British Science Week. That’s all for now, folks!

Each March, British Science Week celebrates the awesomeness of science, technology, engineering and maths. Over this year’s week, from 11th – 18th March, Think Physics joined in the fun by opening up specially-designed workshops and lectures to schools from across the North East. The result was a fantastically action-packed and rewarding week of workshops. We had Key Stage 2 students making Incredible Machines and Key Stages 3 and 4 investigating Rollercoaster Physics.

In Incredible Machines, pupils explored the simple mechanisms of gears and linkages and made their own machines from cardboard and paper fastners. The workshop invited children to look at the role of engineers in designing and creating machines which help shape the world around us.

In Rollercoaster Physics, pupils got hands-on with rollercoasters, building their own K’nex test track and using data loggers to measure the speed of a golf ball as it looped-the-loop. Would its speed match the predictions of the physics?

It was a pleasure to deliver workshops to schools including:
Corpus Christi Primary, Wellfield Middle, Stephenson Memorial Primary, Monkseaton Middle, Marden High, Burradon Community Primary, Southridge First, West Jesmond Primary, The Drive Community Primary and Usworth Colliery Primary.

We did not stop there, though. Oh, no. We ended the week with Physics in Perspective, a half-day of talks and discussions combining physics lectures and STEM careers information. We were delighted to welcome Professor Danielle George, a former pupil of Kenton School, who is now Professor in Microwave Communication Engineering at the University of Manchester and was the brilliant host of the 2014 Ri Christmas Lectures Sparks will Fly: How to Hack your Home. Danielle talked about the new rules of invention and showed participants how to use modern tools and technologies to have fun, transform everyday items and make a difference in the world. We were also joined by Northumbria University’s very own Dr. Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar who illustrated how nature has evolved some of the cleverest solutions to everyday problems by building “soft matter” structures. Exploration of these natural solutions is inspiring cutting-edge technological developments: bio-inspired smart materials.

We rounded off the day with a careers panel, where pupils had the opportunity to learn about the variety of pathways open those who study physics at A-Level, and to ask questions of the panel (Candace Adams from QuantuMDx, Paul Casson from Macaw Engineering and Danielle George).

Tomorrow’s Engineers EEP Robotic Challenge

The Robotic Challenge is a curriculum-linked programme run by Tomorrow’s Engineers that sees students (11-14) working together in teams to solve real-world engineering, technology and computing challenges. Teamwork, robots, design, discovery, fun and loads of LEGO are all part of the mix, as are real-world challenges, teacher support and some great prizes.

Students learn how to build, program and control autonomous LEGO robots to complete a series of short, exciting space missions using LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 sets. From assembling the crew to launching the satellite, they’ll demonstrate the skills they’ve learned at challenge events held around the country.

The journey starts in school. The challenge events are the culmination of a ten-week extra-curricular or in-school programme where students learn how to design and control their robots to complete the space challenges. Tomorrow’s Engineers will provide structured activity plans and learning software, training and equipment.

Activities can be run with your team outside the classroom or during lessons. The challenge could take your team all the way from regional heats to the national final!

Booking opens: April 2016
Visit for the latest information

Introducing the Technology Wishing Well for Maker Faire UK 2016

At Maker Faire UK last year Think Physics had two stands; a wall of light boxes, and a magnificent harmonic pendulum display which, slightly embarrassingly, I still haven’t written up. Hoping to avoid a similar mistake this time around, I should introduce you to this year’s new installation: the Technology Wishing Well.

WishingWell v1

Er… yeah, that’s a bit of a mess. What you’re looking at is a corner of my desk, on which you can see the black disc of a small turntable. That’s part of the light box installation, repurposed shamelessly (hey, I’m allowed to steal from myself, right?). On the turntable are a couple of LED lights. The green one is pointing upwards, the red one fell over and is pointed off to one side.

Left of frame is a retort stand, holding a Raspberry Pi (Pi 3! Woohoo!) and a PiCamera, which as far as I can tell is a mobile phone camera module on the end of a stubby little cable. The Pi is driving the big monitor upper right, and the window in the top corner is showing… what, exactly?

OK, so I’ve written a little Python code which does the following:

  1. Grabs a picture from the camera.
  2. Takes all the stuff which is ‘dark’ in that image, and turns it transparent.
  3. Adds the result to the previous image.
  4. Repeat.

So, as the turntable turns the green light smears into a ring, and the fallen-over red light smears into a… weird red blobby donut thing. My python code is appallingly slow, but conveniently the result is mesmerising to watch as it gradually builds up. Which is a relief, because we’ve committed to building this thing and there’s no turning back now.

The plan is to build a big one of these, so the current turntables can sit on the big turntable, and then we’ve made a giant light-powered video Spirograph-like-thing. We’re also planning to build little gizmos which move lights around, or change their colour over time, or … well, you’ll have to wait and see. You’ll also be able to make your own lights and toss them onto the turntable disc to add to the artwork as it develops, which is where the whole ‘wishing well’ idea comes in.

There’s lots to do before Maker Faire, but right now I’m just excited (and a little relieved) to see something on a screen rather than in my imagination. This moment’s been a long time coming.

The header image shows the first run of the software – here’s detail of the second, just before the Pi crashed hard. Umm… I should probably look into what caused that.

Tech wishing well second run

Future Career Capital

When you were young, did you want to be a vet, a doctor, a teacher? A sports person, nurse, actor, singer, gamer, astronaut, zoo keeper, police officer?

That list doesn’t change much over the years. Jobs like ‘professional gamer’ are new, but the list of jobs most ten year-olds today are aware of is mostly similar to the list you could have made ten years ago, or even twenty.

Not many children would proclaim that they want to be a thermodynamics engineer, a solar physicist, or an earth observation programmer. Those are all exciting career routes, but most of us have no idea they even exist, and even if we do we’re maybe not entirely sure what all the words mean. So it’s no surprise that young people are more aware of and more comfortable talking about the list of familiar jobs we started with. We know what firefighters do, we don’t have to look it up before we can start trying on that role in the playground.

Research suggests that we start thinking about future careers from a very young age. That’s no great surprise, but perhaps unexpectedly, research also suggests that we start making decisions early too. Not “I’m going to be a quantum-computational geneticist” decisions, but more fluid decisions about the types of careers we feel we can and can’t have. Understandably, children in families where a parent or close relative is a scientist or engineer tend to have a greater awareness of jobs within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector. That awareness can help them have a broader view of what’s possible for them, in turn helping them avoid making early choices which limit possibilities later.

The term used to describe this is ‘science capital’. The ASPIRES research project [2013] discusses this at length – see our primer on science capital for more background, and we’ve a page about the ASPIRES project.

But, if you are from a family of non-scientists, where do you get your science career, advice and information from? Over the past couple of weeks I have led CPD events with a focus on STEM, and on how we can develop career links within primary school lessons. A quote I like you to use is:

“You only know what you know!”

It’s not about telling children what they are going to do, and it’s not about them making decisions. Rather, it’s about equipping them with information so they are aware of the many opportunities available to them and the skills and qualifications they’d need to get there.

By providing examples of careers when studying topics like the human body, plants, space or electricity, we can show children that there are careers linked to those topics. That may ignite and inspire further interest, and a potential idea about a new, future career they wish to explore. You could then team curriculum links with employer encounters so children meet people working in STEM; showcase local employers and places they could work; explore and visit further and higher education establishments to raise aspirations; or encourage family involvement by offering ideas on ways to extend learning at home.

Ideas like these very quickly develop into a primary careers programme. They allows us to reinforce positive messages like “Girls and Boys can both have careers in STEM, and it’s not just for the super bright children.” Careers in science and engineering can be for everyone – the curious, the creative, the makers, triers and doers. They can be for anyone who wishes to make an impact on the world around us, and to help solve some of the biggest problems we face.

These are the positive and influential messages which underpin all of the above and contextualise and make meaning of the curriculum.

It’s easy to think of ‘careers’ as meaning ‘jobs,’ but that’s too narrow a concept, particularly at primary. Perhaps we should coin a new term: ‘future career capital’. We could use that to consider how we can, through an early years/primary careers programme, support children and families to aspire, achieve and succeed, rather than waiting to start these discussions in year 8.