In October 2013, Miles Hudson flew to the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion to deliver a week of workshops for the British Council’s Science In Schools programme on the theme of astronomy. He worked in seven different schools with school children from 14-19 years old.
My main career is as a school physics teacher, but I also write textbooks, and novels, as well as teaching teachers, and selling my invention – the Best Fit Line Ruler. However, keeping kids interested for three hours at stretch, when English is a language they are just learning, required a lot of hands-on activity. And, of necessity, my capabilities with the French language sky-rocketed!
I split the workshop into three parts, and the first one deliberately threw the students in at the deep end to engage their interest from the outset. Using lenses generously donated for the occasion by Timstar, a supplier of school science equipment, the students had to measure the power of several lenses and then choose two appropriate ones from which to build a telescope. The actual construction was simply rolling up cardboard into a tube and taping a lens at each end. However, to get a clear image, the tricky part is making sure the tube is exactly the correct length (the correct length being the sum of the focal lengths of the two lenses). The most perceptive children made two half tubes and slid one inside the other so that they could adjust until the image was perfect.
Having spied across the school grounds with the home-made telescopes, the second part of the workshop was aimed at working out the age of the Universe. Astronomers can use the red-shift of light from stars and galaxies to determine this age by tracing back the spreading of the galaxies all the way to the Big Bang. The graph and calculations for this took some of the younger students to the limits of their mathematical knowledge, but everyone made a game attempt, and some managed to get answers very close to the current best estimate of 13.7 billion years.
The amount of time needed for the first two sections of the workshop varied greatly, so I deliberately made the final presentation fairly open-ended. The idea was to investigate the possibility of life on other planets. In particular, I highlighted some of the problems associated with communicating with extra-terrestrial intelligences, and the decisions surrounding what information we should be communicating. First we tried to decode Drake’s ‘Arecibo message‘ (sent into space in 1974) and then the kids drew up some messages of their own to send to aliens.
The Science in Schools programme on La Reunion was amazing. Everybody was really welcoming and friendly – they were so happy to have something unusual happen in their schools. Along with the other two presenters on the programme, I was treated like a VIP. This included a special dinner at the island’s observatory, which for me was an amazing experience. It gave me even more to say about telescopes!
Find out more: the British Council’s Science in Schools programme.
Miles Hudson teaches physics at St Leonard’s School in Durham, England. He has been an author of over a dozen textbooks for school-level physics teaching, and is also the inventor of the Best Fit Line Ruler. Additionally he works as an examiner for national examinations in physics, delivers professional development workshops for teachers on behalf of Canada’s Perimeter Institute, acts as a mentor to students at Durham University, and has long been a STEM ambassador. In April 2013, Miles published his first novel, The Cricketer’s Corpse.