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British Science Week, a nationwide celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, takes place on the 5-14th March 2021. This year’s theme is innovating for the future. No doubt classrooms and homes across the country will be filled with wonderful STEM activities throughout the week. But what else should children know about innovation?
 
To start with, let’s get one thing clear:

Innovation is different from Invention.

  • Invention is the creation of something new. This is normally a tangible product or ‘thing’ (think Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone or Thomas Edison with the lightbulb). It is important to remember that not all inventions are useful. While some go on to become innovations, revolutionising the way we live, others are of little use and are quickly forgotten.
  • Innovation connects the dots between inventions. It happens when someone improves upon or make a significant contribution to something that has already been invented. Take the invention of Apple’s iPhone. It wasn’t the first phone to ever exist, nor was it the first device to have a touchscreen. However, it was innovative in the way that it blended phone and computer into a palm-sized device. Innovation creates a process or product that is useful, adds value to our lives and is commercially successful.

The two words are closely connected but they are not the same.

So what else should children know about innovation?

Innovation doesn’t always happen with sudden breakthroughs or ‘eureka’ moments. It’s often a gradual process that can take years, decades, even centuries to emerge. Innovations are evolutionary changes to existing processes, uses, or functions, which are made better by one (or several) contributing inventions.

Take the example of tidal turbines. They convert energy from tides into electricity. We tend to think of renewable energy as a future innovation but in fact, the basic idea of turning water movement into useful energy can be found much earlier, for example in the water wheels of Ancient Greece. The technological concepts behind the water wheel have gradually evolved over time into the engineering that we see today.

Teach children:

  • Don’t always expect sudden ‘eureka’ moments
  • Start with small steps, and build upon them over time
  • Take time to pause and reflect on your ideas

There’s a tendency to think of history in terms of the ‘Great Man Theory’. We think of influential individuals who have made a significant contribution to society. Think Tim Berners-Lee with the world wide web or Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone.
 
In reality it’s not as clear cut as that. Innovations are not created out of nowhere and they are rarely linked to just one person. Instead, they build upon the ideas of others. Tim Berners-Lee took an already existing invention of the internet and built upon it, adding hypertext (www. or .com for example) to link information.
 
Meanwhile, the invention of the telephone was the culmination of work done by many individuals. Bell may have been the first to obtain a successful patent for it but there were many other inventors including Elisha Gray and Antonio Meucci who also created a ‘talking telegraph’.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is an excellent metaphor we can use to remember that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They took the understanding gained by major thinkers who had gone before in order to make creative progress.

Teach children:

  • Listen to and value the ideas of others
  • Start with something you already know and see if you can build upon it
  • Be open to sharing your work and ideas

How often do we get something right first time? This is exactly the same for innovation. Thomas Edison made 1000 iterations to the lightbulb. When asked by a reporter ‘how did it feel to fail 1000 times?’ he replied ‘I didn’t fail 1000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1000 steps.’

James Dyson is famed for his innovative bagless vacuum design of the Dyson hoover. However, it took him 5126 vacuum design attempts before he could get a properly working vacuum.
 
The Wright brothers repeatedly went back to the drawing board as they struggled to create a design of engine-powered plane that would be light enough to fly. They didn’t have a university degree or background in engineering, but they did have a determination to succeed. After many failed attempts at flying, they eventually created the world’s first successful motor-operated plane.
 
Innovation involves a great deal of perseverance as you overcome the inevitable mistakes and setbacks along the way. None of these inventors would have succeeded if they didn’t have the determination to keep going through the failures. In fact, it was these mistakes or failures that led to their greatest achievements.

Teach children:

  • Mistakes are an important part of the learning process
  • Persevere, keeping going when things don’t go to plan
  • Think of each error as a step closer to success

Sometimes, in setting out to do one thing we end up creating or discovering another. There are lots of examples of important discoveries that just weren’t planned. Alexander Fleming is one such accidental discover. He had been experimenting with bacteria in Petri dishes when he discovered that one had been contaminated by mould. On closer inspection he saw that the mould was killing the bacteria around it. This mould is now used as a medicine called penicillin which helps to destroy bacteria.

Other accidental discoveries include Play-Doh, Coca-Cola and the microwave oven. Such new creations can be more valuable than we ever could have imagined. Accidental discoveries are a surprisingly frequent part of the innovation process. We can’t plan what the future holds and sometimes creative ‘tinkering’ can stumble upon things that we didn’t know we even needed.

Teach children:

  • Be open-minded to new ideas
  • Try to find the value in an ‘accidental’ or unexpected outcome

Join Twinkl in Celebrating Women in STEM, as part of Women and Girls in Science Day 2021.

The 11th of February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners, February 11th is a day of celebration aiming to promote women and girls in science. This Day is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

I was delighted to be included in this article about women in STEM.

Autumn STEM Guide

Welcome to the Autumn edition of our seasonal STEM guides! It contains:

  • STEM related autumn events and themed days/weeks
  • Quick, easy website and activity suggestions for how to get involved (click on the pictures to find out more)
  • Autumnal STEM resource recommendations

Diaries at the ready! The events listed below are a really good way to help theme your STEM activities and help children to make real-world links. From mild weather to frosty starts, from darker evenings to colourful trees, Autumn has it all! Make the most of this time of transition with these STEM events.

National Coding Week (14-20th September)

National Coding Week aims to build people’s confidence and digital skills through fun, engaging coding events. You can take part by learning to code. There are lots of great coding activities and games online to help you with this.

How to get involved…

Biology Week (3-11th October)

Biology Week showcases the important and amazing world of the biosciences, getting everyone from children to professional biologists involved in fun and interesting life science activities.

How to get involved…

World Space Week (4-10th October)

World Space Week is an international celebration of science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition. World Space Week consists of space education and outreach events held by space agencies, aerospace companies, schools, planetariums, museums, and astronomy clubs around the world.

How to get involved…

International Archaeology Day (17th October)

International Archaeology Day (IAD) is a celebration of archaeology and its contributions to society. Every October the AIA and archaeological organisations around the world present archaeological programs and activities for people of all ages and interests. 

How to get involved…

Chemistry Week (18-24th October)

National Chemistry Week (NCW) is a public awareness campaign that promotes the value of chemistry in everyday life. This years theme is ‘Sticking with Chemistry’. Visit their website for educational resources linked to this theme.

How to get involved…

Nuclear Science Week (19-23rd October)

Nuclear Science Week is an international, broadly observed week-long celebration to focus local, www.ph-pdi.com/phentermine-weight-lose/ regional and international interest on all aspects of nuclear science. Nuclear Science week explores what it means to “Think Clean. Think Solutions. Think Nuclear.” Click here to view lesson plans and resources on their website.

How to get involved…

Bonfire Night (5th November)

Try a bonfire night-themed STEM activity such as ‘Frozen Fireworks’. This activity explores the question ‘what happens when we mix fluids of different densities’. For full instructions click here.

National Recycling Week (11-17th November)

National Recycling Week to bring a national focus to the environmental benefits of recycling. Each year Recycle Week attempts to change people’s recycling behaviours while gaining positive publicity. It’s a great chance to raise awareness of the importance of recycling to children.

How to get involved…

Autumn STEM Resource Recommendations

Here are a few of our ‘must have’ Autumn STEM resources. We think you’ll come back to them year after year with your children! Click on each picture to view it on Amazon.

Have we missed off an autumn STEM event or a ‘must have’ autumn STEM resource? If so then add it to the comments below. (note: this is a UK based website so some events have a UK focus).

Moving Shadows

Moving Shadows

How do shadows change during the day?

  • A small toy
  • Paper
  • Coloured pencils
  • A clock

How to do it

Note: You will need to do this activity on a sunny day. You will need to return to it throughout the day.

  1. Begin the activity at the start of the morning. Find an open space in full sunlight and lay a piece of paper on the ground. Then place the toy in the middle of the piece of paper so that it stands up vertically.
  2. Take note of where the shadow of the toy falls by drawing around its outline using a coloured pencil. Label the outline with the time that you have drawn the shadow.
  3. Return each hour to check the position that the shadow from the toy has been cast in, drawing around it and labelling the drawing with the time. You could use a different coloured pencil for each shadow outline to help them stand out clearly.

What are we learning

Light travels in a straight line. When we place an object in its path, in this case a small toy, it blocks some of the light, creating a shadow. As the earth rotates, the position of the sun in the sky changes, which changes the length and position of shadows. In the morning the sun rises in the east, and the shadow is longer and cast west. By midday the sun is directly overhead, making the shadow short. In the afternoon the sun is setting in the west and the shadow grows longer again and cast east.

Investigate

A sundial is a device that uses the sun to tell the time. Find out more about how they have been used by many civilizations in history.

Careers associated with this activity

Measure Scavenger Hunt

 Measure Scavenger Hunt

What different sizes can we find in the natural environment? 

  • A measuring tape or ruler
  • Scavenger hunt list (see example in photo)
  • A pencil or pen
  • A timer
  • A camera (optional))

How to do it

Note: you will need to prepare the scavenger hunt list in advance. Younger children could measure items in cm’s while older children could have a mixture of cm’s and mm’s.

  1. Take a copy of the measure scavenger hunt list and decide on an outdoor area that your hunt will take place in (for example, a garden, park or woodland).
  2. You have 15 minutes to find and photograph an example of each item on the list. You will need to use the measuring tape carefully to make sure you have found an accurate example of each item on the list.
  3. When the time is up, review the findings and count how many items you photographed.

Optional: Make this into a competitive team challenge and see who can find the most items. Alternatively, try going to a different natural environment to see if you can beat your score.

What are we learning

Measuring tapes help us to accurately measure the length and width of different objects. We have been using the metric system, in which length is measured in millimetres (mm), centimetres (cm), metres (m) or kilometres (km). There are ten millimetres in each centimetre. The natural world is full of many different sizes and shapes. Leaves from the same tree or plant can vary in appearance and size. However, they will always roughly correspond to the same basic shape.

Investigate

Choose your favourite leaf or flower from the scavenger hunt and find out what species it is. You could use a nature book to identify it or use an app such as ‘PlantSnap’.

Careers associated with this activity

Tin Foil Cargo Boats

Tin Foil Cargo Boats

Create a boat using tin foil and explore which design can hold the most cargo (coins). Then find out about the forces involved including Archimedes’ principle.

This activity is taken from the book ’15-Minute STEM’.

Frozen Fireworks

Frozen Fireworks

What happens when we mix fluids of different densities? 

You will need

  • A clear glass or jar
  • Warm water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Food colouring
  • An ice cube tray
  • A pipette (optional)
  • Honey and milk (optional)

How to do it

Note: you will need to prepare the ice cubes in advance of the activity.

  1. Fill up an ice cube tray with water. Add a few drops of food colouring to each ice cube mould, either by squeezing them from the bottle or using a pipette. Then place the tray in the freezer for a few hours.
  2. Once the ice cubes are frozen, part-fill your jar with warm water, leaving space at the top.
  3. Then add a 2cm layer of vegetable oil. You will notice that the oil floats on top of the water.
  4. Place the ice cubes into the jar and watch them float in the oil layer.
  5. Watch as the ice melts and the coloured droplets sink down into the water and mix together, creating fireworks!

What are we learning

Density is the mass of an object divided by its volume. Put another way, it is the amount of ‘stuff’ that can fit in a given space. Some materials are very light for their size while others are very heavy. For example, a brick and a sponge might be a similar size but the sponge would be a lot lighter. This is because it is less dense. Oil is less dense than water so it floats to the top of the jar. The ice cubes are also less dense than the water, which is why they float in the oil layer. As the ice melts and turns into liquid, it becomes denser than the oil. This causes the food colouring droplets to sink into the water and diffuse (spread out), creating what looks like fireworks.

Investigate

Now try adding other fluids to your jar, such as honey or milk. How do their densities compare to water and vegetable oil?

Careers associated with this activity

Water Xylophones

Water Xylophones

You will need

  • Glass bottles
  • Water
  • A stick
  • A measuring jug (optional)

How to do it

  1. The challenge is to play a tune on a water xylophone, created from glass bottles.
  2. To produce a different pitch (sound frequency), each glass bottle should be filled with a different amount of water.
  3. Measure out the water and experiment with making different sounds by gently tapping the side of each bottle using a stick.
  4. Order the bottles from lowest to highest pitched. Then perform a tune on your musical instrument. What do you notice about the pitch of the sound and the volume of water in each bottle?

What are we learning

Musical instruments create sound waves, which are temporary compressions in the air. These sounds are made when objects vibrate. When we tap each xylophone bottle we cause the glass to vibrate. These disturbances travel through space and ultimately make your eardrum vibrate, to be heard as sounds. This vibration produces a higher pitched sound when there is less water in the bottle. They produce a lower pitched sound when there is more water in the bottle. If you have used an assortment of different sized or shaped bottles then you may have noticed that you can fill two bottles with the same amount of water and still create different sounds. This is because the sound is vibrating within a different space.

Investigate

Ancient mathematicians like Pythagoras investigated the mathematics of musical scales. Can you find out more about this?

Careers associated with this activity

Water Filter Challenge

Water Filter Challenge

Create a water filter using natural materials and learn more about the challenges of providing clean water to people around the world.

This activity is taken from the book ’15-Minute STEM’.

Water Filter

Robotic Arm

Robotic Arm

You will need

  • Thick cardboard
  • Split pins
  • A sharp pencil
  • A ruler and scissors
  • An elastic band
  • String

How to do it

  1. Cut out two identical rectangular strips of 10cm length out of cardboard. Then cut out two identical cardboard ‘grabber’ arms.
  2. Use a sharp pencil to pierce a small hole in either end of each cardboard strip.
  3. Attach the two rectangular strips together at one end using a split pin. Join the opposite ends to the grabber arms, positioning the grabber hands pointing outwards.
  4. Pull the two grabber arms together so they overlap and join them together with a split pin. Your grabber hands should now be pointing inwards towards each other.
  5. Cut a longer strip of cardboard to act as a handle. Pierce a hole in one end and attach it to the split pin used to overlap the grabber arms.
  6. Attach an elastic band between the two spilt pins at either end of the arm.
  7. Tie a short piece of string to the bottom of the elastic band. Hold the handle and gently pull the string back and forth to open and close the arm. Can you pick up a small object with it?

What are we learning

Robotic arms are a classic use of robotic technology, and can be found on factory production lines, controlled by computers. They have a variety of uses. They can do jobs that are very repetitive for humans such as screwing the lids on jars on a production line in a factory. They can do jobs that are difficult for humans such as putting small parts (such as bolts) onto a car in precisely the right place. They can also do jobs that are dangerous for humans such as moving hazardous materials. Sometimes robotic arms are found on a much larger robot, other times they are a standalone arm. Increasingly, roboticists consider using innovative soft materials (‘soft robotics’) for grippers at the end of the arms. Such ‘smart’ materials include shape-memory polymers (SMPs) that can temporarily deform and then return to their original shape.

Investigate

The Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars uses a robotic arm. Find out more about this.

Careers associated with this activity

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