A few weeks ago, Cindy, Tomasz and I from the Cohen Geochemistry Group, University of Leeds visited the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary School in Huddersfield as part of their science week for years 1 to 6. Our aim was to show the pupils, with a few simple experiments and some hands on experience, that science is more than wearing lab coats and safety specs, but that it is actually great fun. We also wanted them to see, that science is done by “normal” people and not just nerdy looking old men with fuzzy hair (sorry Prof. Einstein).
After our arrival in the morning, we were provided with three classrooms where we set up our kit. Tomasz was presenting chemical gardens, where “plants” of metal salts grow in a solution of water glass (sodium silicate dissolved in highly alkaline solution). Chemical gardens are an excellent example of visual and colourful but quite complex chemistry (most university students would struggle to understand how they grow). Presenting chemical gardens was not about going into the details of the chemical and physical processes occurring (yes, physics plays a role as well) but an opportunity to let the pupils realise that the chemical compounds of which our universe is composed all have different properties: The colour of the powders used for the chemical gardens was highly variable, as was the growth rate of the “plants” (some of them grew in front of the pupils eyes, and others took the whole day).
Growing chemical gardens with Tomasz Stawski
Next door, Cindy was teaching the pupils about basic chemical reactions and gases using household items (find the blog post of her previous experience here). They added bicarbonate of soda to vinegar to 1) make a frothy mess which smells interesting (a bit like beer, or maybe rotten bananas?) and 2) to use the CO2 produced during the reaction to inflate a rubber glove. The pupils enjoyed all the mess produced from the initial reaction. Inflating a glove produced less of a mess, but when the glove was so full of CO2 that it ‘popped’ off from the glass, it caused much excitement (although some pupils were slightly disappointed that it didn’t explode)!
Making a mess out of baking soda and vinegar with Cindy Lockwood
I had prepared a slightly different science experience for the kids: In my classroom, they became palaeontologists for an hour. To begin with, I showed them a few fossils and some reconstructions of what scientists think these animals might have looked like when they were alive. Then I asked them to do a palaeontologists job for a while, reconstructing what they thought an ammonite looked like before it died.
An ammonite as a fossil (left), what the kids imagined it looked like when it was alive (right) and what paleontologists reconstructed (bottom).
I was amazed at the diversity of ideas the pupils had. Was it a fossilised snail? Or a snake that curled up to sleep and then died? Or one of the horns of a mountain goat? Or the shell of a hermit crab? Or was it actually the body of a small dinosaur? Or a fossilised trunk of an elephant? They were quite amazed when I showed them the reconstruction of an ammonite. To end the demonstration, we used dinosaur footprints to make up stories of dinosaurs getting eaten, having babies or learning how to fly.
Getting pupils and their teachers excited about the traces dinosaurs left behind.
It was great to see how enthusiastic and creative the kids were throughout the whole day. They seemed to really enjoy our demonstrations. I think they found it quite interesting to have real scientists around to ask all sorts of science-y questions such as “What would be the best colour for a spaceship?” (green, according to Cindy). We also asked them questions such as “what do you think scientists do all day long?”. The majority of pupils replied that scientists blow up things but a few of the kids mentioned that science is about curiosity, about asking questions. This was great to hear because it reminded all of us why we became scientists: We are curious about the world surrounding us and the processes going on in it.
At the end of the day, Cindy, Tomasz and I were worn out but happy. It was a good feeling, being at the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary School, trying to spark an interest in science in these kids (and their teachers). Having pupils coming up to you after the demonstrations, thanking you for the cool experience or asking when you would be back is probably the ultimate compliment one can get after a fairly exhausting day of outreach!