An Astronomy Enthusiast’s Dream Weekend

Recently my husband and I took my Dad away for a couple of days of sheer geekery. On the Saturday we went to Jodrell Nank, and on the Sunday to the National Spaceguard Centre.

At Jodrell Bank we (obviously) made a beeline for the Lovell telescope. It’s impossible to get an idea of how huge it is just from pictures or by seeing it from the road, but when you stand next to it it’s really awe-inspiring. You have to switch off your phones on arrival because they could pick up the signal from your phone if it were on Mars (one of the many geek facts we learned during the day) so having that signal on site really messes up their data.

There’s a hands-on activity centre (supposedly for the little ones, but the “big children” seem to enjoy it just as much!) where you can find out how we detect planets from beyond our solar system and hear the sound of the Big Bang (which is not actually a bang at all)!

Probably my favourite thing there was the infra-red camera. Most people standing in front of it showed up as orange and red. My husband, who is always warm and who wear shorts throughout the winter, showed up as a bright yellow. His image glowed like something supernatural – or for those of you old enough to remember, like the boy in the Ready Brek advert! I’m the opposite. I’m always complaining that I’m cold – even in summer – so when my image showed up as black (nose, cheekbones and fingertips) and purple (everywhere else) I was able to point out that it’s not all in my mind. I don’t just feel colder than everyone else, I really am colder!

With hindsight, I wouldn’t have bothered with the tour as we didn’t find out anything from the guide that we hadn’t already read on the display boards, but for anyone who prefers to have all the information condensed into a 45 minute talk it’s probably well worth it. There are lots of displays ranging from beautiful photos of space, to explanations of how radio telescopes work, how and why telescopes all over the world are linked, and a real-time display of the data being received by the Lovell telescope.

Aside from the astronomy stuff there are gardens to explore – a little chilly in the winter but probably beautiful in the summer – and a hide tucked away from where you can sit and watch the birds come and go.

The Spaceguard Centre was very different. It’s small, it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s the ultimate in geekery. It’s just a husband and wife team and as it’s a working lab, not a visitor centre, you have to book onto a tour to visit. It’s the only place in the UK that monitors near-Earth objects, so if we are about to be hit by an asteroid, these are the people who will tell us. There were only the three of us who braved the cold that day so we had a very private tour. We got to see samples of asteroids, maps of all the places around the world that have been hit by asteroids, and saw data about near-Earth objects that need to be checked out. We learnt how accurately they can pinpoint where an asteroid will land and the role Jupiter plays (good and bad) when it comes to asteroid activity.

I won’t give away too much because, as they get no funding from the government, they rely on the money made from people visiting. We found it fascinating and for anyone with an interest in science who wants something a bit different to do, it’s a definite recommendation!

A Pint of Science and an Astronaut

Tonight I met the man with the coolest job title in the universe…Space Shuttle Pilot!  I spent the evening at Birmingham University at an event organised by Pint of Science. It was three hours but the time went so fast it felt more like three minutes.

There was a brief talk by two professors, one talking about the search for exoplanets and the other talking about her research into antimatter. And then there was a longer talk / Q&A session by Tony Antonelli – he of the cool job title – and we were entertained and amazed in equal measure.  It was lovely to see such a mix of ages in the auditorium, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

The wisest words of the evening though came from one of the hosts, who said, “Remember – this man wasn’t born an astronaut.” I think that’s such an important message for our children. No-one is born anything. If you have a dream, and you work hard and you make good choices you can achieve great things.

If the Pint of Science Astronomy Tour is heading your way, I definitely recommend that you go.

me with Tony Antonelli, a NASA astronaut!

Black History Month

Black history month always seems to focus on the same few people: Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela…. or else people from the worlds of sport or entertainment are chosen. I’m not saying that these people are not important, I’m just saying that the fields of scientists and inventors always seem to be neglected. Why not change that this year and find out about some of these people instead?

The Black Inventor Online Museum

BBC news – The black history you might not learn at school

35 activities for children in your own garden

I have noticed over the last few years, that fewer and fewer children know much about nature. In fact a few weeks ago I was surprised to discover than none of the children I was working with in school knew what a buttercup was.

I know it’s hard to find time in busy lives to get to the park or walk in the country, so here are a few suggestions of things that can be done without leaving your own garden.

 Important notes for the adults
This post contains lots of ideas to help your children connect with nature in your own garden. There are also ideas included for linking some of these activities to maths, English, science and art. Your child may need help or supervision carrying out these activities. These activities are suggestions only – it is your responsibility to ensure that it is safe to carry them out. Although I have used the websites and apps suggested, I have no control over their availability, content or any adverts that are placed on those sites and I cannot therefore accept responsibility for them.

Important notes for the children
There are some suggestions of things to eat in this list, but never eat anything you find in your garden without checking with an adult that it is safe to do so.
Make sure you ask an adult’s permission before doing any of these activities, and especially before visiting any of the websites or downloading any of the apps suggested here.
Always wash your hands after touching things found in your garden.

Thirty-five ideas of nature-related things to do in your home or garden.

  1. Race two raindrops down the window pane. Describe the path they take – straight or curvy, fast or slow?
  2. Count ladybirds in the garden. How many did you find? Make a tally chart of how many have two spots, four spots, etc. What was the highest number of spots? Which amount of spots was most common?
  3. Close your eyes outside for two minutes. What sounds can you hear?
  4. We talk about the seven colours of a rainbow but they don’t really have 7 colours. Look at a rainbow. What colours can you actually see?
  5. Choose two pretty stones from the garden. What is the same about them? What is different about them? Look at the patterns. Draw one of the stones.
  6. How many different coloured butterflies can you see? Have a look at a butterfly identification chart- can you identify any of them?
  7. Place a blade of grass between your fingers and blow. What sound does it make? What happens if you use a thicker or thinner piece of grass?
  8. Look at the flowers in the garden. Either find one for each colour of the rainbow, or find 3 the same colour and order them from lightest to darkest.
  9. Make a daisy chain.
  10. Touch the soil on a dry day. What does it feel like? Touch it again after it has rained. Describe the difference in texture (how it feels).
  11. Watch the bees. Which sort of flowers do they like best?
  12. Count how many different sorts of birds visit your garden. How many can you name? If you don’t know what sort they are, have a look at the RSPB site to try to identify them.
  13. Open the windows early one morning and listen to the bird song.
  14. Plant some meadow flower seeds to attract the wildlife to your garden. Don’t forget to water them on the days it doesn’t rain.
  15. Make your own rain gauge and measure the rainfall. If you measure it over a few days, you could draw a graph of your results.
  16. Eat your lunch outside.
  17. Look for spiders webs. How many different sorts of spiders did you spot?
  18. Lots of people don’t like wasps. Find out about wasps and write down one reason why we should be grateful to them.
  19. Tie a ribbon to a stick. Which way is the wind blowing? Watch it for a few days. Does it always blow in the same direction?
  20. Plant some runner bean seeds and wait for them to grow – don’t forget to water them if it doesn’t rain. When the beans develop, you can pick and eat them!
  21. Ask five different people what their favourite flower is and why. Write down their replies.
  22. Make a bark rubbing.
  23. Lift up a stone or log. How many different insects do you see? Note which insects like which habitats. UK Safari is a useful site  to help you identify what you have found.
  24. Count the number of petals on different flowers. How many arrangements can you find? How many had 3 petals? How many had four? How many had 5? How many had more than 5? Draw a bar chart to show your results.
  25. Lie on your tummy and look at the grass. Have a look at the tiny insects you can see. Can you see any more if your use a magnifying glass?
  26. Smell the flowers. Which one do you like best?
  27. Make a collection of leaves. Pay attention to the size, colour and shape. Are they smooth, prickly or furry? Are the veins (the lines running through the leaves) hard or easy to see? If they are leaves from trees, see if you can identify them from the Woodland Trust website or download the free woodland trust app.
  28. Watch a sunrise or a sunset to find out which direction is east/west. Remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Paint / draw what you can see, or write a description/poem about it.
  29. Plant some nasturtiums. They are climbing plants, so they look really pretty growing up walls and fences and you can eat the flowers and leaves on bread and butter!
  30. Look at the clouds. How many different types can you see? Have a look at the Royal Meteorological Society website to help you identify them. What colours can you see? How quickly are they moving? Can you see any pictures in the clouds?
  31. Grow your own potatoes.  Grow your own potatoes has some instructions for how to plant them and some instructions for how to look after them.
  32. Make a sundial. You can also do this with a stick in the ground instead of using a board and a nail, and by placing a stone where the shadow falls each hour, instead of marking the board with a pencil. Don’t forget to paint the numbers 1-12 on the stones!
  33. Enjoy a thunderstorm. Work out how far away the storm is. Is there sheet or fork lightning or both? Learn how to spell the word lightning (tip – there’s no ‘e’ in it)!
  34. Look at the sky at night and try to pick out some constellations. SkEye is a useful app for knowing what you are looking for, or you could try the Astronomy Now website.
  35. Feed the birds. Use proper birdseed – bread is really not good for them. Make sure that if you decide to put out peanuts, they only go in a proper peanut feeder – otherwise very small birds can choke on them.

And above all – have fun!

 

Teach Like You Mean It!

I often see Facebook posts from trainee teachers and NQTs asking how to make particular subjects “exciting”, or looking for a hook to draw them in.

While I agree it’s important that children enjoy learning, I also think it’s important to remember that being exciting is not necessarily the same as being engaging. As the teacher in the classroom, we are the main ingredient in engaging the children and we are more than just the sum of the activities we choose.

I always remember one particular lesson I taught as a trainee teacher. It was Y9 French, and the topic was boring. I racked my brains trying to think of a way to spice it up, to make it more exciting. I couldn’t come up with anything and nor could my mentor. This was before Facebook was as big as it is now, so I couldn’t ask around in any of the teaching groups to get advice from hundreds of teachers around the country. I knew I was doomed. If I thought this topic was boring, there was no way I was going to convince 30 Year 9s otherwise and I was dreading the lesson. The closer it got, the more I was dreading it.

Eventually the time of the lesson arrived. With a sinking feeling in my heart I walked to the door to greet my class. Plastering a smile on my face, I uttered my first words: “Come in. Settle down quickly. I can’t wait to get started – I’ve been looking forward to today’s lesson all week.”

The change in the class was immediately visible. They picked up their heads, slumped shoulders perked up and they sat ready to listen to see what was going to be so good about this lesson. It actually turned into one of the best lessons I taught during my training year. The pupils were engaged. They worked hard and asked pertinent questions. They learnt something new and because they were so willing to commit to the learning process, we also cleared up a couple of misconceptions they already had. My mentor was delighted and I got a really good grading for that lesson. It was then I realised that it was my attitude that made all the difference.

Many years later I was given the topic of electricity to teach in science to year four. It was a topic I’d never taught before, and it was one I’d never really enjoyed learning about at school, so I really wasn’t looking forward to it. So I did what I always do in such situations. I smiled brightly and told them how much fun we were going to have learning about electricity. This became one of my (and their) favourite subjects that year. The children worked so hard and enjoyed it so much that we finished everything on the curriculum ahead of time. We were then able to explore other areas which they chose themselves: how electricity is generated and how it travels from the power station to people’s homes, how a battery works, how the ISS gets its power, and even how a Faraday cage works.

I didn’t have a snazzy title for the topic. I didn’t have a great “hook”. I didn’t even have lots of expensive and exciting resources. What I did have was the ability to fake it until it became true. My advice now to NQTs and trainee teachers is, “Don’t stress about hooks and titles and worrying about whether or not they will find it exciting. Instead, just tell them how much fun it’s going to be – and then teach like you really mean it!