Say it with a Picture

I have recently been carrying out some self-assessment exercises with my students. I wanted to use a form on our VLE to harvest the information and began to compose the form page. As well as the text box options, I noticed a “file upload” option, so decided on the spur of the moment to have students upload a picture “which reflects how you feel about chemistry lessons at the moment”. I expected simple images of smiley faces (I’m an optimist!), thumbs up and the odd “selfie” with a goofy face. I got some of these, but I also got a lot more which say a huge amount about the students and their confidence (or otherwise). In one case the picture was quite poignant.

This student is telling me he/she is doing well and feeling confident:

winky thumbs up

This one also seems to be on the right track:

thumbs up

This student is most definitely winning:

I'm winning

This student is getting a little bogged down with the subject:


This student thinks I am not making much sense:what are you talking 'bout

(I’m not convinced they fully get the reference though at 15 years old)

This student isn’t getting it either and is fed up:

fed up baby

But the one which almost brought a tear to my eye, and said more in one image that 1000 words of self-assesssment, is this one:

I suck

I think this is definitely worth repeating next time, and I hope that this last particular student is going to be feeling a lot better after some extra help.

Ding Dong: Cycling in Safe Mode

My last car had a feature that became an annoying fault; a fault that remained unresolved to its end. At certain times of stress (going fast uphill, going fast or just generally going…) it would revert to “safe mode”. For this particular diesel vehicle, this involved disabling the turbo, which meant limping along until one could reset the ECU by turning off the ignition. As you can imagine, this would be a right pain, especially if you happened to be driving 500 miles through France and safe mode triggered every time there was a hill on the Péage.

I discovered safe mode on my bike this week, but it turned out to be a real pleasure instead of a pain. Having set off in the extreme heat of this abnormal British summer, keen to get up and down a few hills I found myself all hot and bothered at the top of Devil’s Dyke in Sussex. I entered my own cycling “safe mode” and trundled down towards Hove and hit the cycle path on the sea front without really having to turn a crank in anger. It isn’t possible in many cases to freewheel all the way home, so I still had to tackle the coast road to get back. I chose the cycle path for once, as I was still enjoying safe mode, and the sea breeze was wonderful in the searing heat. In fact it was a wonderfully pleasant change to roll along with the masses on the prom. As I headed behind the harbour, I was passed by a fisherman on his ancient mountain bike, off to dig some bait on the shoreline and I was passed by a blur of young commuter, gunning his bike (complete with aero bars) Froom style towards the dock gates. I would probably have been passed by anyone else who might have been cycling in the same direction, such was my perambulatory pace, but it was lovely.

I decided to go out again today and instead of racing off I set off again in safe mode and chose the cycle path on the sea front between Shoreham and Worthing. This time I came across all sorts of obstacles: families with dogs and stray children taking up the whole path; couples cycling two abreast going even slower than I was; folk coming off the beach perpendicular to my path completely oblivious to any cyclists on the path. My usual course of action might have been to curse quietly to myself and make a note not to go that way again, but not today. I was enjoying safe mode. Instead, I called at the first bike shop I came across and asked if they had a bell! I’ve not had one of those on my bike for years. The mechanic went out to the workshop and rummaged around in a drawer that seemed to be full of the things and came back with a choice of two. “You can have any of these for a couple of quid,” he said, “folk usually take them off before they even leave the shop.” I only had about 95p in silver coins but that was “plenty”, he said. “Thank you very much!” said I.

The cycle path back was a dream. I saw folk about to be in my way and I gave a quick “ding” from about 100m. They turned, looked and stood by as I breezed past gently, still enjoying safe mode, and noting to myself that this was definitely something I should do again at least twice a week. The bell comes off easily enough, but I might just leave it on to remind me that I don’t always have to ride at threshold pace. It will be my aide memoire that I always have safe mode if I just want to enjoy the experience of being on the bike in the fresh air.

(Of course, the “Ding Dong” in the title is hardly alliteration in this case, but “Ting Ting” didn’t sound quite right.)

Back on Track

The Periodic Table of T Shirts project suffered a setback this week. Despite my initial delight at the first batch of t shirts, other participants had not been so lucky. Quite a few have been waiting for ten days or more and one had problems with payment, fearing that the security of their website had been compromised. Further investigation shows that reviews are either 5 star or zero; there seems very little middle ground. It just goes to show that you get what you pay for.

I hope that will offer advantages in reliability and also in having separate shops in other countries in Europe and in the US. Their custom t-shirt printing engine is simple and self-evident. Logos should be resized to 20cm wide (8.5 inches). The widest range of colours is available in the men’s standard t-shirt, but colours are limited for the women’s t-shirts. I will continue to look for a reliable supplier with a decent colour range for women.

I have updated the colour descriptions to match the supplier’s catalogue here.


Painting a line in the road

When the going gets tough in class, I might tell my students the story about the man painting the line in the middle of the road. It’s an old joke but it expresses how it feels to be a chemistry teacher sometimes. Let’s call the man Stan.
The foreman checking Stan’s work comes to speak to him. He wants to know why he painted 200m in the first hour, only 50m the second hour and a measly 20m in the third hour. “Well,” says Stan, “I’m getting further and further away from my paint pot.”
I thought about telling this story today but thought better of it. We were measuring the Enthalpy of Neutralisation with some Year 10 students. They added the acid to the alkali, diligently measuring the temperature rise. Results in hand we set about doing the calculation. We went back to review how we worked out the energy released. Not too bad, as we had covered it only the last lesson. Then we needed to work out the number of moles reacting. Let’s go back and remind ourselves how we work out the number of moles of acid in 50ml of 2.0M HCl (not the units we used in class of course). Units of volume need to be reviewed as well of course as we need to convert to dm3. No, we don’t add the number of moles of alkali to this do we, because we look at the equation and see that they react 1:1 and so the number of moles is the same. We spend a little time looking at the equation. With all this done, we just about have time to put the numbers into the equations and work out the answer. What does it all mean? Sadly this is completely lost in the process of reviewing the principles we needed to solve the problem in the first place.
Is Chemistry a difficult subject? It is if you don’t carry your paint pot with you every step of the way. Should I expect my Year 10s to be completely fluent in the language of chemistry and to understand and recall everything they have done so far? I don’t think so, yet. Perhaps if we keep going back they will eventually get it. However, by the time we return to where we started the objective is sometimes lost.

We Are In Business

The first shirt arrived this week and I have been sending logos all around the world as a result of a number of helpful retweets. Here is yours truly modelling the silicon version in lovely “paprika” (which looks a lot more like salmon pink). With another 92 still to be claimed as of today (May 9 2012) there is an element left with your name on it.



About The Cycling Scientist

I enjoy teaching science. I enjoy cycling. I love Twitter and have found it an extremely useful device to keep up with new developments in teaching and learning, science issues and news from Team Sky and others that doesn’t make the mainstream sports news. However, I have used Twitter only to explore the great work of others and I haven’t really contributed much. That has to change!
Recently I took part in the #RealTimeChem twitter event and even won a gold award on St George’s Day for my post! It was great seeing all the posts from practising chemists around the world. I was taken back in time 20 years to my lab days in Southampton and I could even recall the distinctive smell as if I’d just stepped out of the lift and onto the organic chemistry floor! Through Twitter I have also discovered great blogs from chemists just like I had once been (please read that last sentence carefully- I am not suggesting I was a great chemist). It was a revelation; I still felt part of it! These days, running a TLC for the students is a real chore as I do it so rarely and the most complicated NMR spectrum I need to explain is ethanol.
The fact that I am interested in what the chemistry fraternity is blogging about while doing #RealTimeChemistry is cause enough for me to contribute to the general discussion about chemistry, science, environmental issues, teaching and learning. Oh, and cycling! Whether anyone will be interested in what I write is immaterial. It will be good for me!

As Sure as Eggs is Eggs

The College farm is currently thriving under the stewardship of farmer Jon. Committed to sustainability, the farm aims to be self-sufficient and independent of any grants from the College. Recently the parents’ association spent a lovely Sunday afternoon planting trees to replace the hawthorn and sycamore that have been cleared from the valley. They were rewarded with a barbecue serving sausages made with pork reared on the farm and butchered a short distance away. These were quite delicious and even more palatable given the low food miles they required from farm to plate.
The farm also produces free range eggs. Sadly these are not able to be used in the College kitchens as they are not date stamped. The fact that the pupils can watch them being laid is not good enough for the bureaucrats. At present, the cost of a date stamper is well beyond the farm budget so we won’t be seeing our own eggs being served in the dining hall, a mere 400m from the hen house, anytime soon. Luckily the eggs are available to staff and I can attest that they make lovely cakes and are delicious as part of a traditional full English breakfast. I wonder how many other small holdings are falling foul of such regulation- designed to protect us, of course- and watching local restaurants instead buying eggs from far and wide.

The Periodic Table of T-Shirts

OK, here’s the plan. Following on from the fantastic #RealTimeChem event in April 2013, I am promoting a range of unique T-shirts. Each T-shirt represents one of the elements. Get your element T-shirt, send me a picture of you wearing it, and I will make you part of the Periodic Table of T Shirts.

Send your request to @cyclinscience via Twitter quoting the #PeriodictableofTShirts hashtag. Once you have agreed to buy the shirt, you will have 14 days to send me the picture (via @cyclinscience etc).

Let’s do it!