Belfast Telegraph

'Science is not just about old men in glasses with grey hair... girls love it'

A series of short films is being made to encourage children to get involved with science ... and Brownies from Lurgan are the stars of the show

By Stephanie Bell

An empty jam jar, a pot of cream and a lot of shaking was all it took for an eager group of Northern Ireland Brownies to demonstrate to the world just how simple it is to get kids involved in science.

And the presence of a film crew from the Royal Institution (RI) - who had flown in from London especially to capture the girls' experiment for an internet audience - helped whip up more than the usual amount of excitement for the recent Brownie night in Lurgan's Jethro Centre.

Yet, impressively, inspite of the obvious thrill at the prospect of being on camera and the delight at being part of a science experiment, it was a remarkably well-behaved bunch of seven to 10-year-olds who waited patiently on the sidelines as the equipment was being set up.

This was the first time the RI had come to Northern Ireland to make a film for its ExpeRimental series and more than 30 girls from 1st Lurgan Brownies proved the perfect young scientists for the project.

ExpeRimental is a series of short films from around the UK released online every Thursday - both on the RI's website and YouTube - to show how it can be fun, easy and cheap to do science at home with children aged between four and 10.

The idea is to show parents that by using store cupboard essentials rather than buying expensive chemistry kits, they can conduct simple science experiments to instil in their young children a wonder about how the world around them works.

And for the local girls to be part of this new series, it was a huge help that one of their leaders just happens to be a scientist.

1st Lurgan Brownie leader Catherine Ross has been passionate about science all of her life and when she heard about ExpeRimental she couldn't resist approaching the RI to ask if her pack could get involved.

Catherine (39), from Lurgan, who is mum to 10-year-old twins Arwen and Ethan, is a specialist clinical physiologist in Craigavon Area Hospital, working in cardiac ultrasound.

She is a respected figure within the science community in the UK and holds office in a number of professional scientific bodies. These include being a Fellow of the Society for Cardiological Science and Technology (SCST), chair-elect, president of the Northern Ireland branch, and a member of the writing group for National Clinical Guidance for Electrocardiography.

She also sits on the Science Council UK in London and is an ambassador for STEM: Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Surrounded by her eager young Brownies, Catherine was right at home introducing the girls and their experiment on camera.

Thrilled that the children had the chance to be part of this new national drive to bring science to the very young, she says: "I have a strong passion for the promotion of science to Key Stage 1 and 2 and was looking on the internet for suitable resources to use both with my own children and my Brownies when I discovered the ExpeRimental programme.

"It interested me as I had already performed similar experiments with my unit which I had devised myself.

"I felt that it was probably something we could do in a group setting without incurring too much expense and would be a fun experience for the girls as well as introducing them further to the concepts of science.

"I think we are missing a trick by not teaching science in primary school when children are really passionate and inquisitive about everything around them.

"The word 'science' can be scary and we need to dispel the myth of scientists as old men with grey hair and glasses in white coats. Girls especially love it; science is pretty much everything around us and it's about getting children to think a bit differently about things."

Catherine is also keen to show parents that science is not the preserve of the middle-classes and that you don't have to spend money on microscopes and expensive equipment to conduct experiments with your kids at home, which is why being part of ExpeRimental means so much to her. Using just a pot of fresh pouring cream, a bowl, a whisk and an empty jam jar, 1st Lurgan Brownies conducted two experiments.

Split into teams, some girls took turns to whisk the liquid cream and watch how it thickened while others shook cream in a jar and were fascinated to see it turn into butter. The reward for their efforts was getting to spread their freshly made butter and whipped cream onto yummy scones which were eagerly scoffed down at the end of the experiment. The girls' video was then posted on the RI website and YouTube.

The idea that parents are scared or unsure of how to do science at home with children, and concerned they won't know the answers to any inquisitive questions kids might ask, is why ExpeRimental was launched.

Alongside each film is an information sheet with all the details you might need, including a clear explanation of the science at work and some ideas of questions to ask while playing.

All the experiments are about encouraging natural curiosity and investigating the wonders of science while at play, and each activity is designed to be easy to do using only common household objects.

The films are designed to give parents lots of ideas for kids' activities that will help them to explore the world around them.

RI believes that doing hands-on activities with children is the best way to get them exploring the world around them and thinking like future scientists and engineers.

Alom Shaha, a science teacher, writer and filmmaker, is the driving force behind ExpeRimental and he was thrilled to visit Northern Ireland for the first time to feature the Brownies.

"We've been blown away by the welcome we have received in Lurgan from the Brownies," he says.

"The girls have been so enthusiastic and it has been a real pleasure to be here and make our 18th video in Northern Ireland.

"Unlike many online videos purporting to show science experiments you can do at home, our films, and the accompanying online resources, focus more on the approach to doing the activity, rather than on recreating a particular phenomenon and parroting its 'explanation'.

"The emphasis in our films is on how to stimulate children's curiosity and encourage them to start thinking like scientists and engineers.

"The evidence from the feedback we've had so far is that parents don't just want information on 'the science bit', but guidance on how to interact with children while doing the experiment or demonstration.

"We've had parents tell us that it was only when they watched one of our films that they realised that talking and asking questions while doing a science activity were just as important as following the instructions for making a baking soda volcano or launching a balloon-rocket."

The RI has a long history of making science accessible to the public. ExpeRimental has its own motto - "bringing science home" - and Alom adds: "Unlike lectures and other forms of science communication, which often treat the public as a passive audience, this project aims to encourage people to be active in their engagement with science."

  • To find out more about the ExpeRimental programme and to view the videos, visit www.rigb.org/experimental/

What did Brownies think of role?

Jenna Whiteside (10) a pupil of St Patrick's Primary in Maralin: "We have done some science experiments in the Brownies before and they were really fun. I'm very nervous and excited about all the cameras here tonight. I do experiments at home and have watched some TV shows and have my own chemistry set and microscope. It's exciting to think we will be on the internet doing our experiment."

Emily Bassett (8), a pupil of King's Park Primary in Lurgan: "We have done experiments building towers with marshmallows and spaghetti which were fun and it is really exciting to be making our own butter and having it videoed for people to watch."

Arwen Ross (10), a pupil of King's Park Primary: "It is really fun finding out what is going to happen to the cream. We do science experiments all the time at home with our mum. I think it's awesome that we are being filmed for the internet."

Erin Kearney (10), a pupil of King's Park Primary: "It's really exciting to be doing the experiment and having the cameras here. Science is fun and making our own butter is great."

Belfast Telegraph

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