Sometimes things seem to come together beautifully. A couple of weeks ago I was teaching some of my classes about the reactivity of metals and the ultimate in chemistry tedium….. the blast furnace. I personally find the blast furnace quite fascinating. I would not hold it in such high esteem as the Haber-Bosch process but it still remains up there somewhere.

Neil Oliver in An Ancient History of Britain

When I teach this topic, I always try and put it into the context of the history of humanity. From the Stone Age (Mesolithic), farming dragged us into the new stone age (Neolithic). Then the ‘beaker people’ came to Ireland and from there they brought the technology of smelting to Britain, and beakers of course. This launched us into the Bronze Age and then eventually the technology was worked upon and brought us into the Iron Age. Just in the middle of this topic I happened to watch an episode of A History of Ancient Britain which was perfect for showing the smelting of copper in the classroom. After actually smelting the copper as an experiment, watching the first half of the program put it into context perfectly.

The series of four programs has been interesting.  While watching one of the episodes I had a moment where I briefly thought I might be too nerdy.  Neil Oliver sat down to have a chat with an archeologist and before he was introduced I spoke out with unhidden enthusiasm; “That’s Steven Mithen”.  The lovely Sharon looked at me with an expression that I felt was a mixture of confusion and pity.  After a few moment of silent pondering I came to the conclusion that I can’t be too nerdy, no such concept exists.

Steve Mithen – one of my favourite authors

The chance to show examples of chemistry happened again a week later in the form of Guy Martin in ‘The Boat That Guy Built’. It could not be ignored when he built a small blast furnace to make a pot to make a cup of tea. It was a different style of program to that of Ancient Britain but they loved it.

the boat that guy built

The only problem with these programs was the effort involved in getting them in front of the class. iplayer is a brilliant asset but it may surprise many people to know that it is nearly useless in schools. This is all down to our ICT provider C2k. Many of the students I teach have internet connections that are around 20Mb. In school we are provided with a connection not much more than 2Mb. Once this has been divided up into fifty classrooms, two IT suites and another two half-suites, it seems incredible. To be fair it seems to cope well with the usual traffic until iplayer is attempted. Sometimes it works for a while but it can never be relied upon. Instead, we have to bend our heads around ways to get them from home and bring the programs in on memory pens or hard drives. Luckily someone has made this task legal for teachers to do. So, in the end these things work out beautifully but maybe not elegantly.

Guy Martin

These were not the only programs I had shown my classes.  A month ago I had shown them a few short clips from Edwardian Farm.  The clips were on the use of lime kilns to make quicklime for treating the fields.  This slips into the GCSE curriculum perfectly under the heading of the thermal decomposition of metal carbonates.  One of my students remarked to me that his dad still uses lime on the fields every few years.  I am glad that he made the connection in his mind.  I tried to restrict the program to only the clips I wanted to show but I could not resist showing them cleaning a chimney. In this clip they threaten to drop a live chicken down the chimney in the Edwardian tradition.  In the end they settle for the alternative of using a bunch of holly.  At this point I reminded the class that, in Ireland, such a thing is said to annoy the fairies.  Irish households were faced with the dilemma of upsetting the fairies or the chickens.

Edwardian Farm

After the onslaught of Edwardian farm and then The Boat That Guy Built one of my students remarked that it was unusual that the only TV I seem to watch includes an excessive amount of sideburns.