What do you do when Science equipment breaks down?

How do you tell Biology from Chemistry from Physics?
It it wiggles it’s Biology, if it smells it’s Chemistry and if it doesn’t work it’s Physics.

I don’t know of any teacher-training course which spends time training teachers on the finer points of being a technician. Yet when equipment does break down you’re expected to somehow just ‘know’ what to look for – and how to fix it.

Even better, if you’re the Physics teacher then you automatically become the ‘go-to’ guy (or gal) for colleagues (and not just Science colleagues) when they have something which needs fixing.
If you’re replacing somebody who just retired then the chances are good that this person is not going to come back in to help you become familiar with what does and doesn’t work. It’s quite possible that you’ve never even met this person, so you’re likely to spend the next few years finding pieces of apparatus in shelves without having any clue as to what their function is.
As a result the shelves in our labs are full of expensive equipment that just sits there gathering dust.

So what do you do when something breaks down?
One option which many are not aware of is to ring up your supplier of school science equipment and ask them if they can fix it. Many of them do have repair departments and should be able to give you a quote which you can then compare to the price of a replacement.
Another option is to ask a senior class if anybody there wants to have a look at it. Usually you will find somebody there who has more free time than you do (but obviously don’t allow them play with anything that could have health and safety implications).


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.

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?

Ernst Mach: the problem with Science Education


1859 marks not only the 150th birthday of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but also a somewhat less well-known occasion; It was the year Ernst Mach published the first of his 500 publications (his last was published five years after his death, in 1921).

Most will know of this man through his association with the speed of planes;  Mach Number is the speed at which an object is moving divided by the speed of sound.

But Mach has offered much more to the world of Science; he lived in a time when Philosophy and Science went hand and hand, and he made many contributions not just in these areas, but also in Psychology and Educational Theory. He wrote a number of text-books for school science, but was very critical of the tendency of cramming as much as possible into the syllabus.
This quote sums up so much of what is wrong with our schooling: 

I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much . . . What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.

Mach was also an advocate of what are known as ‘thought experiments’, these later became famous through Albert Einstein and his idea of sitting on top of a light beam.  Indeed Einstein went on to give credit to Mach for his ‘philosophical writings’.  It’s probably no coincidence that Einstein’s views on education were not that dissimilar to Mach’s:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

Of course this was all over one hundred years ago. Obviously it’s all changed since then.
It would appear that we have some explaining to do.

An Interesting quote on Certainty in Science

We are all deeply conscious today that the enthusiasm of our forbearers for the marvellous achievements of Newtonian mechanics led them to make generalisations in this area of predictability which, indeed, we have generally tended to believe before 1960, but which we now recognise were false. We collectively wish to apologise for having misled the general educated public by spreading ideas about the determinism of systems satisfying Newton’s laws of motion that, after 1960, were to be proved incorrect.

An extract from a paper entitled The recently recognised failure of predictability in Newtonian Dynamics
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Vol 407, No. 1832

This is taken from a paper written by the late Sir James Lighthill, who at the time was President of the International Union of Theoritical and Applied Mechanics, and who incidentally also held the position of Lucansian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge, a position which was first filled by Isaac Newton himself (Stephen Hawking is currently holding the post). The reference to Newtonian mechanics is significant here because it was in this area more than any other that the notion of absolute truth was (is?) most often associated.
The idea that Physics (built on mathematical rules) is the most fundamental knowledge that exists, and all other knowledge is built on this, can be traced back to the writings of the the positivist Auguste Compte.

Compte coined the term sociology; he saw it as giving meaning to all the other sciences – holding them all together as it were.

 This is nicely caricatured in the cartoon below.


Compte didn’t actually consider Mathematics to be a science; it was merely a tool used by scientists!

Here’s a rather more profound clip from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. At 2:00

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.

Thanks to my friend Prof Kirk Junker for pointing out the paper to me.

Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.



The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

Trainee teachers get a raw deal



Does a medical student get to work on a patient/diagnose a patient for the first time unsupervised?

Does a trainee mechanic get to work on the brakes of a car for the first time unsupervised?

So why is a trainee teacher who is on teacher practice in a classroom, usually unsupervised?

Because the main teacher has buggered off, that’s why.
Sooner or later the Department of Education will have to clamp down on this, and we as professional teachers will have to toe the line. Now some of us spend this time productively, while more of us use it to have an extended coffee break, or if we get lucky we can even leave the school early or arrive late in the morning.

In fact if we plan it out properly in advance we can even give ourselves the day off.

Point is, this shouldn’t happen. In a training hospital there is an understanding that the ‘master’ doctor (isn’t ‘master’ a horrible term – or am I just too PC?) assumes responsibility for the trainee; shows him (or her) the ropes, and gradually exposes the trainee to a greater level of responsibility. Why do we get away with not doing this?
Yes of course I am generalising, but does anybody even know to what extent? Do some schools have a policy on this?

The temptation is often to give the trainee teacher a transition-year class and the rationale may be publicly that it is unfair to an exam class to expose them to a new teacher, which certainly seems reasonable, but then a transition-year class is always going to be more difficult to motivate – and discipline (could this add to the attraction of ‘fobbing it off’ onto a hidip?). So if we are sticking a new teacher with this class, the onus should be on me as the main teacher to remain in the class at all times.

It does create a slightly artificial atmosphere, but what I have found is that most of the time the students quickly forget about the teacher at the back, and just get on with on it. If the trainee-teacher has problems controling the class this will soon become obvious, with or without another teacher at the back.

Isn’t there also an insurance issue with leaving an unqualified teacher to run a practical session in a lab?

This brings up a second issue.
Why are these trainee teachers teaching classes at all?
Wouldn’t they be better off observing as many teachers as possible to critique the different teaching styles? After all, they can be ‘blooded’ at any stage but chances are they will never again have the opportunity to sit in on a colleague’s classes. I’m arrogant enough to think that a new teacher could learn something from observing my teaching style; maybe it’s only how not to teach a class – but that’s still a valuable lesson that otherwise may never be learnt.
A colleague of mine is hoping to initiate a group of like-minded teachers who are prepared to let colleagues sit in on their classes, but purely from a timetable point of view it may prove unfeasible.

At least it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

It’s almost 40 years since we first put a man on the moon.
Is it possible to create a space/forum/platform for teachers to discuss these issues?
How would we respond?

It’s been a pretty cool few days

After a number of months  of trying (off and on, mind), I finally managed to get the url for the blog changed to
Thanks to my colleagues at St. Columba’s College English department for the idea.

After putting in quite a bit of work into Young Scientist Projects for the first time this year, we have had four out of the eight submitted accepted for presentation next January. Busy times ahead. They’re almost all in Second Year, and when we spend time on it in class, those not preparing for the Young Scientist Exhibition will be preparing for the Scifest equivalent next May.

Then I got a phonecall on Saturday from Aoife O’Donoghue, who is the Tyndall Outreach Officer, to inform me that one of my leaving cert students won first prize in the senior category of Science Snaps, their Science Photography competition (Shhh . . . Shane doesn’t know yet).
Not that I that anything to do with it mind; I tried to promote an internal Science-Photo competition at the beginning of the year and had the grand total of three entries. So at least this should help in promoting it if it runs again next year. And Mary Mulvihill over at Science@Culture might even be impressed with the quality of the entries.

And then I came across this on Youtube, and I don’t know why but I cried. My wife thinks it might have been the beautiful music in the background.