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Kids can Do Real Science in School

Real Data, Real Science - Towards a National Class S.T.E.M. Programme

I dislike the acronym S.T.E.M. because it sounds so boring. Science, Mathematics, Computing, Electronics and Engineering are dynamic, exciting subjects. They change our world and themselves evolve continually. The sciences possess excitement few other fields can match. Activities to carry this excitement and joy of discovery to students deserve a better name.

A problem is that examined courses can easily dull, especially give the pressure on exam grades as the sole measure of quality in the English system. Students can greatly enhance their prospects with external project work.

I firmly believe that it is posible for a school, particularly an 11-18 school or sixth form to build an ongoing science enrichment program which permits students to engage in real research. Opening up the possibility of ongoing engagement with researchers and contributing to real papers. Indeed a few bold schools in the UK have done this such as Simon Langton Grammar School. Regretably rare in the UK this type of thing is much more common on the continent with programs such as HiSparc.

I have almost 20 years experience of teaching physics and computing from school to A-Level most of that time as Head of Subject and ongoing contacts with academics in physics and engineering departments. Whatever changes occur in the 16-19 curriculum I am confident that universities will continue to look favourably on suitably advanced extra-curricula activities.

This is where Science Clubs/Projects come in. I have direct, recent experience of students applying to University to read Physics, Mathematics and Computing who claim their interviews were dominated by work in my extra-curricula clubs. I have seen a shy 16 year old in email contact with the Dutch High-Energy Physics group. Students who have never programmed before taking one of my enrichment courses discussing their maths and physics simulations at interviews for Russell group universities.

A National Geophysics/Space Science Network?

I am presently developing a series of geophysics sensing projects, infrasound, lightning and solar activity. These monitor in real-time, outputting data to the web via small embedded computers such as raspberry PIs or Arduinos. They can share data with international networks giving opportunities for national & international collaboration.

Soldering a Lightning Detector
Any age

In advanced or final stages of development I have:-_

  • a solar wind/aurora monitor .... Phys Edu Article.
  • an atmospheric Infrasound monitor
  • real-time monitoring of Sudden ionospheric Disturbances (SidSpot)
  • a portable fluxgate magnetometer for archaeological surveys
  • a gravimeter
  • a high frequency induction magnetometer to observe Schumann resonances
  • a directional lighting detector

Rather than provide a pre-built, polished design my intent is to provide initial designs that can be quickly built and got running in a school. This could easily lead to students testing and making improvents or simply gathering and analysing data. Even the software layers are written in python to allow easy adaptation.

I always want to avoid the 'shiny box in the corner of the lab' paradigm. Beautiful expensive box arrives - Principal/Head turns up - looks impressed, school gets a bit of local press, students look bemused and for the next year it serves little more than keeping dust of the bench.

These projects are all intended to be built by the students, all are accessible from 11-18 and some could be started in upper primary school. They can potentially greatly enhance the C.V of students applying to university, apprenticeship or employment. In addition they should generate streams of good publicity and encourage the uptake of 16-18 physics. A Sixth Form or 11-18 school wanting to increase uptake in A-Level or increase recruitment from local 11-16 schools could do far worse then aggressively promote some real, cutting edge science activities.

Passing exams is important, for an institution as are pass rates. However few take physics as a whim or 'light' option in the way they may pick easier subjects. Science and especially physics students tend to be passionate about their subjects and may see exams as a necessary chore. There is a considerable place for enthusiasm and an attempt to undertake real science. Good for students and good for recruitment.

Previously I have supervised students building innovative science projects including:-

  • real-time monitoring of the ionosphere via military VLF (submarine) transmitters
  • investigating a portable fluxgate magnetometer for archaeological surveys
  • building an aurora monitor
  • constructing a solar/gas giant radio-telescope using domestic satellite receivers
  • designing and building a Tesla-coil
  • developing a lighting detector

magnetometer
Aurora Monitor - fluxgate Magnetometer under test

Scientific Programming (Computational Physics)

vpython crystal simulation
3d Python modelling of a crystal

We could be riding a wave here. Britain has 'punched above its weight' in the world of computing and computer games design with a generation of computer programmers bought up on BBC and Sinclair machines. These are now approaching retirement with a lack of newer recruits to replace them. Yet there is demand from industry, higher education and students themselves for technical programming skills.

With suitably skilled staff these are cheap to deliver, very attractive in terms of recruitment and offer the possibility of excellent publicity to keep management happy. Most schools are awash with powerful PCs used for little more than web browsing and 'office' activities. These can be used to teach programming via developing games or numerical/physical simulations at no additional material cost using open-source software.

The more I think on this the more interesting it looks. I have over 10 years experience teaching students to build models of physical scenarios such as statistical thermodynamics, n-body gravitation systems and so on. I presently teach computing to science and maths students as a non-examined course (club) and have had strong feedback from universities on this.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

HiSparc Logo

I have been involved in using a HiSPARC detector in two 6th form colleges. This is a now rather 'closed' project it being difficult to see how to radically develop it in it present setting. I am therefore especially interested in setting up a project to design, develop and build a series of budget cosmic ray detectors in 11-18 schools / 6th forms. In time these could be linked into the international HiSPARC cosmic ray detector grid project. This could be a significant 'flagship' project for a school/college or consortium if they are prepared to invest some money and a lot of time, enthusiasm and goodwill.