Thrills and fizz back on timetable

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Remember the smell of hydrogen sulphide up your nose? A generation of students missed it, but now it's back, writes Douglas Blane

Chemistry sets used to be a great first step into science, with their bottles of innocent-looking powders and potions that did wonderfully unexpected things when mixed together. They fizzed. They bubbled and boiled. They gave off gases that smelt like the worst farter in class.

Then health and safety got in on the act, pointing out that chlorine and hydrogen sulphide are poisonous and naked flames and hydrogen might blow up bedrooms. So, a generation of children missed the magic of doing science themselves.

Now, Edinburgh International Science Festival is bringing back some of those lost thrills in this International Year of Chemistry with its new show, Fizz, Boom, Bang.

"I just sat in on it with the Primary 7s and it was almost too much excitement for them," says teacher Claire Taggart, as the festival science communicators set up at Ibrox Primary in Glasgow.

"The chemical reactions, the safety goggles, the secondary school equipment - they loved it all."

Personal safety is paramount, presenter Charlotte Govan points out at the start of this session with P6. "Don't eat. Don't drink. Do wear your goggles and gloves. If you spill anything, wipe it up, please."

Even in this practical workshop, there is an element of science show. "Welcome to the exploratory laboratory," Charlotte says. "That's us. We travel around the world looking for awesome materials that do cool things."

"We got a new brief this morning from headquarters," says presenter Gillian MacNee. "It came in this gold envelope, which we'll open and read to you."

The challenge is to discover a combination of liquids and solids that will create foam to support a cork in a beaker for 30 seconds, she explains. But before letting young brains loose, they need to be primed with prior knowledge. So Charlotte pops a seltzer tablet into water and, as it fizzes, chats about other everyday chemical reactions such as metals rusting and bitten apples going brown.

"What can you see, hear or feel when a chemical reaction takes place?" Gillian asks the young scientists, getting a range of good answers that include foam, light, heat and change of colour.

For the next half-hour, the class, in groups of three, search for the right mix to crack the challenge. Initially confident counts of "one, two, three..." peter out around the room, as seemingly buoyant corks sink disappointingly. Ideas and suggestions fizz, along with the liquids.

"Let's stir it hard."

"Try putting the powder in first."

"Don't throw the cork at it - place it gently."

It looks and sounds a little chaotic, but that's because there's a lot being done and more being talked about. All the pupils are on task and making progress. Counts steadily increase, until one group reaches 30 and gives a loud cheer. Good science doesn't have to be silent.

"We used one scoop of powder and 30ml of liquid C," explains Kalyan Aryal, as colleague Chloe Gardener writes this on the form provided.

As all the groups make progress, Gillian, a chemist herself, asks them to do two things scientists must do - write down what they've done and repeat the experiment when it works. The presenters then introduce a second set of tests, using a pH indicator that changes colour with acidity. They wrap things up with presentations to class by a pupil from each group and a demonstration of a catalysed reaction that sends out seriously snaky foam.

There is a great deal of good science in the workshop, such as thinking ahead, being systematic, keeping records and the most creative and essential aspect - which youngsters readily do, but traditional science teaching omits - hypothesis generation and testing, also known as guessing what's going on and seeing if you're right.

This is only the third week of the new show, so parts are still being tweaked, Gillian says. "We've separated foam and indicator sections and now give a few more instructions. The version for P4-5 is similar but more directed, while the P1-3 show is different, more about mixing."

The verdict of the Ibrox Primary 6s on their first taste of real chemistry is highly favourable. "We have learnt how to work as a team," says Chloe. "We do that in other subjects, but not science. We don't get science like this in school."

"I wish we had it every week," Kalyan says. "I liked doing all the tests. I liked mixing the chemicals to get potions and eruptions."

International Year of Chemistry:

Science quiz

What is the Blue Marble?

How many countries have wild tigers?

- Honeybee wings beat how many times a minute?

- How many chemical substances does coffee contain?

- What was the first circuit board used for?

- What is a nebula?

- How many elements make up DNA?

- What is pharmacology?

- How many stars are in the Milky Way?

- What was the first life on Earth?

All answers on the EISF website, by refreshing the page

Generation science

As the educational arm of Edinburgh International Science Festival, Generation Science delivers performances and workshops to schools from January to May each year.

"In 2010, we engaged with more than 56,000 pupils in 553 schools across 30 local authorities. Our aim is to improve the teaching of science in Scottish primary schools and support teachers to deliver the curriculum. We make learning and teaching science fun," the EISF says.

Generation Science works with schools on science weeks, transition projects or individual science days. T: 0131 553 0321.

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