My Left-Field Lesson - Science on the streets

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Use Banksy as inspiration for a `guerrilla' movement in class

Banksy has grown from a little-known graffiti artist, considered a criminal by many, to a household name whose work is so in demand that it is often ripped off walls and put up for auction. His art is designed to get ordinary people on the street to question their everyday reality. He is, therefore, very interesting subject matter for teachers.

You're probably assuming that I am talking about art teachers, who could inspire students through the use of graffiti, so it may surprise you that I am, in fact, a physics teacher. And rather than stencil graffiti or street art, the topic of my Banksy-themed lesson is "guerrilla science". The aim of guerrilla science is to get students to think about and engage with the everyday science around them - and hopefully get shoppers on the local high street to do the same. Here's how it works.

Working with the Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair, I received low-tack A4 stickers, each presenting a unique and interesting fact relating to a Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject. The facts were directly related to students' lives and were presented in accessible ways. For example: "The entire internet weighs about the same as one large strawberry."

First, I set about getting students to evaluate the facts. Were they true? How had they been worked out? The strawberry fact is excellent for this, as it uses Einstein's E=mc2, along with knowledge of how data storage works, to arrive at the "one large strawberry" answer. This would have been an interesting lesson in itself, but then we came to the guerrilla aspect of the lesson: where would this fact best fit on our local high street?

The students decided that the strawberry fact sticker should be attached to a greengrocer's box of berries. Other facts ended up on park benches, bridges and in skate parks. As much as I would like to have done this in the true spirit of Banksy, we actually asked for permission at all the places where we put up facts - I did not want to be arrested.

The effect on students was incredible. They were fascinated by the facts, enthusiastic about finding out their deeper meaning and loved the idea that they would be helping to spread their favourite subject around the local area.

Inevitably, our tactics attracted the attention of the local press: the article was really positive and is now pinned up on the staff noticeboard. Many other students who were not involved in the project have seen it and asked me what I was doing, which has sparked an interest in science that can often be lacking in students.

And what about the local population? Have they taken to science as many take to Banksy? The effects are yet to be properly assessed.

Owen James is a physics teacher at Sutton Grammar School in Surrey, England. The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair will take place at the Birmingham NEC on 13-16 March 2014.

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