Benign Bedlam

“Boring”, remarked one fledgling rebel (much to my amusement) as the teacher commenced Tuesday informing two gathered classes of 9-10 year olds that the adult strangers in the room, with all sorts of equipment and props, were scientists all the way from Southampton, here to provide an exciting day of science. Biting my lip, I managed not to break the hush that descended as the teacher politely admonished the dissenter.

It was (for me) an unusual day. For one, I was up at a perversely early 5-30, so I could make a 7-30 scheduled meet-up before a long drive in order to allow sufficient time on arrival for setting up for a day of science and health-based activities. How come? Well, a couple of weeks back, a former and current colleague – who in between took time out as a schoolteacher, and has now taken on, as one of several remits, a school liaison thing, involving coordinating visits of school students to our research building, and now out-trips to schools by scientists and health workers – popped her head in my door, informed she was a person short for a forthcoming school-based event, and asked whether I’d be willing to help out. After a brief synopsis, and feeling flattered, I willingly assented, admittedly through partly selfish motives, relishing, as one who particularly detests routine, an opportunity to spend a working day doing something different (but not twigging at the time that it was to be on a Tuesday, which is now our tissue collection day, and, consequently, having started in the lab after 5 pm, it’s now nearly 9 pm as I commence drafting this, having just finished work).

So last Friday afternoon, we briefly got our heads together for my brief, which was to give – as one of several activities: heartbeat, nutrition, calcium, vitamin D, lungs and smoking, and half a day drawing (ultimately some impressively surreal) organs on provided T-shirts – an experimental introduction to healthy working lungs. The basic idea: attach balloons to one end of lengths of plastic tubing of various diameters, inflate, and time the deflation. My suggested minor contribution to my leader’s plan: Y-shaped tubes, thus allowing for two balloons, and thus a more ‘representative’ model of trachea branching into two bronchi, into two balloon lungs. However, the potential for fiddling delay, hence bored, disappointed kids, is doubled.

Problems: tubing; attaching balloons leaklessly; will there be a recordable time difference in a repeatable pattern? So, after improvising a few models, securing airtightness (with lab Parafilm) of two balloons, and clear plastic tubing bought from B&Q, to Y-pieces similar to those that feed two pipes into the tissue culture lab suction pumps, and timing deflation, satisfying ourselves that it was workable, we decided that these would be demonstration models (which, I confess, I wasn’t relishing, having made myself quite giddy, following a lunchtime six-mile run, from the exertion of blowing up a pair of balloons through a foot-and-a-half length of the narrowest gauge – the ‘asthmatic model’), before supplying the kids with single tubes, balloons, Parafilm, and timers. Guaranteed to get their attention, because it involves balloons; potentially losing their attention, because it involves balloons.

Now, I confess, I was a little apprehensive. I don’t have kids of my own; I inevitably interact with those of friends occasionally, but my experience is not great. My response to being asked, “Do you like children?” is, “Which one?” I mean, it’s an odd question, isn’t it? They’re people! Some you get on with better than others. (Similar to being asked whether you like scientists.) But this was a new experience, and what concerned was whether they’d warm to me. So, even though we’d worked out an activity plan with built-in time-filling flexibility (repeat the ‘experiment’), I sat down at a table with the first group of five kids, not really sure what I was going to do.

I had to perform the whole thing with nine separate groups. Problem here, while one demo set was sufficient (and easily reparable if balloons burst), it turned out that I only had five sets of tubes for the kids (although around two hundred balloons as insurance). And five was reduced to four after one highly amused mucous machine in the first group had tube-deposited what sailors refer to as a dockyard oyster, lubricated in saliva. This set went in the bin, but the rest would have to be washed through for re-use.

I needn’t have worried. By break time, after three fairly composed groups of inquisitive, amiable kids, I’d started to relax and was quite enjoying it. I was impressed by the repeated “fair test” response to my asking why they thought it necessary to repeat the experiment. The differences in intelligence and personality became marked after the break, however, in the form of two larger groups, predominantly boys, with no interest whatsoever in the (highly flawed) experiment, solely intent on blowing up balloons and demonstrating their lung power. Problem here is that there are inevitably a couple of shy, quiet, but interested ones. I kind of get kids like this – because I was intensely shy at that age. But, in my effort to give them my attention, I lost control of the seemingly tartrazine-fuelled Tasmanian devils climbing up the walls with ever-enlarging balloons. It was in this period that the first one burst – turning all eyes of the suddenly silenced room in the direction of my table ( Shrug ).

But the time past quick enough, and during lunchbreak I reflected on my refreshed admiration for the teachers in having to keep those plates spinning all day, when all I do is cursedly mess around with dumb, un-timetabled, sessile cells. ( Shame on you, boy! ) A couple more rowdy groups followed, and more bursting balloons, and I’m sure the teacher’s disapproving glance was by now directed at me, this apparent incompetent who obviously knows nothing about kids. But the feedback was okay; and, with a copious supply of extra balloons (and the Parafilm, which a few of them considered wonderful stuff) I was fickly popular.

On the drive back I felt knackered, with a sore throat, and ringing ears. But you know what? I hadn’t sworn once. Until I got back in the lab.

8 responses to “Benign Bedlam

  1. Parafilm is wonderful stuff.
    I think it’s great that you did this. Once every five years or so, for every working scientist, engineer and technician, as a choose-your-own-public-service venture, and we’d see a lot more motivated citizens out there. And scientists empathetic for what other things teachers have to do besides teach their subjects.
    My son had borrowed “The Family Man” last night from his school library, and in it, there was an exchange along the lines:
    “Do you like kids?”
    “Yeah, on a case-by-case basis.”
    Which I think sums it up for most of us. I like dogs, except for the ones that bite me. I do like kids, but some more than others. I like people on similar terms.

  2. What a great post! Congratulations to you, Lee. I think all scientists should do this once a month (Oh, OK, once a quarter) and get a “career credit” for doing so. So many scientifically interested (potentially) children are put off studying it because of the dry way it is taught, so removed from what it is like actually doing science. Well done to you. Hope you have the strength for a repeat one of these days.

  3. Great post, Lee. Like you, I return from my (very, very, occasional) encounters with schoolchildren en masse with a great respect for their teachers…! As an audience, adults (and even students, who I think of as “adults-in-training”) are a cinch by comparison.
    A demo that people sometimes used to do for medical students was two balloons of different sizes connected by a T-piece with a tap. The idea was that when you connected the two balloons to one another, the smaller one would collapse while the larger one got even bigger. There is an amateur version of this (with music) on Youtube here. This was often used to demonstrate why smaller alveoli in the lungs were less stable than large ones. You also used to see it done sometimes with soap bubbles.

  4. Second that. Awesome post, Lee! Congratulations on your courage in taking on the little monsters!
    Just kidding. :) But I am curious, as to how the teachers handle the group of unruly, rambunctious or chronically bored kids in conjunction with the few intellectually curious and intelligent ones. I am sure that the same yardstick cannot apply equally to every one of them.

  5. Well, thanks all for the very kind comments. I should point out, though, that I played merely a bit part, and credit should go chiefly to my colleague, Dr. Kath Woods-Townsend, who planned, organised, recruited and liaised the whole thing.
    Yes, more of us should do more of this, with the enticement of ‘career credits’ if necessary (although they’re certainly not a motivating factor for me). I get the impression that ‘Outreach’ seems to be cropping up more as a grant requirement. The teachers impress because it seems they have to continually re-cut the cloth (does that make sense?).
    Thanks, Austin, for that example of the counter-intuitiveness of science. I only mentioned alveoli once on Tuesday, in response to one obviously more interested grouping, but then checked it, as, quite frankly, it ain’t my bag (‘scuse the pun). I was reduced to ‘I don’t know’ more than once.

  6. Well done Lee – you do get points for that sort of dedication. Not sure where from, though, or what you can do with them but you certainly have some!

  7. Great post! I used to do these visits once in a while in Canada (for an outreach organization that Alyssa was much more involved in) and it always made me more excited about science myself.


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