Dr Bunhead's big-bang theory

YOU could easily be forgiven for thinking British science is going down the tubes. (Test-tubes, naturally.) Disappearing in a puff of smoke as if torched by a Bunsen burner.

YOU could easily be forgiven for thinking British science is going down the tubes. (Test-tubes, naturally.) Disappearing in a puff of smoke as if torched by a Bunsen burner. Imploding like a star in the throes of death.

It was 20 years ago that a band of university scientists clubbed together to run a half-page ad in The Times airing their concerns, writes Steven Russell. As word got round, more than 1,500 contributors added their support. Twice as much money was raised as the cost of the venture; the balance being used to found Save British Science.

The body changed its name last year to the less direct Campaign for Science and Engineering, but concerns remain. Only last month its director bemoaned changes in a university funding formula that worsened the relative position of science departments.

The campaign also highlights the number of GCSE science students who are not taught by specialist teachers.


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Then at Easter there was the story in ElectronicsWeekly.com, in which the head of physics at Cambridge University bemoaned the often-disastrous teaching arrangements in schools. There were schools where the physics teacher didn't have a physics degree. University figures suggested the number of teenagers taking A-level physics had dropped by 38% in the last 15 years, and nearly a third of university physics departments had closed.

It all seems quite gloomy.

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But one man who reckons it's not as bleak as one might imagine is Dr Bunhead, aka Tom Pringle, who for the past decade has been working as a freelance science communicator - a sort of scientific performance artist.

He's written and presented material on TV as Blue Peter's resident “extreme scientist”, on Sky One's Brainiac show, and for ITV, Discovery and Disney channels.

You realise he's different when he explains how it all started, and tells you “No-one I knew of had ever exploded a hot water using liquid nitrogen before.”

Quite.

So, is Britain really a nation of trivia-loving dullards or can we still cut the scientific mustard?

Tom's optimistic the tide is turning, but feels teachers have a hand tied behind their backs. If society doesn't give educators the time, equipment and freedom to spark children's imaginations, then don't expect miracles.

He says it's wrong to single out science as an area in crisis, however.

“If you looked at any subject, you would say we are going wrong, because you will find places where it's being delivered in a way that's not engaging kids and they aren't enjoying it - whether it's history, biology, French, whatever.

“Where science does stand out is that it is conceptually difficult. No two ways about that. Science is harder than media studies and this, that and the other.

“Traditionally, the reward for putting in the work to understand the subject was that you had those bloody good science demos - stuff where you'd see water boiling in a cup at room temperature, or you'd see some strange reactions happening, or thermites (heated mixtures of powdered or granular aluminium and powdered iron oxide) shooting out, and big sparks from molten iron. But nowadays, because of the hugely litigious society we live in, there's this paralysis.

“Teachers have a list of things they can do. If they want to do anything outside of that, they have to do additional risk assessment - which is fine. But when you're a really busy teacher, you haven't got time to do that. In addition, you have to take responsibility if anything goes wrong; and that's where the real problem is.

“So what's happening is you're seeing a real decrease in the exciting demos that fire kids up, and it's becoming dry in that sense. So there are no rewards to get kids hooked and pull them through.

“Kids need to do stuff. They need to handle it. They need the reward of sensory stimulation. Science, more than any other subject, has that advantage: It is all about seeing things, especially at that young level. It's all about 'Look at that! What happens? If you heat that up, it melts. This changes colour.' It's very direct and very rewarding in that regard.”

A pause for breath. “I'll tell you another thing that really gets me. I may be wrong, but I do not know of a PGCE course” ­- teacher-training for graduates - “in Britain where science graduates actually have lessons in how to present exciting science demonstrations. You get the philosophy, you get all the stuff about Piaget (the Swiss psychologist who studied the development of knowledge), but you don't get taught how to do a stand-up science demonstration. I certainly never did.”

Despite all that, he reckons science is actually on the rise.

“There's no two ways about it, science departments are closing, but what we are seeing is a new wave of public interest.

“I think science is starting to become a bit more sexy, and I'll tell you what gives me hope. It's the number of science festivals popping up all over the country. And when you get to the festivals, they are mobbed: with kids, with mums, with dads. Grannies and granddads are sat down with the kids and soldering irons.

“You hear this nonsense that kids can't sit down for more than two minutes and concentrate; that they've got goldfish memories. It's nonsense. It's what you feed them. Feed them that kind of stuff, they accept it. When you sit them down and they make their own lie detectors, for instance, or medieval catapults, they'll sit down for three hours.

“We love to make things; it's a natural human desire to want to make things with our hands and get real enjoyment from doing that. All that's happened is kids aren't being exposed to it. They kind of assume, and we assume as adults, that they won't like it, because it's not hi-tech. but give the kids that stuff, and leave them to it, and they are chuffed to bits when they make something.”

His current tour, Dr Bunhead's Recipes for Disaster, winds up in Chelmsford on June 25. Tom blasts his way through a kitchen-ful of everyday objects: including exploding hotwater bottles and the aforementioned pants, making DIY breakfast-bombs and a Frankengherkin, and making superfast chips.

Fascinating science, he says, is all around - and you don't need expensive labs or equipment.

“One of the things I do, and I don't do it enough, is getting round to teachers, showing experiments you can do for 50 pence, which are fantastic and the kids love them and which are safe and show really great science. An initiative like that would be a way the Government could really get a lot of mileage out of a small amount of money.

“There are so many teachers who want someone to show them in a nutshell what to do: that 'this will achieve these objectives, and look how much fun you have.'

“I certainly notice myself when I ran them just how cautious teachers are about handling anything. I think 'If they're cautious about handling it, there's no way they're going to let the kids do this stuff.'”

We're often afraid of getting our hands dirty, too. “And, also, we believe that if something's fun there's something wrong with it! I'm not saying we should have non-stop adrenalin-packed lessons; there are times where there is just this slow, unveiling, building of knowledge on top of knowledge that leads to some conceptual grasp. And even there there are skills and techniques that can be used to deliver that, and which still captivates the kids and makes it relevant to them.”

Yes, he says; that's what we need. “More science outreach: exciting shows in schools to knock the socks off them, especially at young age - and teachers being taught how to do simple things that will make them the star of the classroom. Children love it: 'Did you see what Miss did?'”

After Chelmsford, he'll start putting together a new show that he's taking to Edinburgh. “It's called Volcanohead: 'it's one man, one matchstick, one mission.' The mission is to try and replicate the power and beauty of a volcano using scientific demonstration - lots of big flames and colours and lights.”

And this will doubtless involve putting a small but erupting Vesuvius on your head?

He laughs. “It will involve as close as possible to that as I can generate safely on stage, yes.”

Wouldn't have expected anything less.

Tickets for Dr Bunhead's Recipes for Disaster - at Chelmsford Civic Theatre on June 25 - have, fittingly, been selling like hot cakes, with the matinee sold out and the evening performance heading the same way.

Call the box office on 01245 606505 for the latest situation. It's also worth keeping an eye on two websites - www.bunheadonstage.co.uk and www.bunhead.com - for details of future tours. The latter also has some fun science experiments to try at home.

BEARING in mind that his science shows go with a bang (and a flash and a sizzle), does Dr Bunhead ever come a cropper at the planning stage? After all, he has been known to produce a large flame seemingly out of his head by igniting hydrogen contained in soap bubbles.

“Things do go wrong,” he admits. “I've had the odd thing. I've set fire to my head and I've blown my hand open with potato cannons.

“I make a big point of testing everything at home or in a mate's garden before I do it on stage, so thankfully anything that's gone badly wrong has been at home!

“Just as you would with anything you're experimenting with, as much as you do to try to make things safe, when you're trying them out for the first time you're in a learning process. These are generally things no-one has done before. No-one I knew of had ever exploded a hot water using liquid nitrogen before . . .”

He's been a science enthusiast since childhood.

“When I used to do science as a kid, I used to be so excited. I could not wait to get to classes and used to sit there with baited breath, wondering what the teacher would show or do next. I loved it.”

What was it that appealed?

“Understanding. It was suddenly being able to work things out and making sense of the world. That's what really got me. If you're struggling to find yourself as a teenager, suddenly there was something that made sense. You didn't have to believe in it: it just worked. I loved it for that.

“Suddenly all these things - fluorescent streetlights, say - had a reason why they worked; why they were that colour. It's that moment when your jaw drops. It's quite a historic moment - a 'How?' moment - and if I can achieve that with the show, if there's one just member of the audience, who has that feeling, then I can come away and feel fantastic.

“You know that moment is probably going to affect them far more than many other things.”

Tom Pringle is qualified to teach in secondary schools, but he opted against a career in the classroom.

“I looked at it and thought 'Bloody hell! That's much too much like hard work.' And, also, I really felt I wasn't experienced enough. There were teachers who would walk in the class and the children immediately gave them respect. They said nothing and got on with teaching. Whereas when I went in there I was a bit of a pushover, I think, and was having to deal with this discipline stuff as well. I thought 'What I need is more experience and that intrinsic authority.'

“Now I'm 40 I've got that experience. But I haven't gone back into the classroom. I've been doing this instead. I get to do things exactly the way I want to do them; and having been a bit of a perfectionist all my life, one of the frustrations I had as a teacher was that you hadn't the time or the resources to make the lessons really fantastic.

“And I wanted them to be really fantastic, but you'd have broken equipment, you'd have kids setting off fire alarms during the experiments, you'd have other people taking the gear when you thought you were going to have it, so you couldn't do the experiment you wanted to do, the kids would be disappointed . . .”

The science bit . . .

Tom Pringle was born in Plymouth in 1965

Graduated from Bath University in 1989 with chemistry degree and PGCE teaching qualification

1992: Gets MSc from Liverpool University (in, should you really want to know, surface science and catalysis)

Conducted environmental research at Edinburgh University, gaining M. Phil in chemical engineering

November, 1996: Set up Dr Bunhead's Science Education, offering educational shows, workshops and training

Asked to do guest appearances on BBC TV's children's show Fully Booked

Tom says: “All my life I've been clueless about what job I should do. All I knew was that I didn't want to work for a big organisation, or anyone really. But, more importantly, that I loved teaching, science and showing off.”

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