A Biochemical Society funded activity.
Guest post by Sai Pathmanathan.
The project, called Experimenting With Storytelling, involved working with four schools in East London and Northamptonshire, between January and April 2015.
Each school had three sessions. These began with a cultural story or folktale (the ‘storytelling’ part) which had some science in it followed by an associated practical activity (the ‘experimenting’ part).
These sessions included the involvement of parents, and so took place after school.
It was important to let everyone know why the storytelling element was included. Having worked in schools with such diverse populations, stories were always enjoyed by everyone. And whilst folk tales, legends, myths and cultural stories come from all over the world, carrying a little message or moral, they sometimes even have a bit of science in them too.
The full feedback report (with contact details for further information and activity .pdfs) is available here. Only story summaries are given, as I personally do not feel stories should be read out, but instead should be performed to engage the audience as much as possible – and so that you can ask questions in between.
The first session was all about making butter, with a Russian folktale about two frogs who accidentally end up churning cream to make butter. Children and parents then made their own butter, and tasted it too. Edible activities always go down well! Which was evident in the feedback…
The science explanation given depended on the interest of the participants. Some wanted to know more, so for example, in the butter activity I could discuss the fat in the cream surrounded by membranes, about skimmed milk having all the cream taken off, and why some butter is white and some is yellow – all about the carotene. This is why informal family group activities are so much more engaging: people have the opportunity to freely ask questions if they wish to.
The next session was about Pele, The Goddess of Fire, thought to live in the volcanoes of Hawaii. Her movements in the story followed the geological timeline of the volcanic island formations, and everyone got to make their own erupting volcano. Although a common vinegar-bicarbonate reaction, there are many children (as well as parents and teachers!) who have never done it before, and the excitement seen on faces is always fun.
We passed around some lava rock from Etna while they looked at where Europe’s tallest active volcano is on a map. Everyone was surprised at how light the rock was, with several children asking, ‘Is that really real lava rock…from a volcano?’ Most knew quite a bit about tectonic plates, so teachers and teaching assistants that were available could gauge how much the children had learnt from class. We discussed the Hawaiian words for the different lava, bringing a little more cultural yet scientific vocabulary into their lives: if lava cools slowly and does not move too fast it forms smooth lava called pahoehoe, if it cools quickly and moves fast it can tear into sharp pieces called a’a.
The final session was based on an Aesop’s Fable about a crow’s inventiveness to make water in a pitcher rise. Interestingly some hadn’t heard of Aesop, or this particular story. So it was a chance to introduce them to the world of Aesop and his fictional stories of animals who can teach us clever little lessons. And science…
This was more of an exploratory session, using various materials (ice, rocks, pebbles, shells, pieces of modelling clay) to displace the water in their cup. Volume and density was a little difficult for younger children to understand (especially since many under-6s attended, being siblings of the children who had signed up), but floating and sinking and watching the level of water rise was something they could all grasp.
They also had the chance to play with ‘cornflour slime’ (testing how that compresses with force), and saw how ‘heavy’ salt solution is. We also touched upon Archimedes and his ‘Eureka!’ moment.
It was interesting to see how many ‘lightbulb’ moments took place. One parent realised the wooden feature in her garden was actually a butter churn, and others said that they made butter back home in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but never thought to make it over here to show their children how it’s done.
Parents and teachers were fascinated by the fact that they didn’t need to have Bunsen burners, test tubes and microscopes to do science with children. Giving them other alternatives too helped, for example using a jar or resealable bag for shaking the cream, or the yellow insides of Kinder Surprise eggs for floating and volume investigations; thereby reusing items that they would usually throw away.
Giving everyone a free BiochemSoc (SciberBrain) pencil or pen made sure that they sat down and filled out their evaluation forms.
What was lovely to see was just how much the parents and children wanted to do more activities together:
…how they enjoyed the storytelling aspect:
…the hands-on, exploratory nature of the activities:
…and how parents seemed to want more assistance in helping their children with science:
Initially the forms were to gauge parental thoughts whilst consulting their child, but children wanted to give their feedback too:
And someone wasn’t too happy about the physical activity required in making the butter:
The nicest part was when one little Year 3 girl shouted as she left, ‘This was the best science time EVER!’
I think my job is done.