Dr Emma Nason shares her experiences of teaching science in Uganda and how the ExpeRimental films helped inspire children and adults alike to love science.
As a youngster, my dad trained for his profession. This was the same job that he went on to do for the rest of his days. He never needed to change the tools of his trade, nor were there any paradigm shifts in the way that he did his job. How different it is now. As science teachers, we are preparing children for careers that may not yet exist using technologies that may not have been invented. The way that we teach is no longer an attempt to cram as much information possible into small, pliable brains, but is far more about teaching them how to explore and to find out for themselves.
In my school teaching, I want my students to be excited to come to my class. I am convinced that if from a young age, my students have a connection of ‘fun’ and ‘science’ in some part of their cerebral hemispheres, they are far more likely to have a positive outlook on science for the rest of their days. All of us, regardless of our career choices need to have scientific literacy - to be able to understand global warming, make sensible voting choices, be useful global citizens and so on.
With this in mind, I spent the summer of 2014 sitting on a beach in Mallorca thinking about how to bring science to my students in a new and more creative way. One of my searches led me to the Royal Institution website and the work of their Education and Ri Channel teams.
I watched some amazing ExpeRimental video clips of tiny kids having the best time making bubbles, shooting balls across their garden and investigating buoyancy amongst other experiments. These children didn’t have any preconceived ideas about science being ‘hard’ or ‘incomprehensible’. Admittedly, quite often the parent supervisor featured in this first series were scientists themselves, but the language they used with their children was simple. By asking questions without giving the children the answers made sure that the kids themselves did the exploring. If they didn’t know if the heart shaped cookie cutter would produce a heart shaped balloon, they would try it out.
This started me thinking that even before going back to my International School in Uganda where I teach age 11 and up, I would have a little bit of science fun with some young children in my local area of Kampala in the remainder of the summer break. I made three sessions entitled ‘Crazy Science’ and invited people for a two hour session of fun.
In the first week, we had 30 people, children and parents, and even a pensioner who lives in our area came. I guess that initially, I hadn’t even thought about the parents also having fun, but they really did. This was rather a relief, as the age range was rather a lot wider than I have in school, and so gave me built in teacher assistants to help manage the chaos.
The first session we did was making massive bubbles as seen on the ExpeRimental videos. The children made small bubbles with a normal bubble blower, and we even acted out being a bubble by holding hands in a circle that gets filled with air and then pops! Once the children started making the monster bubbles, the garden was filled with whoops of delight. Everyone was having a superb time. The kids were also learning about the most effective speed to pull the bubble blower through the air. They then started showing each other how to open the loop carefully to make the best bubbles.
In other sessions, we also investigated acids and saw what happened when we put UK 2p pieces into coke. We had a few converts away from sodas that morning. In order to explore what happens when you put an acid and a base together, we made fizzy sherbet with citric acid, baking soda, jelly crystals and icing sugar. This was one sticky mess – and so I was relieved that a) we were outside, and b) it was at someone else’s house!
The third session explored energy conversions. We made rockets out of Pringles cans as explained in this ExpeRimental film. These are in a short supply in Kampala, and very expensive when you do find them. Therefore, we made some ‘shooters’ with straws, elastic bands and the more ubiquitous toilet roll! Parents were impressed that their children were able to accurately describe the energy stored in a stretched elastic band and how it converts to kinetic energy resulting in flinging something across the garden.
The fact that these same children (and parents) still talk about Crazy Science means that some of the fun was instilled in their minds. It’s my hope that they will never think ‘science is not for me’, but will have fun in a lifelong love of science.
Emma Nason has always loved science, having been inspired by a dynamic biology teacher at school. She studied biology at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, and while there she was introduced to the amazing power of the electron microscope. This then fed her desire to investigate all things minuscule, and so she went on to do a Masters in Biological Electron Microscopy in Wales and a D.Phil at the University of Oxford looking at viruses and virus-like particles. Viruses were mesmerising in their beauty, and so Emma, with husband in tow, went to Texas to study rotaviruses under Dr B.V.V. Prasad at Baylor College of Medicine using cryo-electron microscopy. In 2003, her husband got a job as a bush pilot in Uganda where Emma happily followed. Emma began teaching science and biology in 2006 at the International School of Uganda where she endeavours to make her lessons fun, creative and memorable. Her classes are never the quietest on the campus, but students have a love of learning and a love for science.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @EmmaNason
Gail Cardew, our Professor of Science, Culture and Society and Director of Science and Education rounds up the evening's events.
Posted on10th October 2016