February 2008

Looking into my pigeon hole made me smile today. I discovered this (And before you even ask, no sister, I can’t take niece and nephew with me):

That’s right, the sesame tree is coming to northern ireland. This usually isn’t my area (primary education), but then I discovered that the main character is an inventor. When you look into it, it really is amazing how many inventors came from northern ireland. Is the sesame tree going to educate and entertain with some local history. I am looking forward to finding out. A bookish inventor… my kind of guy, I like him already.

In my chemistry lessons today, I had fun. The experiments were very simple, but we discussed real world examples and even ventured into tangents; heart disease, perfume and why does heat radiates but cold doesn’t? As an example we reacted a solid acid with a solid carbonate. They don’t react until water is added. ….Boring…. Until it is connected with the real world. The reaction fizzed and got very very cold. I waited and wondered if anybody would make the connection. Then, “this is like a bath bomb”. No, it is a bath bomb! Suddenly it was real and they had a little insight into the world. They understood how something actually worked. Okay, to be fair, half of them didn’t know what a bath bomb was (the boys). Anyway, more connections followed. The acid we used was edible, the carbonate was edible. And these are used in soluble drugs like disprol and soluble paracetamol. When we did the chemistry, and balanced the equations, it was revealed that it produced a lot of salt. Is that a problem? It is if you have high blood pressure and are trying to reduce your salt intake, it is. This little nugget of basic chemistry was overlooked by doctors for a while.

As I read more books that would be considered ‘nerdy’, I am finding that it does benefit my teaching. Weird little anecdotes that reveal how relevant it all is. The best bit is giving students the confidence to understand the world around them. It’s not all magic and you don’t need to be a qualified ‘scientist’ to know how it works.

As part of my day at the university I deliver a lecture. It usually lasts 1 hour 30 mins and includes… 86 powerpoint slides!

This might make a normal person gasp and feel pity for the poor people who had to sit through it. The irony is that part of the lecture was about the misuse of powerpoint; bad powerpoint.

On Friday I tried something a little different. I helped out the local local education authority with some science INSET (in-service training) SIDD*. It was an interesting experience which I was very nervous about. I have delivered to teachers before, even large numbers. It’s just that it was usually me sort of giving a lecture. Friday was more involved; group work, discussion, etc. Of course I do this sort of thing in the classroom many times a day, but it is completely different with my peers. Especially as I myself hate getting involved in any sort of group work on such days. In the end it all was ok, ish. It really surprised me how everybody got quite involved. Although, being self critical, I found that I rushed a few things and did not wrap up discussions properly. I will be repeating it all in a few weeks so will get the chance to try again. Calm down, deep breaths.

Tomorrow I get to try something even more different. Lecturing.  This has quite a different type of scaryness.  On the good side it does not involve  group work, or discussion.  However, … no backup.  On Friday I was part of a team. Tomorrow from 9.00 until 5.00 I am on my own.  I am shuffled to a room first thing in the morning somewhere in the bowels of the University and left in charge.  Until lunch time, when I am taken out and stocked up with energy and caffine.

*The lovely Sharon claims that such training days are not called INSET anymore. The weird eduspeak fashion now calls them SIDD. Although neither of us know what it stands for.

Last Friday was a busy day.  It was not supposed to be a busy day, it was supposed to be a staff day.  In my head this always translates into a busy day.  On this particular staff day I attended meeting after meeting after meeting.  What is strange was that I enjoyed most of the meetings.  I found one of the meetings so interesting  that I was disappointed when it ended.  Maybe I have bumped my head.  At the end of the day I was supposed to get all the camping equipment sorted out for a day walk.  The idea was that on Tuesday, another staff day, we would practice navigation, pitching tents and using cookers.  The caretakers were kicking us out, leaving me just enough time to throw a whole pile of unsorted gear into my car.  On the way home my mind was thinking of nothing in particular when suddenly, “pegs”.  I forgot the pegs.  A very early drive back to work on Tuesday morning would have to sort that out.

On Tuesday morning, after getting the pegs, we met the students in bitterly cold and foggy conditions.  The location we choose to train these fledgling mountaineers was…..  near sea level, near the city, walking along a very flat path.  It was an ideal area to practice the skills as it was our first time with them as their leaders and the season is too unsafe for the mountains.

We spilt the students into 4 manageable groups and discussed tactics.  It was then that we realised that we would have to carefully time and coordinate the day to ensure that we all met up to hand over the ‘limiting factor’.  It turns out that 5 fully qualified leaders remembered to bring 1 box of matches between them.  Well, we were all meeting up for lunch anyway.

Oh, that’s right! I’m a teacher! I drink a shot of bitter disappointment blended with martyrdom each day for lunch. Its builds a healthy cynicism.

Today I began to construct a giant artistic periodic table.  It uses prints from a project by 96 artists.

The idea is to stick the squares onto fabric and use wooden poles to hang it beside my regular periodic table.  So far it is massive 2.5 meters by 1.6 meters.  There were 118 little cards to be sorted into the correct positions.  I got my year 10 class to sort them.  Initially nothing happened as they had not a clue what was happening.  I wanted them to sort it out themselves so I gave very little help.  After 2 minutes a wave understanding passed through them and it was all sorted.  It was quite difficult to know what some of the elements were.  When it is finished they will feel as if they were a little part of the project.*

Tungsten is my favourite.   It has the symbol W which was its old word – Wolfram.  this was because tin miners hated it.  If tungsten was present when they were trying to extract tin, the tin would dissolve in the tungsten and became stolen.  Like a wolf steals sheep.

*of course I scrambled the symbols as soon as the class left, so that the next class could also “feel as if they were a little part of the project”.

It all started very well in the morning.  I arranged the cover, eat my porridge and finished off a set of reports.  All before the school day began.  From that moment on it all kind of went a bit strange.  As always, it began with the dreaded computers.  They started hanging and freezing (not particularly unusual behaviour for the system).  Then ‘my documents’ disappeared, that’s bad.  So a quick call to c2k got them alerted to the problem and all was well in 30 or so minutes.

About an hour later one of the servers died, leaving many of the computers completely unusable.  It’s hard to teach when you have no board to write on (interactive whiteboard , no normal whiteboard or blackboard).  Not impossible, but hard.  A couple of hours later the system was hobbling along (with a few limitations).

Then the old technology failed….fire.  I went to use the Bunsen burners and they died after 5 Bunsens were lit.  This is all part of an ongoing saga which involved a recent “upgrade” to our gas switching boxes.  It was all supposed to be settled and sorted last week.  Apparently the fitters even tested it all thoroughly using our Bunsens.  The Practical lesson ended and I resorted to the mantra of many generations of science teachers; “this is what should have happened”. 

Later on I gave it another go and broke out all the Bunsens.  It worked!  It turns out that the system does not like me turning on the Bunsens in quick succession.  I have to be patient.  Some of the other scientists are still not convinced and we are planning a Bunsen burner marathon.  Tomorrow we will try all the Bunsens in all the chemistry rooms at the same time.  I’m not taking any bets.

At the end of the day I decided to do some art/science.  I am making an arty periodic table using the prints from here.  To mount the elements I am using glue on hung fabric.  As I was merrily gluing the lights began to flicker. Then the power failed in exactly the way it happens in the movies…… dim….dim…..click….clunk….clunk…..fans whirring down…….low level emergency lights slowly flicker on through the building.  Thoughts raced through my mind, mainly; “we are under attack…..zombies”.  I watch too much TV.

After about half an hour the power returned and my glue gun began to warm up again.  Just in time for my phone to ring.  A colleague was in the car park; “can you come and help me?  My car won’t start”.

Before I write the following post, I need to be clear on some things. The lovely Sharon knows how to change a car wheel. She has never actually done it but she knows. She knows how to check the water in her car and the oil. She can even test the water to see if the level of antifreeze is correct by measuring its specific gravity. She does have a degree in chemistry.

This morning the fog was thick. It is weather I love, as it gives the bare trees a deep winter feel as they fade in and out on the edge of visibility. The cars were encased in frost. Frost that is thin and tough and has crazy spiral patterns that makes the geek in me think of fractals and mandelbrot sets. On mornings like these I spray deicer on the windows of our cars. It seems that some mornings are not like these. On some mornings jack frost sniffs around the lovely Sharon’s car but gives mine a wide berth. On those mornings I never think to check the lovely Sharon’s car and she has to do it herself, if she can.

As I enter the house and casually mention the ice on the cars, the lovely Sharon panics and frantically screams “spray mine, my car, my car, mine!” What can be the panic? “The other day I couldn’t get my deicer to work”. I must be hearing things. We could not run out of deicer, as Santa always gets us a couple of tins every year, each. And we only ever get through nearly one tin a year. We could never run out of deicer. “It wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get the lid off it”.

I think the lovely Sharon needs to start going to the gym.

Met check is usually a really good weather predictor web site, but I am a bit worried by their current predictions. Looks like we are in for a very very very very very very very cold spot of weather next weekend.

And it breaks the current laws of physics.

Sometimes the lovely sharon and I happen to teach the same subject in the same day. Its inevitable. However, sometimes the similarities are weird. The other day the lovely sharon was talking about her lesson to sixth form about fats and oils, alkene chemistry. How strange that I was also teaching the exact same topic to my sixth form, and we were both focusing on the health issues. But the differences in our lessons were rather strange. One lesson was for the lovely sharon. She learnt that she is middle class.

There are oils that are not so healthy (saturated) and there are oils that are healthy healthier (unsaturated). Then there are oils which are very bad… the TRANS FATS (***flicker lights, play scary music***). Saturated fats tend to be found in animal fats, unsaturated fats tend to be found in vegetable oil. Trans fats are found when we try to manufacture a substance that is butter-like but made out of vegetable fats; margarine. Trans fats are bad. So the story is that for a decade or so we thought butter was bad and margarine was a good alternative but is turns out that the butter may have been a better choice. Although oilve oil seems to be best. Unless you try and make margarine out of it…TRANS FATS (***deep voice***WO HA HA HA).

So the lovely sharon had a lesson on the wonderful chemistry of fats and oils. She even had props. Enter prop one; olive oil. “This is olive oil, the oil we all cook with.” blank faces. “What Oil?” “Olive what?” Confusion. “We don’t cook with that!” The lovely sharon was confused. “Well what do you cook with?”….”Lard”…..”Lard”.. …”oil”…..”Lard”…. .”dunno”…..”Lard”… ..”chippy oil”…..”Lard”…..”dunno”…..”Lard”… ..”chippy oil”…..”Lard”..

Well, this is margarine, you all use margarine don’t you? “No”. . . “butter”. . . “butter”. . . “real butter”. . . “dunno”. . . “butter”. . . “real butter”. . . “butter in the foil packet”. . . “dunno”. . . “butter”. . . “real butter”. . . “butter”. . . “dunno”. . . “butter”. . . “real butter”. . . “butter in the foil packet”. . .

I wish I could say I was impressed with my own students as I did my own survey in my parallel world lesson. In my class lesson … “do you use butter or margarine?”. . . “dunno”. . . “dunno”. . . “whatever is in the fridge and is yellow”. . . “dunno”. . . “dunno”. .  . . . “dunno”. . . “whatever is in the fridge and is yellow”. . . . . “dunno”. . . .whatever is in the fridge and is yellow”. . . “dunno”. . . “dunno”. . . “dunno”. . . “dunno”. . .

Some days you hit the ground running. Today was one of those days. No free periods and a lunch time lesson. Everything is one constant flow……. margarine and heart disease……….going through exam papers……..the moon, tides and renewable energy…….chicken poo power stations……..mountain navigation in low visibility………databases editing………..absolute zero. The end of the day involved grabbing a coffee and laughing with the caretakers before writing reports. Writing as many as I could until I was kicked out by the same caretakers.

Puncturing the day was the arrival of packaging. Books!

I really should not be buying any more books but two really did catch my attention. I ordered them and bumped them to the top of the reading list. The books in question concern nutrition. One of them is a book receiving a lot of attention in the media at the moment.

Defence of food of food is supposed to be a review of our obsession with nutrition and the hype that surrounds it all. The book gives the plot away in the first sentence: Eat real food. Try and make it mostly plants. Michael Pollan has another interesting book called the omnivores’ dilemma. The omnivores’ dilemma is all about the source of our foods. The ecological impacts and ethics of what we eat.

The other book…… I have been looking forward to.

I have been reading a lot of Joe Schwarz since I discovered him. His books have been sober, very easy going, and packed with good no nonsense science. The blurb on “an apple a day” reads:

Eat salmon. It’s full of good omega-3 fats. Don’t eat salmon. It’s full of PCBs and mercury. Eat more veggies. They’re full of good antioxidants. Don’t eat more veggies. The pesticides will give you cancer.

The only problem with this book is that you can’t easily get it here. Or even on the American amazon.com. I had to go somewhere I have never been; amazon.ca! Canada!

I am of the suspicion that “an apple a day” might have less soap box nutrition that “in defence of food”. Maybe not.

Tonight I am supposed to be industrious.  I am supposed to be marking.  However, I threw it all onto the kitchen table and will probably scoop it all up again in the morning.  Untouched.   Why? Because of old people.

Old people are everywhere if you care to look.  They are lurking in corners, wandering the streets.  They don’t want to be bothered.  They don’t want to cause trouble.  Don’t ignore them.  We need to scoop them up… and treat them like gold.  They are vaults of wisdom.  They carry more laughter and tears in their hearts than we have ever seen.

The lovely Sharon and I journeyed into the crisp night to visit these people.  We sat for hours and listened.  Listened to stories. Stories of laughter, life and tragedy.  From the big snow to cutting ropes the diameter of your car (with explosives (not really big scissors)).  We filled our minds with the history of our area.  We learnt how the mills and the factories made up the working days, weeks, months and years.  We even learnt how linen is made.  We sipped tea with thickly buttered fruit loaf. We learnt the intricate details of the flax including the bizarre language of words that we could not say never mind spell.

Time flew buy.  We left after what seemed like a short time.  I could have sat for hours and asked thousands of questions.  Under my arm I had a very large plastic bag filled with faded photos of ghosts, dusty books about spinning machines and a massive record book of the names of 11 year old workers written in turn of the century script.  I glanced at the walls, trees and hedges and tried to glimpse echos of years gone by.

It was that or mark exam papers.

Marking today.
Listening to the rain.
Looking at the rain.
Distracted by the rain.

I’m not the only one who enjoys spotting bad science.

Dr Ben Goldacre writes in the Guardian…

I know I’m wrong to care. On the BBC news site “crews were hopeful the 20m cubic litres of water could be held back and not breach the dam wall”. And that’ll be a struggle, since “cubic litres” are a nine-dimensional measuring system, so the hyperdimensional water could breach the dam in almost any one of the five other dimensions you haven’t noticed yet.


And meanwhile, in Elle magazine they’re promoting the scientific theories of yet another self-declared nutritional genius: “Marisa cited flour and water as the two biggest problem foods. She gave us flour and water and urged us to make a gloopy paste, with which we stuck pieces of paper to the wall. Then she said this is what’s stuck to our insides when we eat pasta and bread.”

They only do it to wind you up. If you close your eyes, it’ll all go away again.

From Bad Science

Marking today.

Listening to Sigur ros.

Looking at wintery grey.

Distracted by everything.