Chain Reactions (with electronics)

Like everyone else delivering ‘maker’ education, we use chain reaction machines in some of our workshops. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and some intriguing mechanisms to be discovered. But there are also some classic problems:

  1. Connecting bits of a chain reaction machine together is fraught with difficulty. It’s typically the links that fail, and that can lead to frustration when it’s not clear who ‘owns’ the connection.
  2. There’s a tendency for everything to start high and finish low, and hence for each stage to run out of energy somewhat.

One of the things we’ve been playing with attempts to solve both problems, by chucking a bit of electronics into the mix. We use Arduinos as control circuits, running some code which is fairly readily tweaked to handle one of a range of inputs, including:

  • Straightforward ‘short to ground’ switches
  • Light-dependent resistors
  • Force- and flex-sensitive resistors
  • IR distance sensors
  • Tilt switches
  • Hall Effect magnetic field switches

The software is configurable into a couple of different modes, but is typically set to trigger on a threshold reading and operate either a servo, or a continuous-rotation servo as a low-speed motor.

The resulting chain reaction machines integrate physical and electronic segments, and splicing them together is hence usually a case of running longer wires from a sensor at the end of one segment into the Arduino which controls the trigger for the next. Last week we ran an end-of-term workshop with 15 year-olds from one of our partner schools, who came up with the machines you see in these two films. We think they did a cracking job.

Now, we don’t use this workshop very often. The challenge, we find, is that there are so many alien pieces of technology that participants tend to freeze rather than try things out and explore. These groups worked particularly well, but more generally we (unexpectedly?) find this to be a better workshop with primary groups than secondary. Younger children tend to be more receptive to (or familiar with?) failure and iterative development.

However, when the workshop comes together it can produce some outstanding results. We think there’s some mileage in the approach, and we’ll continue to refine the idea.

The code we’re using is on Github, I’m afraid with rather minimal documentation at present. I’ll try to include part details for the sensors, but the code comments should walk you through most of it.

Physics Summer Schools

In my previous job, I used to be part of a team that ran teacher summer schools for the Institute of Physics.  These were aimed at teachers who were not specialist teachers of physics, but who had to teach physics.  They were held in Oxford, Cambridge and York (which was my course).  The summer schools were fantastic, with workshops on different physics topics, evening speakers, and excellent food!  Back then, the courses were only open to a fairly small cohort of schools that were part of the Stimulating Physics Network.

This year the Summer Schools are available to new or non-specialist teachers at ANY English school.  If you have some time over the summer, then I can highly recommend the courses – they are fantastic.  Also, there is no cost to the teacher – the IOP pays for it all.IMAG0054




Full details from the IOP are given below:

Summer Schools are now open to all new and non-specialists teachers of physics in English secondary schools. Register to reserve your place at:

  • York Summer School: National Science Learning Centre, 25 – 28 July
  • Oxford Summer School: Keble College, 8 -11 August
  • Cambridge Summer School: Homerton College, 8 – 11 August

Each school consists of four days of intensive hands-on workshops led by our Teaching and Learning Coaches. The Summer Schools focus on developing both subject knowledge and pedagogy. Our initial (First Year) programme covers core topics such as electricity, energy and forces. Our advanced (Second Year) programme builds on the initial course and introduces radioactivity, momentum and waves.

All costs of attending the summer schools are covered by the Stimulating Physics Network.

Register to:

  • broaden your understanding of physics
  • enjoy the subject more;
  • feel more confident about teaching physics; and
  • make physics even more interesting for your students.

Along with our intensive programme of workshops, discussions and masterclasses, the Summer Schools include food, accommodation and entertainment. You can follow the courses on twitter:

  • York Summer School: #SPNYork
  • Oxford Summer School: #SPNOxford
  • Cambridge Summer School: #SPNCam

For more information, please contact Mariana Salgueiro at 020 7470 4988.