparks 'this town aint big enough for the both of us' in the lesson).

So I am now going to try and add more demonstrations into lessons especially ones that will either stretch me as a practitioner or link some concepts together. Well that is the aim anyway!

One thing to add to this is that showing work or how to draw things as a demo is just as good. I often use or have used a home made 'visualiser' to show how to draw graph axis in BTEC classes.

For those who don't know the cheapest way to make a visualiser is to use an external webcam (about 2 quid) and a retort stand with a boss head (which you can get for under 15 quid on ebay!). Much cheaper than a several hundred pound visualiser and does just the same job in my opinion.

And just for fun here is a screen grab of my dancing!