Interview with

An insight into effective science demonstration

Before I had my fingers smashed to biscuit crumbs by an errant dodgeball, I arranged an interview with Alom Shaha and Jonathan Sanderson – the brains behind the ScienceDemos website. With over 20 years of experience in science communication, Alom and Jonathan have developed a treasure trove of fantastic science demonstrations and resources. Their videos are used on ITT courses and been used as part of the British Science Association’s Get Set:Demonstrate project. For a good idea of what are all about check out Demo: The Movie.

For those who don’t know, can you give your science background in 140 characters?

I’m a lapsed physicist. I did a degree in physics, and for a very brief time I did some computational chemistry back when that was shiny.

What is your best piece of advice for those wanting to use more demonstrations in their lessons/clubs etc?

Well, I come from the science communication end of all this, so I think mostly about narrative and developing ideas from one demo to the next and take-home points and so on. But in lessons, the big hint is to think very clearly about why you’re doing the demo.

It’s unbelievably easy to fall into the trap of justifying it for yourself, and not in terms of the benefit to the student. Which happens in communications too: as the saying goes, “sell the benefit, not the feature.” has contributed to teacher training and The British Science Association’s Get Set: Demonstrate project

What inspired you to start the ScienceDemo website?

Practical science communication is singularly bad at passing on lessons and learning from one generation to the next – it’s practically bardic. The chemists have done a good job of cataloguing demos (the RSC’s Classic Chemistry Demonstrations is good, and Roesky & Möckel (öckel-Klaus/2481535239/bd) is wonderful), but precious little has been written for other subjects since the nineteenth century. Twenty years ago it struck me as odd that many in the sector simply didn’t know there were better ways of doing things (because they’d never seen them), and we’re still in that situation today. The web hasn’t really changed anything for us yet.

It’s also an opportunity to address some of the challenges I see facing formal education. Alom and I have been making demo films for several years now, and we’re continually running up against the same problems. There’s some excellent education research out there, but there are few routes for bringing that research into classroom practice. That’s a communication problem, and you know what? I’m a communication and media professional. I can do that bit.

So – in this incarnation – is an attempt to have a conversation that pulls in teachers, education professionals and researchers, and science communicators. We think we’d benefit from talking more to each other.

What is your favourite experiment and why?

I’m not sure about ‘experiment,’ but my favourite demo is the spinning straws trick. I’ve done this with thousands of people, and it can be both delightful for four year-olds and the cause of major arguments for fluid dynamics professors. There are also both good and ‘better’ ways of leading people through doing it for themselves, which means it’s useful for discussing performance technique too.

Many of your recent videos have been produced for the Get Set Demonstrate project. Can you outline the purpose of this?

Get Set Demo is part of a broad project around practical work in schools. There’s a new practical hub at the National STEM Centre (, and Get Set Demo is a publicity campaign to support Demo Day – a national day of action the organisers hope will prompt hundreds of teachers to pledge to perform a demonstration to their students.

Our demo films help tie those aspects together – they’re long-term teacher CPD resources, but they also serve to help promote Demo Day.

How do you choose your demonstrations?

In this case, the British Science Association collected suggestions from teachers, and a panel of us, the BSA, and the learned societies (Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, Society of Biology) made the final selections.

Whenever we make CPD films we try to ensure they complement each other as a set. It’s not just about the demo or practical itself, we look at issues of safety, pedagogy and performance, and try to ensure the films prompt thinking and discussion about a range of ideas.

Are there demonstrations you would like to film but can’t/won’t?

In my broadcast days I did some very large-scale and, in hindsight, damned fool things. Trying to make a full-size man-lifting hot air balloon out of newspaper was particularly foolhardy. So no, not many demos properly scare me.

We do have big arguments around these films, but less about the demos themselves and more about the wider objectives. It’s very frustrating to be making a few films here and a few more there, when it’s pretty clear that what’s needed isn’t that sort of ad-hoc approach. We know these films are used in PGCE courses, we know they’re of lasting value to teachers, and we’ve honed the approach over a period of years.

We can’t afford to keep making these films in small batches, and I think pretty soon we’re going to either find somebody who’ll fund fifty of them… or we’ll have to give up entirely.

Why should people get in contact with StoryCog, your science film making company?

Oh, that’s a leading question!

We’re good film-makers, but that’s a small part of what we do. Alom and I have learned to wield cameras and edit systems since we left broadcast – what we’re really good at is coming up with approaches to video, building teams, training people, coaching editorial thinking, and all the myriad other things that people too often ignore.

Hitting record on a camera is the obvious bit of film-making, but truly worthwhile films involve a heap of work leading up to that point. I’m continually amazed by how many companies don’t bother, and deliver pointless films which have no impact.

Contact us early enough and we can help steer you through the process.

Why should people get engaged with practical science?

We explore this at some length in Demo: The Movie a 30-minute documentary film about the use of demos in the science classroom. It’s another free teacher CPD resource, but it’s much less po-faced than the individual demo films. It’s trying to do many things – not least, give teachers something to feel good about – but the central thrust of it is about the nature of science, and how practical work can get us closer to how science works.

People sometimes say that science is all about making and testing predictions. And that’s true, to an extent. But perhaps even more fundamentally it’s about observing how the world behaves. Demonstrations, I believe, help us learn to look at the world more closely, and more deliberately.

Demo: The Movie was released in early March. You’ll find it, and accompanying teaching notes, at

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe Blog is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

aaaannd….I’m back in the room!

I broke my finger playing dodgeball a couple of months back. My little pinky finger. This little finger on my right. I didn’t know how much you needed a pinky finger until it was taken away.


My Frankenstein finger! It is exactly as painful as it looks.


I’m back now and eager to carry on posting. I have an interview, new practical and lots more fast fixes to share over the coming weeks.


Until then, I thought I would share a resource I made for my new A-level biology class:

Remember, practical work doesn’t just mean doing experiments and investigations. It means giving your students something active to do. This web resource shows information in lots of different ways, including diagrams, equations and videos. There is a quick quiz and a poll halfway through. Think of it as an interactive textbook.

Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective

Thoughts for my return to th classroom. I’ve always struggled balancing my marking and this is a good place to start. Practical advice!



Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective

Context and Motivation

I’m feeling relieved, smug and virtuous because I’ve just marked some books. It feels good because a) it was overdue and, hence, was having that ‘albatross’ effect; b) for a change I am looking forward to going into my class tomorrow without feeling guilty and most importantly c) because I feel like I’ve renewed a connection with my students’ learning in a way that is hard to do any other way; I’ve done something worthwhile which always feels good.

To be absolutely clear, I am a Dylan Wiliam devotee; you won’t catch me doing marking slavishly because someone tells me I should or because it looks good; I only do marking if I think I need to – and this only if I think it will make a difference. I expect my staff to have the same attitude. I’m convinced…

View original post 1,547 more words

Fast Fix – Visualising Plant Cells

Use red onion when teaching students how to use a microscope.

Prepared slides are expensive and easily broken, particularly by excited year 7s. Before you teach your students how to mount a slide with iodine and cover slips, teach them how to focus a microscope using red onion.

Red onion:

  • Peels very easily;
  • Requires no staining;
  • Are much smaller than white onions (less wastage).

How do you teach microscopy?

“People keep saying ‘science doesn’t know everything!’

Well, science knows’ it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it would stop

Dara o Briain

(Or would it…most scientists I know don’t know when to stop)

Fast Fix – Attention Whistle

Use a whistle to get attention in noisy practical lessons

Practical lessons can be (should be?) noisy places. They are filled with discussion, roaring bunsens, crashing cars or squelching organs. A loud blast on a whistle is an instant, low effort and effective way of regaining attention.

If this isn’t for you, try using other non-verbal cues. You should never have to shout for attention in a class.  Your voice is your most important tool and you must look after it.


  • Whistle (really you will be surprised how well it works)
  • Raising your hand and counting down from five on your fingers
  • Clapping out a rhythm
  • A digital klaxon

How do you get attention in your practical lessons?

Fast Fix – Digital timers

Use digital timers (projected on your smartboard) to maintain pace in your practical lessons

A fullscreen, countdown timer helps focus your students on their work, and makes sure the teacher doesn’t let a practical drag on too long. Most smartboard software comes with integrated digital timers (my favourite was SMARTs Notebook software). If you can’t use these, there are plenty of free digital timers available online:

I usually ask my pupils which funny alarm they want used. Just remember to download one to your computer in case of internet black outs.

Fast Fix – Measured Doses

Ask your science technician to set out your practical equipment with pre-measured/weighed ‘doses’ of reagents. These can be laid out in separate containers which your equipment managers can collect and bring back to their group. This has a number of benefits:

  • Speeds up the practical – particularly where you have limited numbers of balances or measuring cylinders;
  • Prevents queuing, and the poor behaviour that goes with it;
  • Reduces the risk of spillages – this is particularly important with nastier chemicals
  • Massively reduces waste and cross-contamination – pupils often pour excess reagent down the drain;
  • Equipment is more easily tidied away.

It is important that your lab technician is given precise instructions, and given plenty of notice. This preparation takes time, but will benefit your lesson.

Measuring out chemical volumes/quantities is an important skill in science. Make sure that you give your students opportunities to learn accurate, safe and skilful measuring technique. But this can be a lesson (objective) all in itself, where you are not so worried about the results of an investigation


Baker’s Half Dozen (31/01/14)

In this regular feature, I list my 6 favourite practical science links from the past fortnight. Only five really got me excited this fortnight! If you have used or seen a great practical resource, let me know by commenting or by tweeting me @TFScientist

A cheap and easy biology practical (Image courtesy of BioMed Central, CC-BY)

  • Subject: Biology (Orange Juice Challenge)
  • Log in?: No
  • Source: Twitter via BioMed Central (@BioMedCentral)
  • Author: BioMed Central Blog
  • Details: Cheap and easy biology practicals are surprisingly difficult to find. This is a great investigation into how our eyes can fool our taste buds. All you need is some juice, food colouring and the protocol from the bottom of the link.


  • Subject: Chemistry (Demonstrations only)
  • Log in?: No
  • Source: Twitter via National STEM Centre (@NtlSTEMCentre)
  • Author: Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Details: This is a real chemistry treasure trove! This site contains 100 demonstrations that GCSE pupils are not able to perform themselves. Remember that a demonstration should have a clear purpose, and not be included just to waste a few minutes of lesson time.

iPad screen-capture

  • Subject: Practical Science
  • Price?: Free (from iTunes or the Apple App store. Not on Android)
  • Source/author: Science House Foundation (@sciencehousefdn)
  • Details: Over 80 videos of science experiments and demonstrations. A great collection that even shows you how to make your own versions of expensive equipment, for a fraction of the cost. Well worth having on your iPhone or iPad.

Using pipe cleaners and pony beads to make DNA (Image courtesy of Hayley Thompson)

  • Subject: Biology (DNA Modelling and Replication)
  • Log in?: Yes (Free)
  • Source and Author: Twitter via Hayley Thompson (@HThompson1982)
  • Details:A simple way to model the structure of DNA. Even better, you then use these models to teach DNA replication – the students must figure out how this structure might replicate. A great independent learning idea that is simple and attractive. Perfect! Resource comes with a video, instructions on how to make the model and a fantastic accompanying powerpoint presentation.

  • Subject: Science Numeracy
  • Log in?: No
  • Author: Rob Butler (@cleverfiend)
  • Details: Not strictly a practical resource, but a resource useful for practicals. Last Monday, ASEchat (every monday from 8pm!) focussed on numeracy in science. Practical science is a great way of teaching numeracy, particularly with skills such as serial dilutions, graphing, lines of best fit and scaling. Rob provides his take on the chat, with a full transcript available at the bottom of the page