Advent calendar 2010 Inspire article

Welcome to the Science in School advent calendar for 2010: a daily collection of scientific ideas and teaching activities related to Christmas, winter and the end of term.

1 December 2010: Parcels

For many of us, Christmas is associated with a pile of wrapped parcels lying under the Christmas tree. What could be inside them?

In the run-up to Christmas, why not design your own mysterious parcels – not presents, but ‘black boxes’ in which something is hidden. Can your students use their knowledge of science and their investigative skills to work out what’s inside?

Here are some examples of what to put in the boxes, but you could also try your own ideas. Or why not get one class of students to design black boxes for another class?

For black box ideas to get students aged 15-18 to think about electric circuits, see:

Onderová L (2009) Physics: a black box? Science in School 12: 40-43

For black boxes to get younger students thinking about science, see:

Tifi A, Natale N, Lombardi A (2006) Scientists at play: contraptions for developing science process skills. Science in School 2: 20-23

Tifi A, Natale N, Lombardi A (2006) Scientists at play: teaching science process skills. Science in School 1: 37-40

Annie Chien and Allison Godshall describe a black box activity involving tubes and different coloured water.

Coral Clark from the Resource Area for Teaching, a US online collection of teaching resources, offers some simple black box ideas.

What else could you use black boxes for in lessons? For example, how might you use (waterproof) black boxes to get your students to investigate density? Why not share your ideas with other Science in School readers using the comment function at the end of this page?

2 December 2010: Colours

Santa Claus’s red clothes, a green Christmas tree, golden Christmas tree decorations – we associate particular colours with Christmas. Perhaps now is a good time to investigate the science of colour in lessons?

For example, you might like to try an experiment in which three different pieces of cloth are placed in a single dye bath, and each comes out a different colour. Magic or just chemistry? See the instructions on the website of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry.

You can also create your own pigments. Gianluca Farusi explains how to create the historic pigment alizarin from the madder plant, and how to recreate the ink that medieval monks used. See:

Farusi G (2006) Teaching science and humanities: an interdisciplinary approach. Science in School 1: 30-33

Farusi G (2007) Monastic ink: linking chemistry and history. Science in School 6: 36-40

Many pigments come from plants – most of us know about making pH indicator solution from red cabbage, for example. Here, however, are two more unusual activities to use the solution for – investigating the activity of the enzyme urease, and microscale chemistry experiments. See:

Lorenc A (2008) Investigating the action of urease. Science in School 9: 39-44

Kalogirou E, Nicas E (2010) Microscale chemistry: experiments for schools. Science in School 16: 27-32

Colour is the visual perception of light at different wavelengths. To learn about how chemistry and light interact to create colour, energy and more, see:

Douglas P, Garley M (2010) Chemistry and light. Science in School 14: 63-68

To investigate light and colour for yourself, visit the US Annenberg Media’s website, which offers three simple online demonstrations. Choose between analysing the dots of a colour picture, investigating coloured shadows and analysing the spectrograph of a star.

Having tried it out yourself, why not find out how astronomers use the spectra of quasars (distant galaxies) to investigate the history the Universe? See:

Lopes A, Boffin, H (2009) The first light in the Universe. Science in School 13: 48-52

Analysing the spectrograph of a star is fascinating, but it’s also possible to investigate the colours hidden in objects closer to home – with the aid of a simple homemade spectrometer. See:

Westra MT (2007) A fresh look at light: build your own spectrometer. Science in School 4: 30-34

Colour is an important part of any science curriculum. How do you address it? What resources have you found helpful? Do share your tips with other Science in School readers, using the comment function at the end of this page.

3 December 2010: Jokes

Towards the end of term, there can be time to relax the curriculum a little bit and have some fun, maybe tell some (science-related) jokes. Perhaps your students could have a competition to find (or invent) their own science jokes or poems, or give a stand-up comedy (science) show to the rest of the school. Here is small selection of our favourite science jokes.

Two atoms run into each other in the street.
“Are you OK?”
“No, I’ve lost an electron.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive!”

Biology is the only science in which multiplication is the same thing as division.

A chemist walks into a pharmacy and asks the pharmacist, “Do you have any acetylsalicylic acid?”
“You mean aspirin?” asked the pharmacist.
“That’s it, I can never remember that word.”

Percy was a scientist,
Alas, he is no more.
For what he took for H2O
Was H2SO4

What did one lab rat say to the other?
“I’ve got my scientist so well trained that every time I push the buzzer, he brings me a snack.

Apparently, Einstein’s favourite limerick was:
There was an old lady called Wright
Who could travel much faster than light.
She departed one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip together. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep.

Some hours later Holmes woke up, nudged his faithful friend and said, “Watson, I want you to look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.” Holmes said, “And what does that tell you?”

Watson pondered for a minute or so, then answered, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day today. What does it tell you?”

Holmes was silent for about 30 seconds and then said, “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

And here is a website which not only lists some science jokes, it even provides explanations of the science involved.

Are your favourite science jokes on the list? If not, you can share them with the other Science in School readers, using the comment function at the end of this page.

4 December 2010: Presents

Christmas is a great time of year, when we get presents from our closest friends and family. Finding the perfect gift can be difficult and frustrating. So why not make it yourself?

You could teach your students to make personalised gifts using science. They can learn about the properties of materials using recycled materials, about scents, fire, oil or much more. They could make a keychain, a pendant, candles, perfume, or lamps – the possibilities are endless.

Did you know that you can recycle, make gifts and teach your students about materials science all at the same time? All you need are polystyrene cups, a small amount of acetone and a lot of creativity.

Candles make wonderful gifts and are perfect for the winter holidays. Have a candle-making workshop in class, and teach your students about fire and materials.

On a cold winter evening, a hot, scented bath can be a real treat. With some help from London’s Science Museum, you can show your students to make bath fizzers and see which one fizzes (and smells) best.

Why not return to the Sixties and have your students make their own lava lamp and learn how it works? See: and

Perfume can be a good gift at any time of year. You could teach your students how to make their own perfume and learn what agents keep the perfume from evaporating so quickly.

Children enjoy sending notes – especially secret notes. Why not teach them to make invisible ink that they can use to write their Christmas cards with?

What other gifts could you make using (or teaching) science? Why not share your ideas with other Science in School readers using the comment function at the end of this page?

5 December 2010: Snowflakes

The first snowfall has reached most of Europe – causing chaos in many countries – so this would be a good time to look at snowflakes…

The Koch snowflake is a mathematical curve and one of the earliest fractal curves to have been described, in 1904 by Swedish mathematician Helge von Koch. Discuss the topic in class and generate your own interactive iterations online.

You can also download a Koch snowflake wallpaper for your computer.

If the snow around your school has already melted, you can create your own edible ‘snow’ using kitchen materials.

You can also create your own ‘snowflakes’ – growing crystals of sodium borate on pipe cleaners.

To learn more about crystals, and grow your own (from protein, in this case) see:

Cornuéjols D (2009) Biological crystals: at the interface between physics, chemistry and biology. Science in School 11: 70-76

Blattmann B, Sticher P (2009) Growing crystals from protein. Science in School 11: 30-36

Snowflakes are, of course, formed from water. Scientists at ILL study water in many ways, for example water dynamics in cells or hydrogen bonds, the basis of the water molecule. See:

Cicognani G (2006) Defying the laws of physics? Science in School 1: 19-21

Zaccai G (2009) The intracellular environment: not so muddy waters. Science in School 13: 19-23

Did you know that it doesn’t only snow above ground, but also in the deep sea? ‘Marine snow’, composed of phytoplankton, and the chemical composition of its ‘blizzards’ help scientists predict climate change. See:

Grigorov I (2006) Bringing global climate change to the classroom. Science in School 3: 56-59

If you prefer real snow, why not catch and preserve real snowflakes, with the help of hairspray? This website also explains how to build a simple snow gauge.

Enjoy this collection of primary-school teaching ideas around snowmen including games, craft instructions, songs, book recommendations and much more.

And if that isn’t enough for snow fans, Jerrie Cheek from Kennesaw State University also offers a wonderful collection of snow-related activities.

Ray Zahab became very, very familiar with snow – during his trek to the South Pole in January 2009: 33 days through the snow, breaking the record for the fastest unsupported trek across Antarctica, and raising awareness and money for children’s environmental education. He describes his trip in an online lecture.

As Ray knows, snow can be dangerous in certain circumstances – for example, in an avalanche. Find out about the latest in avalanche research, including many online lectures.

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center has a wonderful website containing a wealth of snow facts and a range of educational resources.

For further interesting facts about snow, see Joe Rojas-Burke’s ‘The science of snow’ online article.

And if you’re still thirsty for more, you might like Jon Nelson and Mark Cassino’s award-winning book The Story of Snow. Get a glimpse from Jon’s blog.

Those of you who are already fed up with snow this winter might like to consider that during the formation of the Solar System, it snowed for millions of years! To find out about the role of snow in the formation of planets, see:

Jørgensen UG (2008) Are there Earth-like planets around other stars? Science in School 2: 11-16

6 December 2010: Santa Claus

The 6 December is St Nicholas Day. St Nicholas, a 6th century saint, is also the original Santa Claus. Familiar as a rotund, jolly man with a white beard and a warm red suit, he could also be an ideal way to introduce science into your science lessons.

Firstly, there are quite a lot of science materials on the Internet that deal directly with the science of Santa Claus. Many of you will already be familiar with the calculations that demonstrate, according to the laws of physics, that Santa could not possibly deliver so many presents in one night.

The Research Council of Norway, however, recruited four scientists (astrophysicist Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard, professor of physics Gaute Einevoll, professor of mathematics Nils Lid Hjort and elf expert Ane Ohrvik) to investigate further. Could Santa be using an ion shield?

Dr Larry Silverberg is working along similar lines – he suspects that Santa’s sleigh uses technologies that we are not yet able to recreate in the laboratory.

Despite all this technology, the team of Plus magazine reckon that Santa could occasionally get confused. Can you use maths to help him work out who gets which present?

What about less direct ‘uses’ of Santa Claus in the science classroom? Let’s consider what we know about him. Well, he’s generally considered overweight, so perhaps you could introduce the topic of obesity and how to tackle it, using the following articles:

Krotscheck F (2010) Using cutting-edge science within the curriculum: balancing body weight. Science in School 16: 19-26

Wynne K, Bloom S (2007) Oxyntomodulin: a new therapy for obesity? Science in School 6: 25-29

Then of course there are Santa’s faithful reindeer. They may sound like the creatures of legend, but in fact there is a surprising amount of research being done on reindeer. For example, to learn more about circadian rhythms in reindeer and other organisms, see:

Zanquetta M et al. (2010) Body weight, metabolism and clock genes. Diabetology and Metabolic Syndrome 2: 53. doi: 10.1186/1758-5996-2-53 (Note that the article is freely available.)

Unsurprisingly as the owner of a herd of reindeer, Santa Claus is popularly agreed to live at the North Pole. With the melting of the polar ice caps, he is no doubt deeply concerned about climate change – so I’m sure he’s been following our series of climate change articles.

Finally, if you prefer something more hands-on for the end of term, how about getting your students to compete to build strongest version of Santa’s sleigh? Each group of students needs a piece of A4 paper, a piece of A4 card, 1 m of sticky tape, and a certain number of art straws (bendy drinking straws). Their sleigh should be large enough to hold Santa (a doll) and some presents, and should be supported by runners on each side. The winning sleigh is the one that holds the most presents (100 g objects) without collapsing. (Thanks to Frances Wing from for the idea.)

7 December 2010: Drugs

In many countries, Christmas is traditionally associated with drugs: perhaps a glass of mulled wine on a cold evening, some sherry left out for Santa, maybe even a cigar after Christmas dinner. Alcohol and nicotine are, of course, legal drugs in many countries, but what about other, more controversial drugs? How can they be responsibly discussed in lessons, and what about the science behind drug use and abuse?

The UK project ‘I’m a scientist’ has developed a free debate kit for schools, covering the biology of cannabis and the question of whether it should be legalised. You might also like some of the other debate kits available on the project website, about in vitro fertilisation (IVF), stem cells and antimicrobial cleaners. Further debate kits for schools are available from the Democs website, covering neuroscience, vaccination policy, stem cell research, climate change, GM food and animal experimentation. Visit and search for ‘schools’.

Returning to the topic of drugs at school, the Big Picture website offers lesson plans, articles and other resources about drug addiction.

Drugs, even hallucinogenic ones, are not only used recreationally, but also in medicine. Angelika Börsch-Haubold investigates the pharmacology and history of hallucinogenic plants in medicine (and witchcraft). See:

Börsch-Haubold A (2007) Plant hallucinogens as magical medicines. Science in School 4: 50-55

In your lessons, you might want to extend the discussion of drugs to cover licensed medicines. The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry offers an online game for students aged 14-16 to design their own medicine.

Once we’ve designed a drug, how do we test it? To find out more, see:

Garner S, Thomas R (2010) Evaluating a medical treatment. Science in School 16: 54-59

Finally, for the end of term staff party, why not treat your colleagues to a DNA cocktail? See:

Madden D, Schollar J (2006) A cocktail of nucleic acids: celebrating the double helix. Science in School 1: 89

8 December 2010: Christmas decorations

What would traditional Christmas be without snow, fairy lights, wreaths, candy canes and Christmas trees? These decorations make Christmas all the more special. Before the winter holidays, why not get your students to make festive decorations for their homes while experimenting and learning science?

One of the most important and international Christmas decorations is the Christmas tree. But, have you noticed that, unless your tree is artificial, by the time Christmas arrives, most of the needles have fallen and the tree looks lifeless? Why not bring in Christmas chemistry and teach your students about plant nutrients and protection by making this Christmas tree preservative?

What would a Christmas tree be with no ornaments, though? Teach your students about crystals while making some beautiful ‘snowflakes’. See these instructions and an explanatory video.

Your students could even grow their own crystal Christmas tree.

Have you ever wondered why corn ‘pops’ when you make popcorn? Why not teach them about the science of popcorn while making popcorn garlands to decorate their Christmas tree? See these instructions for making the garlands and this video.

You could even use popcorn to investigate kinetic molecular theory, or try out other ideas for using popcorn in the classroom.

If you’re not keen on popcorn, you could make a string of Christmas ‘lights’ – using chromatography.

Or you could make festive snow globes in the chemistry lab.

As we begin the countdown to Christmas, we mustn’t forget to hang our stockings in front of the fireplace. Why not remind your students of the importance of recycling by turning paper bags into Christmas stockings?

Finally, to decorate the table at Christmas, you could get your students to build a Christmas candle carousel – and teach them about the physics behind its movement.

9 December 2010: Heat

Whether you spend the holidays curled up next to the fireplace or barbecuing on the beach, fire and warmth are holiday essentials. They’re also great for starting discussions about the science of heat in the classroom.

To get students’ brains warmed up, here’s a puzzle: given a plate of water, an empty cup, a match, and a cork, how can all the water be transferred to the cup without touching or moving the plate? Here are the answer and explanation.

For a deeper understanding of fire, you can explore the science of combustion, which warms our fireplaces and barbecue pits. Endothermic and exothermic reactions – including some involving combustion – can be performed in the classroom using these ideas.

A stunning use of fire can result in an amazing optical illusion.

If you fancy something more hands-on, you might like to investigate thermodynamics by getting your students to build a latex motor, see:

Eidenberger L, Gollner H, Altendorfer F, Eidenberger C (2009) The latex motor. Science in School 13: 34-38

Warm holiday drinks like hot cocoa and cider are delicious, but they can also have subtle psychological effects. Learn about the link between temperature and trust.

Though we like warm drinks when we’re cold, the human body is adept at maintaining its own optimal temperature. But in winter, it may heat up to fight off infections. This website features activities that explore homeostasis and the function of fever.

One way to produce heat is through exothermic reactions. To investigate these and other chemical reactions on a very small scale, see:

Kalogirou E, Nicas E (2010) Microscale chemistry: experiments for schools. Science in School 16: 27-32

Despite your body maintaining its temperature, your hands may feel cold during the holidays. Luckily, you and your students can make your own hand warmers, for yourselves and as gifts. You could either try microwaveable cushions full of rice or be more adventurous, with super-saturated, super-cooled sodium acetate solution. Both versions are reusable.

If you’re sweltering in the southern hemisphere summer, and these ideas seem too hot, why not cool off with some snowy suggestions from 5 December?

10 December 2010: Music

From carol singers on porches to choirs performing Handel’s Messiah, this time of year is traditionally celebrated with music. Music can also be a fun, interactive topic for introducing the science into the classroom.

While each country has its own Christmas carols, some carols have become popular worldwide. You and your students could sing along to the original German version of ‘Silent Night‘ (‘Stille Nacht’) on Youtube. You can also find it in many other languages, including:


Why does music affect us so profoundly? Some neurologists devote their time to studying the emotional effects of music using brain imaging techniques.

This stunning video from the World Science Festival shows what can happen with a little instruction and an enthusiastic audience.

But music is not necessarily enjoyed by all. Some people are born with or develop a condition called amusia, in which they cannot recognise music as being music, as discussed by neurologist Oliver Sacks in this video.

How do we hear music in the first place? Explore the inner workings of the ear with this interactive animation.

And for some classroom activities on hearing, suitable for young children, see:

Stetzenbach W, Stetzenbach G (2010). Physics in kindergarten and primary school. Science in School 14: 48-53

Music can also be a surprisingly effective way to get students engaged in other kinds of science. Caroline Molyneux explains how it helps her teach:

Molyneux C (2007). Using music in the science classroom. Science in School 5: 32-35

Sometimes it’s difficult to listen to music without joining in. So why not teach your students about the maths and physics of music while inviting them to make their own musical instruments? The activities section of this website features several other fun ways to explore physics and sound.

More surprisingly, relationships between music and language are revealed and explored in this engaging, dynamic podcast.

Another podcast by the same group explores why songs get stuck in our heads, and provides suggestions on how you and your students can get rid of such ‘earworms’.

Music is composed in all sorts of interesting ways, and compositions are often inspired by science. See how you and your students can participate in the ‘evolution’ of music.

Finn Peters took EEG recordings of his own brain, converted them to sound, and used them in his jazz music. Can you and your students think of ways to use science to make music?

Though most people only like to hear Christmas carols at this time of year, music can be incorporated into the classroom all year round. Have you used music to enhance your lessons? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

11 December 2010: Cooking

Christmas is a time for sweet things, homemade or bought. They flow of out of Christmas stockings, they fill the tables and the biscuit tins. Who doesn’t enjoy baking and eating during the holidays? Cooking is really an artistic variation of science. With it, you can explain chemical reactions and nutrition to students. Try out some of our suggestions for some fun, science-filled and yummy activities.

Candy, candy, candy! Your students will learn about crystal formation by making rock candy in this delicious activity.

Can sugar be made sweeter than it already is? See these instructions on how to achieve this and an explanation of why it works.

Whether it’s in front of the fireplace at Christmas or out camping on a summer night, roasted marshmallows are a wonderful treat. Make ‘monster mallows’ with this easy experiment by the Exploratorium and have your students guess what happens when marshmallows are microwaved.

If, like me, you don’t like marshmallows, perhaps you prefer chocolate? This pair of articles introduce the chemistry of chocolate and provide a great chocolate-tasting science activity for the classroom:

Thakerar D (2006) Chocolate’s chemical charm. Science in School 2: 59-61

Schollar J (2006) The chocolate challenge. Science in School 2: 29-33

Taking advantage of this sweet time of year, you could have your students learn about chromatography in this fun-filled activity. You can do paper chromatography using a coffee filter to separate the pigments in coloured candies.

And speaking of colour, why do things glow in the dark? Teach your students about fluorescence by making glowing jelly.

When you’ve finished eating jelly, why not have your students make edible DNA (from fruit) to munch on during the holidays while learning about DNA? See the activity and download the necessary worksheet.

If you’d prefer to investigate the real thing, you could get your students to extract DNA from peas. See:

Madden D (2006) Discovering DNA. Science in School 1: 34-36

Who knew fruit and vegetables could be so much fun? Here’s how to teach your students about preserving food, with a fun activity that they can recreate at home during the holidays.

Is it snowing where you live? How about making ice cream out of snow? Here are several recipes.

You could also take the opportunity to teach your students about nutrition while baking. Here are a wide range of laboratory activities.

In many countries, baking cookies is traditional during Advent – and it’s also a great way to teach science, for example with these baking activities.

Or you could try this Christmas chemical activity: get your students to identify the mystery powders and help Mrs Claus to save the Christmas baking.

For many people, eating pie at Christmas time is a must. With this creative activity, your students can learn about pi using pie.

Finally, did you know that you can teach students about icebergs with sweets? Why not get your students to create an edible Antarctica while learning about the continent and its ice?

12 December 2010: Games

Many of us associate Christmas with games and fun – and there’s no reason why the fun should stop at the classroom door. In the run-up to Christmas, you could try creating your own science games: can your students use their knowledge of science, their creativity and their investigative skills to devise some exciting games to help them learn? Here are some ideas for science games to help make science lessons even more enjoyable.

For example, you could play science scrabble – like normal scrabble but with extra points for science-related words. Or use some more complicated rules.

Or you could create your own science board game, adapted to your own classroom needs.

You could even download some templates for designing your own science board game.

Explaining how DNA encodes proteins can be tricky – but it’s a lot easier with the aid of this DNA puzzle, which you can build yourself. See:

Leveau J (2007) Fun with genomes: the Mycomuncher DNA Puzzle. Science in School 5: 28-31

How about travelling through the history of Earth? Can you dodge a meteorite, or will you get stuck in an ice age or be set back by a major extinction event. Download the game.

Or you could introduce concepts about wavelength and frequency in the Universe with this fun game.

For a truly Christmas-related game, how about a Christmas murder mystery – who killed Santa? As it stands, this game doesn’t include any science, but perhaps you feel inspired to adapt it for the science classroom.

Quizzes can be a lot of fun, too – why not have a science quiz? For ideas on how to organise it and some sample questions, see: and

‘Trivia’ games can be great for revising for exams. We’ve found a variety of science trivia games for you to adapt to your own lessons.

Download templates for playing science jeopardy.

Select from plenty of pre-prepared jeopardy games, on many topics and for all age groups, as well as templates to create your own.

Or see the templates for science taboo.

You could even play science bingo.

If you prefer something more visual, you could devise your own science pictionary or what in the world?.

See these ideas for playing twenty questions.

If you prefer to have some fun outdoors, you could teach your students about the Bernoulli principle and Newton’s laws with the aid of a kite.

Your students could also have fun building their own wind-powered machines. It’s not exactly a game, but very nearly.

Even if you can’t get out of the classroom, you could still introduce some outdoor feeling, by teaching your students about the Solar System (or any other science topic) with a quiz structured like a game of football, basketball or baseball.

Finally, this one isn’t exactly a game either – it’s how to replicate some psychological research into face recognition. But your class could have great fun testing the other students’ abilities, and learning about how the brain works.

How else can you use games in lessons? For example, do you find them useful for introducing or reinforcing particularly difficult concepts? Why not share your ideas with other Science in School readers using the comment function at the end of this page?

13 December 2010: Stars

According to the Christmas story, the three wise men followed a star to find the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Could this really have happened? Examining the astronomical records of the time may not provide the ultimate answer, but it’s certainly a fascinating scientific exercise.

We all know that starlight takes a very long time to reach Earth. Which star can we see the light of today, that left the star on the day you were born? Find your birthday star.

We tend to think of stars as very far away, hardly really affecting us (apart from the Sun). But when a giant star dies, it can be an earth-shaking experience. Literally. See:

Székely P, Benedekfi O (2007) Fusion in the Universe: when a giant star dies… Science in School 6: 64-68

If that sounds too serious and you need some light relief, see Jonathan Swinton’s investigation of the density of a neutron star:

Swinton J (2006) The neutron teaspoon. Science in School 3: 92

‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ – Mozart may not have written the words, but he apparently wrote the tune when he was only six years old. He probably didn’t, however, know why stars twinkle. To find the answer to this and many other astronomical questions.

Whether we draw it with five, six or more points, we normally consider a star to be symmetrical. To investigate symmetry in more detail, see:

Livo M (2006) Symmetry rules. Science in School 2: 54-58

Real astronomical pictures of stars, however, can be much more beautiful than the diagrammatic form we normally think of. For an impressive collection of freely available images of stars, see the image database of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

If you’re interested to know how astronomers get their pictures, why not learn more about the Very Large Telescope and other ESO facilities in Chile? See:

Ranero Celius K (2010) An astronomer in a 3D world. Science in School 17: 60-64

Pierce-Price D (2006) Running one of the world’s largest telescopes. Science in School 1: 56-60

Not all telescopes are on Earth. To find out about the Corot satellite, with a telescope designed to search for evidence of extra-solar planets – and perhaps even extra-terrestrial life – see:

Fridlund M (2009) The CoRoT satellite: the search for Earth-like planets. Science in School 13: 15-19

If these ideas have awakened your students’ curiosity, why not browse the astronomy-related science articles and teaching activities published in Science in School.

14 December 2010: Genetic diseases

Christmas is often associated with opening parcels – parcels that contain presents. But what if we open Pandora’s box instead? London’s Science Museum has developed a classroom activity about genetic testing in which students receive a box of information. Should they get themselves genetically tested, thus opening the box? Once it’s been opened, it cannot be shut again. What would you do?

What are the social consequences of genetic testing? If one of your parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and a genetic test were available, would you want to be tested? Should your health insurers know the test results? The European Learning Laboratory for the Life Sciences has produced a range of teaching materials on the topic.

Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting, has strong feelings about who should and should not have access to our DNA data. For an interview with his, see:

Hodge R, Wegener A-L (2006) Alec Jeffreys interview: a pioneer on the frontier of human diversity. Science in School 3: 16-19

So how would you decide whether or not to best tested for genetic diseases? It’s always advisable to accept advice from the experts. To find out more about the work of Sabine Hentze and Martina Muckenthaler, who detect genetic diseases and counsel potentially affected patients, see:

Patterson L (2009) Getting a grip on genetic diseases. Science in School 13: 53-58

15 December 2010: Gold, frankincense and myrrh

According to the Christmas story, the three kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh the baby Jesus, to represent his status as king, god and sacrifice. These are powerful symbols, but the substances themselves are also powerful – used scientifically in many ways.

For centuries, alchemists attempted to create gold – without success. Where does gold come from, then? See:

Rebusco P, Boffin H, Pierce-Price D (2007) Fusion in the Universe: where your jewellery comes from. Science in School 5: 52-56

One characteristic that we normally associate with gold is the colour. But gold is not always gold – in very small particles, it can be red. To learn more about the nanotechnological applications of gold – from medieval stained glass windows to modern pregnancy tests – see:

Mallmann M (2008) Nanotechnology in school. Science in School 10: 70-75

See this very readable review of the history and chemistry of gold.

We also know that gold is very stable, but did you know that it can even be used to stabilise antibiotics?

As described by Cancer Research UK, gold, frankincense and myrrh also have an application in cutting-edge cancer research.

Perhaps this is nothing new, however? For a historical review of the use of gold, frankincense and myrrh in medicine.

In particular, both frankincense and myrrh have been used for centuries to treat wounds.

As its use on wounds suggests, myrrh has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties; however, it’s also possible that it can lower cholesterol.

Unlike gold, frankincense and myrrh are both resins – dried tree sap. And one traditional use of resin (although probably not of frankincense or myrrh) was as chewing gum. To learn more about the history and future of chewing gum, see:

Stanley H (2008) Materials science to the rescue: easily removable chewing gum. Science in School 9: 56-61

16 December 2010: Wordsearch

To help you celebrate, here’s a Christmassy science word-search. Can you find the 12 science-related words?


  2. PRION
  8. STAR
  12. DNA

17 December 2010: Riddles

For a fun end-of-term activity, how about getting your students to answer some riddles? All of the answers relate to science and all of them can be found in Science in School articles, some of which are linked to in the riddles. And if you take the first letter of each answer, it will spell a scientific word!

If you need help, try searching the Science in School for key words in the riddles. You will find the answer in one or more of the articles you find.

Letter 1

Soaring the sky above, they also lie on the ground below.

They can be shaped like a tube or maybe a dish,

And look for things that you ask for a wish.

They guard the sky day and night

And travel in time with their powerful sight.

We started to use them 20 times 20 years ago.

Tell me, do you already know?

Letter 2

It is very small, much smaller than the eye can see.

It contains sugar but not the kind that you think.

Most of it is single-stranded but yet it is not abandoned.

It lies in the cell and works with DNA.

Letter 3

You can make one with red cabbage, or phenolphthalein perhaps.

Lugol’s solution could be one of them all.

We measure many things with it, even pH.

If you still don’t know search the website now.

Letter 4

Can you roll your tongue and your friends can’t?

They can put you at risk of diabetes mellitus?

They are passed on… can you guess what they are?

Letter 5

A material with many uses.

It was used in 1959 as an adhesive.

In thermodynamics you can build a motor with it.

You can make colourful photonic crystals with its spheres.

And if you still don’t know just search here.

Letter 6

With it, we make bread, drinks and even electricity.

It is a eukaryote and grows and grows.

Cellzome decided to tackle its entire genome.

Do you know what it is?

Letter 7

They can be salty or they can be sweet

Inorganic or organic, you’re in for a treat.

Make a thermometer with them when in their liquid form

And watch out for them during a cold winter storm.

Letter 8

The Sun and the wind are some sources of it

Fuel cells can produce it, bit by bit.

Current or static we find it can be

Someday our cars will be powered with it.

Letter 9

In constant movement and all around

In many different ways it can be found

Our magnetic field protects us when it comes from space

And the ozone layer absorbs some of the rest 

Although at high levels it might do you harm

the right dose will make serious diseases disarm.

Letter 10

We need it to live, it flows through our veins.

We find it on Earth, and also in space

By fusion formed, it lies in the Sun

On the surface of Mars it is highly oxidised

You could even use it to make special ink

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s, and write what you think.

If your body stores too much, doctors must intervene

Because the cause will be a mutation in the HFE gene.

Letter 11

It is thanks to this that we know LUCA exists.

It holds information about you and your ancestry.

Yours is unique, and so is mine.

Just two more things: AGTC and twine.

Letter 12

Many of these you will find on the site

From your classroom to home, to down in the lab.

Scientists do them while taking many notes

For safety wear your glasses and your white lab coats.

18 December 2010: Vision

According to the Christmas story, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus shared their shelter with an ox, a donkey and other farm animals. What might those animals have thought about what they saw? Indeed, how much do we know about what animals see and think?

Animal vision is surprisingly diverse; even your cat or your dog may see the world differently from you, as described here:

Here, you and your students can see the world the way some animals might in this gallery:

Science writer Ed Yong has written about other animals with unique vision, including hammerhead sharks and mantis shrimps.

In this audio exploration of animal minds and emotions, Radiolab discusses how animals and humans relate to each other. Are animals able to feel empathy? Can dogs feel guilt?

Perhaps no one understands the minds of farm animals better than Temple Grandin, an autistic woman whose condition enables her to empathise with animals and develop more humane beef production methods. Here is an interview with her:

Maybe some animals can feel like us, but are they self-aware? Recently, rhesus macaques joined humans, chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants as the only animals known to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror.

Some animals use tools, like the chimpanzees famed researcher Jane Goodall observed using tools to fish for tasty termites. In this video, Joshua Klein discusses the intelligence of crows.

Speaking of crows, some birds need extra food for fuel and warmth in the winter. You and your students can help them out by making your own bird feeders.

19 December 2010: Films

In this cold weather, why not curl up on the couch and enjoy a film while it snows outside? There are many entertaining science films that can also be used to explain complex scientific concepts or to reinforce scientific knowledge. You could watch them in the classroom or have your students watch them over the winter holidays. Then, have them think about the science in the film. Is it accurate? Why / why not? Is what the scientists are doing in the film ethical? Engage your students in a scientific debate about their favourite science-based films. Here are some ideas for films that you can use.

To find out about bad science in films see:

For a list of films on different science subjects and worksheets for the classroom, visit:

Do you need more suggestions for films that you can teach science with? See:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a database for teachers, discussing the scientific content of different films? Well, you are in luck!

Have you seen Deep Impact? Why not take a look at the science behind it here:

Oberhummer H, Behacker M (2006) Deep Impact. Science in School 1: 78-80. 

For digital media and resources for the classroom:

Scientists are portrayed in many films. Would you like to know some curious facts? See:

Some science concepts are very hard to explain in words. Why not spice your lessons up with some animations to help explain these difficult concepts? You will find some nice animations and videos at: and

On this website, you will find some free teaching lessons, including teaching material, video questions, vocabulary and discussion questions, along with the answers.

Find out what you can learn from zombie movies.

Finally, to see science behind the scenes, you could show your students Das Auge 3D (The Eye 3D), a film that takes you right inside the Very Large Telescope in Chile. It is currently only being shown in cinemas in Germany and Austria, but will soon be available in English as well. For more information see:

Ranero Celius K (2010) An astronomer in a 3D world. Science in School 17: 60-64. 

20 December 2010: Ice

At this time of year, we hear the word ‘ice’ all the time, as icicles form on the windowsill and we find a sheet of ice on the windscreen or even on the road. Ice, of course, can be used in the classroom to explain the states of matter, optics, insulation and much more. Here are some ideas, videos and articles about ice and how to use it in the classroom.

To combat the icy chaos in the street, we often use salt and here is a fun activity with ice and salt.

When ice melts, it can be problem too, however. For a simple activity about the affect of melting ice and snow on sea levels, see:


Which of us hasn’t been given gloves, scarves or hats for Christmas? How do they keep us warm and why do we need them? Learn about insulation with the ‘freezing hands’ experiment.

Insulation works both ways – to keep things cold as well as warm. Why not get your students to try insulating an ice cube? You can download a PDF with instructions here or here.

Snow itself can be a great insulator – just think of an igloo. Make your own igloo and learn about how salt changes ice and water.

We assume that pure water freezes at 0 °C, but that’s not always the case. For two hands-on experiments about supercooling, see: and

And to learn more about research into supercooling and try a simple classroom activity, see:

Schülli T (2010) Science is cool…supercool. Science in School 17: 17-22.

Have you ever noticed those peculiar spikes of ice in the freezer? You could make ice spikes with your students while explaining the physical processes that take place. 

Ice crystals produce wonderful effects in the atmosphere. Why not teach your students about natural optics using phenomena like coronae, glories or sundogs? They could enjoy some beautiful pictures, guess what it is that they are seeing and learn about why that is.

Can you slice ice without splitting it? How does pressure affect ice? For a simple activity, see:

Or you could try the ice balloon activity. See the video and download the instructions.

Finally, how about making dancing ice and learning about buoyancy?

21 December 2010: Online games

Games and fun are traditional at this time of year. Board games are tremendous fun (see day12), but so are interactive online games. Why not suggest some of these Christmas and science games to your students to play at home? Or, even better, use them to inspire your students in the classroom.

But games need not be only festive. The Science museum has created ‘Thingdom’, an online game where students learn about genetics while creating their own fictional organism.

Energy and space can be difficult to teach. To tackle these subjects, the Institute of Physics has developed four new interactive physics games to use in lessons for 13-16 year olds.

Would you like more physics games? CERN offers some educational and interactive online games. Whether you are preparing a visit to CERN, or just explaining physics, these games will increase your students’ understanding of the workings of the Universe.

And, while on the topic of particle accelerators, you could give your students some supporting material from the Nobel Prize website.

Or see:

Landua R, Rau M (2008) The LHC: a step closer to the Big Bang. Science in School 10: 26-33. 

Landua, R (2008) The LHC: a look inside. Science in School 10: 34-45. 

From physics to medicine, the Nobel Prize website also offers you some interactive online games to fill lessons with fun

To lighten up a chemistry lesson, have your students play some of these games by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry. 

Whether you want students to review the elements in the periodic table, learn the constellations, or just practise their science vocabulary, this is the page for you.

Now that you’ve covered many scientific disciples, why not investigate some maths games that you can use in the science classroom? Did you know that mathematics can give insights to the secret of life? Have your students find out how by playing the Game of Life on the Plus website.

While you are there, you might like to take the opportunity to read an interview with Game of Life inventor, John Conway.

Still need more? For a wide variety of science games go to: or the BBC website, which offers a great variety of games divided by subject:

22 December 2010: Food and digestion

Christmas traditions and Christmas meals vary a lot across Europe and the rest of the world. One thing that seems to be constant, though, is the quantity – too much! Food and eating is of course a huge topic and one that can be used in many ways in the classroom. Here are a few ideas.

Do you know what you eat? Do your students know? Why not watch the film What’s on Your Plate? and learn about food and the food industry?

In the run-up to Christmas, you could discuss the importance of a balanced diet and obesity with your students, as one Science in School reader did:

Krotscheck F (2010) Using cutting-edge science within the curriculum: balancing body weight. Science in School 16: 19-26.

If you think you already know everything about digestion, you can test your knowledge here.

And if you’re worried at the prospect of all those heavy Christmas meals, why not make some fizzy fruit and use it to explain physics, phases of matter and carbonation?

Did you know you could use an apple to investigate how the Egyptians desiccated mummies?

And if the dark evenings are getting too much for you, you could even use fruit to bring some light into your life – with a fruit battery!

Sometimes overeating is not a problem because the food itself looks so unappetising. Or do you like the sound of green fried eggs? Teach your students about pH with this fun activity.

Or do you think edible slime sound better? Your students can learn about materials, chemistry and electricity by making edible and electroactive slime – and then eat it (probably not really advisable)! Make different types of slime and exchange ideas on their behaviour. See: and

Finally, have you noticed that after eating your Christmas dinner, you feel like having a nap? Here’s why:

23 December 2010: Drinks

It might be hot cocoa on a cold winter day, or perhaps some egg nog during a party, or some Christmas punch… At this time of year we consume a wide variety of drinks. But, do we know how these drinks are made? Or the science behind them? Are they good for us or not?

To deliver all those presents, Santa might need an energy boost, so would energy drinks help him? Discuss energy drinks with your students to find out if they really work and how

Many of your students like fizzy drinks, but do they know how much carbonation they have? Let your students experiment with their favourite drinks. For activities go to, and

Make a geyser with diet coke and Mentos mints! Why does it work differently with coke and diet coke? Have your students experiment

Watch a video and learn about the processes behind this ‘explosion’.

You could even make a glowing fountain if you used tonic water. Why not tell your students about fluorescence with tonic water? Why does it glow? 

Have you ever burnt yourself when taking the first sip of your coffee? How fast do hot drinks cool? You could get your students find out with the ‘too hot too handle, to cold to enjoy’ activity.

Or another activity at:

Why does coffee make us alert? What other drinks have caffeine? Is it good or bad? Find out and share it with your students.

And did you know that coffee also contains antioxidants? See:

Farusi G (2009) Looking for antioxidant food. Science in School 13: 39-43. 

What is the history of drinking water? The Fairfax Water website, dedicated to children, has a lot of information: from history, to how much of Earth is covered with water, and how it is cleaned.

While teaching about water, you could have your students identify the components of the water cycle and construct a simple model.

To learn more about recent research about water, see:

Zaccai G (2009) The intracellular environment: not so muddy waters. Science in School 13: 1923. 

Cicognani G (2006) Defying the laws of physics? Science in School 1: 19-21. 

Water is fundamental for life. So, why not explain to your students what makes water so special? And while you’re working with water, why not try out a cool physics experiment? Bend water with static electricity.

For more water-based activities, see:

Mitchell WA, Sherman D, Choppy A, Gomes RL (2008) Science for the Next Generation: activities for primary school. Science in School 10: 64-69. 

Kaiser A, Rau M (2010) LeSa21: primary-school science activities. Science in School 16: 45-49. 

Harwood R, Starr, C (2006) Environmental chemistry: water testing as part of collaborative project work. Science in School 2: 34-37.

And for those who want something healthy but are tired of water – we constantly hear that we should drink orange juice because it has vitamin C, or that ginseng is good for us… but what are the reasons? Think Drink explains.

December 24 2010: Presents

It’s Christmas Eve, and Christmas is upon us. We all like to get Christmas presents, so here is a list of free DVDs, posters and much more – perfect for science teachers.

 “Out of this world!” The European Space Agency (ESA) offers many free materials to teachers in its members states. All you have to do is fill out the form.

Would you like to tell your students about careers in maths, or about maths in general? Download many free maths posters from the Plus magazine website.

Are you a space science lover? Wouldn’t it be nice to see the craters of the Moon or a space probe from your computer screen? ESA offers free downloadable screensavers.

The European Fusion Development Agreement offers brochures, booklets, posters, CD-ROMs and DVDs about fusion. The materials are offered in a wide range of languages; see:

Would you like to spice up your biology lessons? The European Learning Laboratory for the Life Sciences offers free teaching modules.

The Hubble Space Telescope website has many free resources to offer: Download beautiful images obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Perhaps you would like some educational material for your classroom. See:

The Hubble shop offers a wide variety of free materials for educators. 

The European Southern Observatory’s online shop also offers free materials for educators.

Would you like a tool to make handouts, presentations and tests quickly? Microsoft offers a free add-in that will help you achieve this.

And speaking of handouts, why not download and print folder-sized periodic tables for your students? This way, they will always be at hand during chemistry lessons. 

Finally, we’d like to thank you for your support and enthusiasm over the last year. Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year!