Some wonderful demonstrations using an inexpensive pressure pump

Available for about €20 from

I’m thinking of getting about 8 to act as a class set, and a few more for presents to nephews and nieces.

The ‘Presssure and Sound’ demo can be done with mobile phones as I suggest – the sound level does drop noticealbly in the classroom, but not enough to be picked up by the camcorder.

I presume it would also go down well on Open Day.

Limitless potential.
Eoghan in Second Year suggested using coke to see if it goes flat – I won’t tell you the answer but it’s worth checking out. In hindsight we should have tried to guess what we would have observed.

Then we wondered if the pH would change.

Then we wondered if the level of Carbon Dioxide in the chamber would increase noticealby, even as we pumped out the air. I need to see if we can use a datalogger to see how the  concentration of the gas changes in real time on a laptop.

Then I mentioned that we need to buy lots of marshmallows to see which work the best.

Then Robyn said that she cooks marshmallows at home, so now she has promised to bring in the ingredients and we will try to cook them in school and see if we can make giant ones!

All for €20 plus the price of few marshmallows, balloons and shaving foam.


The Two Cultures – why our schools are to blame

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Scientists often complain about how they are perceived in literature. It seems as though the battle – with writers, poets and artists on one side, and scientists on the  other – has been going stong long before C.P. Snow wrote about ‘The Two Cultures’ back in 1959.
It was a strong theme all through the Romantic era and more recently prompted Richard Dawkins to write an entire book on the subject.  His take on it was similar to that of Richard Feynman; far from taking from the wonder of the subject, science actually adds to it. We can still appreciate the beauty of nature while having a deeper understanding of the reason nature is the way she is. Dawkins’ booktitle was a reference to a Keats poem about the wonder of rainbows, but it’s not an uncommon complaint; Richard Feynman says something similar about a simple flower.

What I find fascinating is that neither Feynman or Dawkins (or indeed C.P. Snow himself) seem to wonder why many artists have such a poor view of science. Walt Whitman’s poem above seems to be a fair reflection of how scientists in general are viewed by  the public at large.

For me, this poor image of Science (and scientists) is generated in school. The textbooks are terrible, the syllabus even more so, and it is only the enthusiasm of the odd teacher that creates any sort of positive image of the subject. It seems to me that science teachers at secondary level and lecturers at third level do very little to inspire wonder in any student who isn’t already fascinated by the subject. I have said it on many occasions before; when you consider the enthusiasm of students for the subject when they first encounter it in first year, and contrast this with their weariness for the subject in sixth year, it’s a wonder any of them choose to keep it on at third level. Of course the pigeon-holing of all knowledge into outdated compartments called ‘Subjects’ may also have something to do with this.

And unfortunately all the Science Weeks and Science Gallaries and Cities of Science in the world won’t change this.

What might result in change is if more attention was paid to our abysmal syllabus by some of these folk who are so heavily involved in promotion of science ourside the classroom; perhaps if enough artists and writers addressed this issue . . . a new romantic movement anyone?

Thanks to my colleague Mr Devitt for reminding me of the Walt Whitman poem. Young Devitt is one of those indivuals who is as happy talking Physics/Science as he is talking History (his trade). I am fortunate in my school to have a number of such colleagues, but as with teachers  everywhere else there is just so little time or opportunity to allow for cross-pollination of this sort. What I find fascinating about discussions with colleagues from the humanities side of the fence is that they always seem to have more of a sense of wonder for the (science) ideas than do my science-teacher colleagues. I don’t know why that is.

Did you know that you won the lottery?

We have always assumed that ‘we’ will be around forever; not only that but we wonder how long it will be before we can colonise other planets and solar systems. We conveniently ignore the fact that our being here in the first place may be nothing more that the fortutitous result of an incredible set of conincidences.

Do you believe that your existence is preordained?
I’m not sure what the postion of the mainstream religions is on this (or even if they have a position) but think about it;  when your mom and dad had sex nine months before you were born that one single ejaculation from your father (I do hope you’re not reading this over your morning cornflakes) contained probably two million healthy sperm – and only one of them got to combine with your mother’s egg.
(Apparently the total number of spermatozoa in the ejaculate should be at least 40 million, but it is quite surprising how many dead and abnormal sperm can be present in a ‘normal’ sample.)

And this combination lead to you. Now if any of those other two million sperm got there ahead of yours then it wouldn’t be you reading this right now – it would be a brother or sister – and you wouldn’t exist! So if your folks had decided to wait until Eastenders was over instead of rushing upstairs in a mad fit of passion then you would not be you – you would be your brother (or sister)! I’m telling you – this stuff is mad. Why had nobody told you this before?

So next time you rip up your lottery ticket and complain that you never win anything just think about this – you’ve already won the lottery, and it couldn’t have been a bigger prize!

I mention this every time I teach human reproduction and challenge students to find a flaw in the argument and if not they they are no longer allowed whine about how hard they have it. I was reminded of it recently when reading The Frog Blog’s recent post on putting the  wonder back into science education.
I have spoken about the concept of wonder before and mentioned that you don’t find wonder in science textbooks or syllabi and as a result it may not be found at all in the science classroom. For this to change those of us who believe it to important need first of all to develop a voice. Are we in a very small minority and if so should we just shut up, or are there others who believe that Science should be about more than merely learning off trivia, all of which could be found at the end of a smartphone in 30 seconds?  
How do we find out who’s with us?
Is twitter the way to go?
Which is more difficult – changing a political system in the Middle East or changing our system of education here in the West?

Please put SPACE on our Science syllabus is currently hosting a survey of readers to find out what they consider to be the greatest mystery in Science. The leader by quite some way is “How did the universe begin?”

The theme for this year’s Science Week is “Our place in space“, and no doubt thousands of students will spend an hour or two attending special lectures which highlight this wonderful concept.

Then we all go back to our classrooms and never again hear about space, never mind the Big Bang.

If we want to grab students and hold onto them then while ScienceWeek is a nice resource, it is certainly not the answer. Why are we not telling students about the Big Bang, Quasars, Neutron Stars, Pulsars, Black Holes and all manner of other exotic phenomena as part of their science education? Because it’s not on either the Junior Science or Leaving Cert Physics syllabus (although the Big Bang does make an appearance in the Leaving Cert Religion syllabus).
And it’s never going to be on these syllabi unless we kick up a fuss. For that to happen there would first need to be a recognition of the problem. Why can’t Chris Horn and all those other commentators from the business world take an hour or two to look at our syllabi and then ask themselves – ‘would I want to study this for either three or six years?’

I don’t know if other teachers feel the same because there is so little communication between us, but that bone of contention is for another day.

This is just to serve as advance notice – next time you hear an ‘expert’ on the national airwaves bemoaning the low numbers of students taking up Physics or Chemistry, listen our to see if there is any evidence to indicate that the speaker is actually familiar with either syllabus. And listen very carefully for the one word that never gets mentioned by these business folk: wonder.

Is it a particle or is it a wave?

Sometimes I think I’d gladly be locked up in a dungeon ten fathoms below ground, if in return I could find out one thing: What is light?
Galileo, from the play Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht

 The single greatest source of debate among physicists in the early decades of the last century was to do with the nature of light. Come to think of it, this concept has probably caused more angst than any other to scientists and philosophers right back to the ancient Greeks.
To take just one aspect; we can prove that light is a particle (via the photoelectric effect) and we can prove that light is a wave (via interference, or the famous ‘double slit’ experiment) yet particles and waves are two completely different phenomena. Particles are ‘things’ and are therefore supposed to be localised in space and have mass. And while there are  different varieties of waves, they are not supposed to be ‘in one place’ or have mass.
So what gives?


Answer: nobody knows. To this day there are different interpretations, but none that is accepted by all. The YouTube clip below shows some of the world’s greatest physicists coming together for one of a series of conferences to try to make sense of it all back in the 1920’s. Needless to say they did not reach a consensus. There is wonderful book called QUANTUM which describes in great detail the history of this debate at the beginning of the last century. See here  for a previous post on the book itself.

Now in leaving cert physics we need to know the evidence for light being both a particle and a wave. But there is room in the syllabus or any of the textbooks that I have come across to highlight the bizarre nature of this. It lies at the heart of one of the greatest problems scientists have ever faced, and our response is to simply pretend that there is nothing of note here.

It’s simply not good enough.

A science-teacher’s apology

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called science and distil it until all the wonder has been removed and we are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

I would like to attribute that to somebody famous, but I can’t, ‘cos it’s mine. Which brings me to my apology.

I would like to apologise to students of secondary-school science everywhere – past, present and future, for having to put you through this process.

I would like to apologise for being a little cog in this horrible machine.

I would like to apologise for doing so little to change this, or even to raise it as an issue before now.

In my own little way I will do what I can to repair some of the damage, and show what science is like when the wonder is put back in.

CESI annual conference next weekend

Once (and only once) a year do teachers come together from all sectors of education to share ideas and resources on teaching. You don’t get paid for attending, you don’t get a day off school and it doesn’t count as in-service training (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea) so the only teachers you will meet there will be enthusiastic and hard-working. Just like you.

CESI (the Computer Education Society of Ireland) is holding its annual conference next weekend (5th and 6th of February) in Portlaoise. There will be a highly-energised Teachmeet on the Friday night followed by a full day of presentations, workshops and seminars on Saturday.

Teachers are renowned for hoarding their resources, but here you are quite likely to see the swapping of usb files and at the very least the swapping of email addresses.

The theme for this year is Creative Technology in Challenging Times but don’t worry if you are a complete novice when it comes to technology – the very fact that you will make the effort to turn up means that you are a teacher keen to see what’s out there, and that’s all you need.

To find out more (including how to register, but you can also just turn up on the day), see the CESI conference page at

And to find out more about how CESI can help you why not sign up to their discussion forum (it now contains over 400 members, again from all sectors of education) at (look for the “Join the CESI mailing list” heading at the bottom of the page).

See you there.

Passion and Inspiration

Rule no. 1: Passion

I had only been teaching for about three years (mostly junior cert science and leaving cert maths) and was getting fed up with it. I would have liked to have been teaching Physics but there were already two physics teachers in the school so it wasn’t looking like that was going to happen any time soon. I reckoned a change of career was in order but had no idea what I wanted to do. When a colleague mentioned a masters program in science communication offered jointly by DCU and Queens I figured why not, so handed in my notice and bought a few homework copies.

I don’t remember much about the lectures in DCU – mostly they were to do with communication theory but the lectures were pretty boring (the irony wasn’t lost on me). There were two exceptions to this; one was the director of the program – Professor Kirk Junker, and the other was Professor Helena Sheehan. Kirk was an inspiration in that he was professionalism personified. I never once saw him get annoyed and every student was respected and treated as if they were the only student in his class. It was an example I have tried to follow ever since in my own teaching, but it is for others to decide how successful that has been.

Helena was most definitely a different kettle of fish. While she also had a deep respect for her students, the one word I would use to sum her up would be passion. I have never met anyone so passionate about their teaching and their subject matter.

For me it was a complete revelation. Apparently a teacher’s job is not to just impart knowledge to students – you can actually let them see how much the subject matter means to you as a teacher. And students won’t laugh at you as a result, in fact they will actually respect you a whole lot more. I can still remember sitting in her class and thinking that I have to get back into my own classroom and give this a go. If nothing else I owe it to my students. It has now become one of the first pieces of advice I would give to any new teacher – be passionate; if you find the subject matter to be fascinating then for God’s sake let the students in on it. No amount of technology can replace that gift.

It helped that I also found the subject matter of Helena’s lectures to be fascinating; philosophy of science? – I never knew such a thing existed. Science was just science, a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and no proper scientist could be interested in dirty words like money or fame. How wrong I was, but that’s for another day (to get a feel for what Helena was teaching us just go to her web-page . To see a 25 min video of Helena in action click here for the 54 mg download or here for the 27 mg version (I don’t know why these aren’t just on YouTube – it’s powerful stuff).

This was all prompted by a wonderful post written by Helena as part of A University Blog: Diary of A University President

Helena finishes with the following words. They could only have been written by Helena.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’. I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

Some nice Quantum Physics resources

I may have mentioned previously that one simple way of seeing which science concepts appeal to the general population is to look at popular science programs and note what they are concentrating on; chances are there won’t be much of an overlap between this and the school syllabus. Quantum theory is a case in point – the BBC aired a wonderful Horizon documentary a couple of weeks back entitled “How long is a piece of string?” and while I didn’t catch it when it first went out I figured it was just a matter of time before it appeared on YouTube. Broken up into six ten-minute slots there is a lot of potentially useful material there for the physics class if you’re prepared to drift off syllabus.

The Beeb is understandably a little finicky about their programs appearing on YouTube so you might like to download it while you can.

Hat-tip to my colleague Jerome Devitt for reminding me about this – why is it that our colleagues in the humanities seem to be more comfortable discussing the philosophical implications of modern science than we are?
Have the rest of us really tested and tasted too much?

While I’m at it, probably the most popular YouTube clip on the weirdness of the quantum world has got to be the following clip taken from “What the bleep do we know?”.

It really is a wonderful crazy world out there.


I hate Science Week

I find it very difficult to get excited by Science Week.
In fact let me just come straight out and say it; I hate Science Week.

Why does it exist? Like so many other great ideas we have here in Ireland, it seems we have one because England has one.  And why does England have one? – for the same reason we have one; to let all our young folk know that science is fun. Obvious innit?

Well no actually. Irish students study three years of science at Junior Cert – surely this is enough time to convince anybody that science is fun (assuming  it  is).

But this is the point – Science as we teach it in school is definitely not fun. The science concepts which the department syllabus tells us must be covered could not be more mind-numbingly boring if we tried. Any hint of a concept which might be actually interesting has been very carefully removed.

How can you teach Biology without mentioning evolution?

How can you teach energy without mentioning the big bang?

How can we teach energy without explaining that it’s not just another chapter – it is the one concept which ties all others together?

How can you teach the atom without reference to the idea that the structure of the atom is such that we are all almost totally empty space?

How can we torture our students with graphs without ever expecting them to know why we use graphs?

How can we teach Ecology without mentioning global warming?

How can we teach reproduction without mentioning overpopulation or homosexuality?

How can we teach about food without mentioning obesity?

How can we teach genetics without mentioning forensic science – one of the few areas which has become ‘sexy’ of late?

How can we teach mass without mentioning that 90% of the mass of the universe is ‘missing’?

How can we teach about size without mentioning the incredible scale of the universe – from the very small to the very large? It’s incredible to think that there is absolutely no reference to astronomical or cosmological objects in any any science syllabus at secondary level – we might as well go back and tell that the Earth is the centre of the universe after all.
Check out this link for an interesting starting point to astronomy.

How can we mention time without giving reference to the incredible age of the earth?

How do we manage to avoid talking about extinction of species, radiation and cancer, the incredible complexity of the biological cell, the jiggling of atoms etc?

At the risk of being totally ridiculous could we not delve into psychology and look at the evidence which is there to suggest that we are very easy to manipulate and that almost all of us could be persuaded to do some very nasty things to our fellow humans given the right ‘persuasion’? Just because psychology didn’t exist when the first science syllabus was put together two hundred years ago is hardly justification for not including it today.

Obviously every teacher will have their own pet loves and hates, but underneath there must me a core set of ideas which are inherently interesting fascinating. Should we not be starting from this point and working out rather than the current approach which obviously doesn’t work?

Do we really need to focus on activities like measuring the density of a stone using an overflow can, plotting a graph of the extension of a stretched string or demonstrating the action of a digestive enzyme?

It’s one thing to blame ‘the system’ for not being able to change anything, but at this level we as teachers must surely have a strong voice, yet rarely if ever have I heard a teachers suggest that we should radically overhaul what we are teaching – indeed I suspect there would actually be considerable resistance to this at teacher level.

So forgive me if I don’t get excited by one more demonstration-lecture on exploding custard and water changing to wine. It’s just that the problem with science education is a bit deeper than this, and one week highlighting the so-called ‘fun’ in science does little more than remind us that for the rest of year it is as boring as dishwater and we’re doing a very poor job of rectifying this.