What is obstetric fistula and why is it so common in developing countries?

Shirley, Year 10, looks at Obstetric Fistula, the most devastating and serious childbirth injury and explores why the injury is so common in developing countries, and the impact it has on the life of women.


‘Obstetric Fistula is the worst thing you’ve never heard of’

An obstetric fistula is often considered as ‘one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries’, yet very few people have heard of it.

An obstetric fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder and is caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without access to timely, high-quality medical treatments such as an emergency C-section. In the case of an obstructed labour, the fetus is unable to come out of the mother’s body, usually because the baby is too big, or is in the wrong position.

Fistula diagram Days of unrelieved labour creates compression and cuts off both blood supplies to the baby and the mother’s internal soft tissue, causing both to die. The dead tissue results in holes (fistulas) in the walls separating the woman’s reproductive and excretory systems.

Why is it so common in developing countries?

Obstetric fistula has been virtually eradicated in developed countries due to the availability of good medical care, such as the C-section and obstetric facilities.

However, this is not the case in developing countries.

Obstetric fistula occurs among women who live in low-resource countries, who give birth without access to medical help. There is often a lack of access to medical facilities, lack of adequately trained medical staff and not enough medical supplies and equipment.

It is estimated that there may be at least two million women and girls, living in poverty, who suffer from fistula. The problem is particularly prevalent in Africa, parts of Asia, parts of Latin America, the Arab States region and the Caribbean.

In many developing countries, girls tend to marry and begin childbearing at a very young age, often before their body is sufficiently developed to cope with this. The lack of formal education and the access to accurate information about family planning, pregnancy and childbirth also make the girls much more vulnerable to an obstructed labour. Cultural beliefs and traditions sometimes also prevent the girls from seeking the necessary medical care they need.

What is the impact of obstetric fistula on the life of women?

‘Obstetric fistula leaves women without hope’

As women with obstetric fistula are unable to control the flow of waste, they are often isolated due to their ‘foul smell’. Her community will almost always detach themselves from her. In many cases, her husband will also leave her and send her back to her own family.

‘She is scorned, bewildered, humiliated and isolated, often being cursed by God.’ – New York Times Column “New life for the Pariahs” on October 31st, 2009

Yet… it is neglected

Despite how life-threatening the condition is, fistula receives very little attention from the media and funding is virtually non-existent, representing 0.07% of annual global health funding. Awareness of fistula is limited as this condition is very rare in Europe and the US.

99% of women who get obstetric fistula will never have a chance at treatment and in order to stop this from happening, we need to raise our awareness of the condition.


Photos from:


https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obstetric_fistula/en/ (World Health Organisation)

Further reading:




Should the periodic table be turned upside down?

Chemistry beakers

Isabel, Y10, explores the comprehensibility of Dmitri Mendeleev’s traditional periodic table and whether it would be more accessible for younger children and enhance learning methods if it were flipped around by 180˚.

The Periodic Table is an important symbol in Chemistry and since Dmitri Mendeleev’s discovery of the Periodic system in 1869, it has remained the same for 150 years; but could turning it 180˚ make important concepts easier to understand, especially in teaching younger children?

This year has been announced the Year of (Mendeleev’s) Periodic Table which has become the generic way of arranging the elements. However, some scientists like Martyn Poliakoff and his team have started to question the comprehensibility of it. After extensive research, they decided to flip the traditional arrangement upside down, so that the information is more understandable and intuitively ordered.

The research team argues that this presentation is more helpful and has many benefits. Firstly, when the table is flipped the properties of the elements such as atomic mass and proton number now increase from bottom to top therefore making more numerical sense. Secondly, it represents the Aufbau principal more accurately, which states that electrons fill up ‘shells’ from low to high energy. Finally, when young children are trying to learn from the table, the more relevant elements to them are located towards the bottom of the table, making its use quicker and more accessible. Therefore, in lessons, students will not have to look all the way to the top of the table to be able to find the right information.

Above: Inverted Periodic Table. Source: University of Nottingham
Above: Traditional Periodic Table

However, when I compared the two versions of the periodic table myself, I found that the traditional form of the table made more sense to me for many reasons. For example, in both situations I found my eyes drawn to the top row of elements, so it did not matter that the elements that I use the most were on the bottom row. However, this could be put down to a force of habit, so I also asked my 10-year-old brother to look at the two perspectives of the table and see where he looked. He immediately pointed to the top of both and when I asked him the reason he said that from top to bottom ‘is the way you read’ so the properties make more sense going down from top to bottom. He also seemed to prefer the traditional table, commenting that it was like a ‘pyramid’ in the way the numbers were arranged and was a much clearer way to display the elements.

Whilst some may argue that the arrangement of the table is more effective if it were upside down, for me the traditional version of the periodic table works just as well. Testing this principle to a larger group will allow different models to be tried to see if it makes understanding the periodic table easier for younger learners.


Martyn Poliakoff et al, Nat. Chem., 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41557-019-0253-6


What would happen if there was no stigma around mental illness?

Mental Illness

Emily, Year 12, explores why there is a stigma around mental illnesses, how we can get rid of this stigma, and what effect the stigma has on society.

Mental illness is not just one disorder – and many people know that – but what they don’t understand is quite how expansive the list of disorders is. As young girls, we are taught about anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, addiction, stress, and self-harm but the likelihood is that we know – from personal experience, through friends, family or even social media – that many more mental illnesses exist. For example: bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD. Chances are, we all know someone with mental illness whether we know or not – the majority of the time these people function the same way that people with no mental illness do. So why is there such a stigma around mental illness and how can we get rid of the stigma?
When the AIDS epidemic started in the early 1980s, the disease was only affecting minority groups of people who already faced criticism. The disease only furthered this and made the patients virtual pariahs until advocacy groups and communities protested to expand awareness and pressured the U.S. government to fund research for the disease and its cure. In only seven years, scientists were able to: identify that the cause of AIDS was the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), create the ELISA test to detect HIV in the blood and establish azidothymidine (AZT) as the first antiretroviral drug to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS. This is a prime example of how public knowledge can lead to science pushing the boundaries of their knowledge and finding treatments. Along with treatments eliminating symptoms, they also eliminate the stigma as more and more people are learning about the disease. So why can’t this be the case for mental illness?

In a time when science wasn’t breaking new boundaries every day, and knowledge wasn’t being distributed properly, it is easy to see why those with such complicated illnesses were feared and had such a stigma surrounding them. However, now when the greatest barrier is access to treatments and not the science, and the education about the subject is as high as it has ever been, it is hard to see why there is still such shame in having these illnesses.

But what if there was no stigma? We would have early identification and intervention in the form of screening mechanisms in primary care settings such as GP, paediatric, obstetrics, and gynaecological clinics and offices as well as schools and universities. The goal would be to screen those who are at risk for or are having symptoms of mental illness and engage the patients in self-care and treatment before the illness severely affects their brains, and lives. We would also have community-based comprehensive care for those who are in more advanced stages of illness. This will support people who are unable to care for themselves and who may otherwise end up homeless, in jail or in mental hospitals.
For example: victims of trauma would be treated for PTSD along with any physical injuries while in the hospital to target PTSD before any symptoms started occurring and the patient could hurt themselves or others; first responders would have preventative and decompression treatments routinely administered to treat PTSD before waiting to see who may or may not show symptoms; mothers would be treated for pre/post-partum depression as a part of pre/post-natal check-ups instead of waiting and potentially harming themselves or their baby. Children with learning disabilities would be identified early on so they could get cognitive training, and emotional support to prevent counterproductive frustration due to something they cannot control.

Medical economists have shown that this method of proactive mental healthcare will actually reduce the cost of delivering it. It will also relieve emotional stress (for the patient and their family), financial burden for treatment, and will reduce the occurrence of many of the very prevalent social problems. We all know about the many mass shootings that occur regularly and a great deal of these crimes have been perpetrated by young males who have an untreated mental illness which have presented symptoms for long before the crime was committed – not that I am excusing their behaviour in any way.

As a worldwide community, we must be able to recognise mental illness for what it is – a medical condition that can be treated, be that with behavioural or cognitive therapy or with medication. In order to dissolve the stigma, we must be involved, ask questions, be kind, be compassionate, and make it our own business. There is only so much science can do if people are not willing to take the help they are being given – they need to want to get better. The only way this will happen is if we all help to make it known that having a mental illness is not a bad thing, and that it is easily treatable, and that they are no different from anyone else.

The Brain Chemistry of Eating Disorders

Jo, Year 13, explores what is happening chemically inside the brains of those suffering from eating disorders and shows how important this science is to understanding these mental health conditions.

The definition of an eating disorder is any range of psychological disorders characterised by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. Anorexia is defined as a lack or loss of appetite for food and an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. Bulimia is defined as an emotional disorder characterised by a distorted body image and an obsessive desire to lose weight, in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by fasting, self-induced vomiting or purging. Anorexia and bulimia are often chronic and relapsing disorders and anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. Individuals with anorexia and bulimia are consistently characterised by perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness, and dysphoric mood.

Dopamine and serotonin function are integral to both of these conditions; how does brain chemistry enable us to understand what causes anorexia and bulimia?


Dopamine is a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and is primarily responsible for pleasure and reward and in turn influences our motivation and attention. It has been implicated in the symptom pattern of individuals with anorexia, specifically related to the mechanisms of reinforcement and reward in engaging in anorexic behaviours, such as restricting food intake. Dysfunction of the dopamine system contributes to characteristic traits and behaviours of individuals with anorexia which includes compulsive exercise and pursuit of weight loss.

In people suffering from anorexia dopamine levels are stimulated by restricting to the point of starving. People feel ‘rewarded’ by severely reducing their calorie intake and in the early stages of anorexia the more dopamine that is released the more rewarded they feel and the more reinforced restricting behaviour becomes. Bulimia involves dopamine serving as the ‘reward’ and ‘feel good’ chemical released in the brain when overeating. Dopamine ‘rushes’ affect people with anorexia and bulimia, but for people with anorexia starving releases dopamine, whereas for people with bulimia binge eating releases dopamine.


Serotonin is responsible for feelings of happiness and calm – too much serotonin can produce anxiety, while too-little may result in feelings of sadness and depression. Evidence suggests that altered brain serotonin function contributes to dysregulation of appetite, mood, and impulse control in anorexia and bulimia. High levels of serotonin may result in heightened satiety, which means it is easier to feel full. Starvation and extreme weight loss decrease levels of serotonin in the brain. This results in temporary alleviation from negative feelings and emotional disturbance which reinforces anorexic symptoms.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in the diet and is the precursor of serotonin, which means that it is the molecule required to make serotonin. Theoretically, binging behaviour is consistent with reduced serotonin function while anorexia is consistent with increased serotonin activity. So decreased tryptophan levels in the brain, and therefore decreased serotonin, increases bulimic urges.


Distorted body image is another key concept to understand when discussing eating disorders. The area of the brain known as the insula is important for appetite regulation and also interceptive awareness, which is the ability to perceive signals from the body like touch, pain, and hunger. Chemical dysfunction in the insula, a structure in the brain that integrates the mind and body, may lead to distorted body image, which is a key feature of anorexia. Some research suggests that some of the problems people with anorexia have regarding body image distortion can be related to alterations of interceptive awareness. This could explain why a person recovering from anorexia can draw a self-portrait of their body image that is typically 3x its actual size. Prolonged untreated symptoms appear to reinforce the chemical and structural abnormalities in the brains seen in those diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia.

Therefore, in order to not only understand and but also treat both anorexia and bulimia, it is central to look at the brain chemistry behind these disorders in order to better understand how to go about successfully treating them.


As teachers, do we need to know about big data?

Clare Roper, the Director of Science, Technology and Engineering at WHS explores the world of big data.  As teachers should we be aware of big data? Why, and what data is being collected on our students every day… but equally relevant questions about how we could increase awareness of the almost unimaginable possibilities that big data might expose our students to in the future.

The term ‘big data’ was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 where it was defined as “extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations.”[1] In the same year it was listed by the UK government as one of the eight great technologies that now receives significant investment with the aim of ensuring the country is a world leader in innovation and development.[2]

‘Large data sets’ with approximately 10000 data points in a spreadsheet have recently introduced into the A Level Mathematics curriculum, but ‘big data’ is on a different scale entirely with the amount of data expanding at such speed, that it cannot be stored or analysed using traditional methods. In fact, it is predicted that between 2012 and 2020 the global volume of data will increase exponentially from 4.4 zettabytes to 44 zettabytes (ie. 44 x1021 bytes)[3] and data scientists now talk of ‘data lakes’ and ‘dark data’ (data that you do not know about).

But should we be collecting every piece of data imaginable in the hope it might be useful one day, and is that even sustainable or might we be sinking in these so-called lakes of data? Many data scientists argue that data on its own actually has no value at all and that it is only when it is analysed in context that it becomes valuable. With the introduction of GDPR in the EU, there has been a lot of focus on data protection, data ethics and the ownership and security of personal data.

At a recent talk at the Royal Institute, my attention was drawn to the bias that exists in some big data sets. Even our astute Key Stage 3 scientists will be aware that if the data you collect is biased, then inevitably any conclusions drawn from it will at best be misleading, but more likely, be meaningless. The same premise applies to big data. The example given by Maja Pantic from the Samsung AI Lab in Cambridge, referred to facial recognition, and the cultural and gender bias that currently exist within some of the big data behind the related software – but this is only one of countless examples of bias within the big data on humans. With more than half the world’s population online, digital data on humans makes up the majority of a phenomenal volume of big data that is generated every second. Needless to say, those people who are not online are not included in this big data, and therein lies the bias.

There are many examples in science where the approach to big data collection has been different to that collected on humans (unlike us, chemical molecules do not generate an online footprint by themselves) and new fields in many sciences are advancing because of big data. Weather forecasting and satellite navigation rely on big data and new technologies have emerged including astroinformatics, bioinformatics (boosted even further recently thanks to an ambitious goal to sequence the DNA of all life – Earth Biogenome project ), geoinformatics and pharmogenomics to name just a few. Despite the fact that the term ‘big data’ is too new to be found in any school syllabi as yet, here at WHS we are already dabbling in big data (eg. MELT project, IRIS with Ark Putney Academy, Twinkle Orbyts, UCL with Tolcross Girls’ and Tiffin Girls’ and the Missing Maps project).

To grapple with the idea of the value of big data collections and what we should or should not be storing and analysing, I turned to CERN (European Organisation of Nuclear Research). They generate millions of collisions every second from the Large Hadron Collider and therefore will have carefully considered big data collection. It was thanks to the forward thinking of the British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN that the world wide web exists as a public entity today and it seems scientists at CERN are also pioneering in their outlook on big data. Rather than store all the information from every one of the 600 million collisions per second (and create a data lake), they discard 99.99% of this data as it is produced and only store data for approximately 100 collisions per second. Their approach is born from the idea that although they might not know what they are looking for, they do know what they have already seen [4]. Although CERN is not using DNA molecules for the long-term storage of their data yet, it seems not so far-fetched that one of a number of new start-up companies may well make this a possibility soon. [5]

None of us know what challenges lie ahead for ourselves as teachers, nor our students as we prepare them for careers we have not even heard of, but it does seem that big data will influence more of what we do and invariably how we do it. Smart data, i.e. filtered big data that is actionable, seems a more attractive prospect as we work out how balance intuition and experience over newer technologies reliant on big data where there is a potential for us to unwittingly drown in the “data lakes” we are now capable of generating. Big data is an exciting, rapidly evolving entity and it is our responsibility to decide how we engage with it.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries: www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition//big-data, 2015.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eight-great-technologies

[3] The Digital Universe of Opportunities: Rich Data and the Increasing Value of the Internet of Things, 2014, https://www.emc.com/leadership/digital-universe/

[4] https://home.cern/about/computing

[5] https://synbiobeta.com/entering-the-next-frontier-with-dna-data-storage/

Nanotechnology and its future in medicine – 07/09/18

Maya (Year 11), discusses the uses of nanotechnology in medicine, thinking about how far it has come and helped doctors. She also considers the dangerous aspects of using such small technology and the future benefits it may bring.

Technology in medicine has come far and with it the introduction of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the action of manipulating structures and properties at an atomic and molecular level as the technology is so small; it being one-billionth of a metre. This technology has many uses such as electronics, energy production and medicine and is useful in its diverse application. Nanotechnology is useful in medicine because of its size and how it interacts with biological molecules of the same proportion or larger. It is a valuable new tool that is being used for research and for combatting various diseases.

In medicine, nanotechnology is already being used in a wide variety of areas, the principle area being cancer treatment. In 2006 a report issued by NanoBiotech Pharma stated that developments related to nanotechnology would mostly be focused on cancer treatments. Thus, drugs such as Doxil, used to treat ovarian cancer will use nanotechnology to evade and surpass the possible effects of the immune system enabling drugs to be delivered to the disease-specific areas of the body. Nanotechnology is also helping in neuroscience where European researchers are currently using the technology to carry out electrical activity across dead brain tissue left behind by strokes and illnesses. The initial research was carried out to get a more in-depth analysis of the brain and to create more bio-compatible grids (a piece of technology that surgeons place in the brain to find where a seizure has taken place). Thus, it is more sophisticated than previous technologies which, when implanted, will not cause as much damage to existing brain tissue.

Beyond help in combatting cancer and research, nanotechnology is used in many areas in medicine from appetite control to medical tools, bone replacement and even hormone therapy. Nanotechnology is advancing all areas of medicine with Nano-sized particles enhancing new bone growth and additionally, there are even wound dressings that contain Nano-particles that allow for powerful microbial resistance. It is with these new developments that we are revolutionising the field of medicine, and with more advancements, we will be able to treat diseases as soon as they are detected.

Scientists are hoping that in the future nanotechnology can be used even further to stop chemotherapy altogether; fighting cancer by using gold and silica particles combined with nanotechnology to bind with the mutated cells in the body and then use infra-red lasers to heat up the gold particles and kill the tumour cells. This application would be beneficial as it would reduce the risk of surrounding cells being damaged as the laser would not affect them as much as the chemotherapy would.

In other areas, nanotechnology is further developing with diagnostics and medical data collection. This means that by using this technology, doctors would be able to look for the damaged genes that are associated with particular cancers and screen the tumour tissue faster and earlier than before. This process involves the Nano-scale devices being distributed through the body to detect chemical changes. There is also an external scan by use of quantum dots on the DNA of a patient which is then sequenced to check if they carry a particular debilitating genome, therefore providing a quicker and easier method for doctors to check in detail if a patient has contracted any illnesses or diseases. Furthermore, doctors will be able to gain a further in-depth analysis and understanding of the body by use of nanotechnology which surpasses the information found from x-rays and scans.

While this is a great start for nanotechnology, there is still little known about how some of the technology might affect the body. Insoluble nanotechnology for example, could have a high risk of building up in organs as they cannot diffuse into the bloodstream. Or as the nanoparticles are so small, there is no controlling where they could go, which might lead to Nano-particles entering cells and even their nuclei, which could be very dangerous for the patient. The science and technology committee from the House of Lords have reported concerns about nanotechnology on human health, stating that sufficient research has not been conducted on “understanding the behaviour and toxicology of nanomaterials” and it has not been given enough priority especially with the speed at which nanotechnology is being produced.

Nanotechnology is advancing medical treatment at a rapid rate, with new innovative technologies approved each year to help combat illnesses and diseases. Whilst more research needs to be conducted, the application of Nano-medicine will provide a platform of projected benefits that has potential to be valuable. Overall with the great burden that conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV and cardiovascular diseases impose on the current healthcare systems, nano-technology will revolutionise healthcare with its advances techniques in the future as it progresses.


Can we hope for junk-free Space?

Leslie in Year 11 discusses the increasing threat of junk in space orbit and therefore the significance of and urgency in removal of such junk, and whether a new experiment, led by the Surrey Space Centre, will provide a potential solution to the crowded orbit.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the rising interest in outer space has resulted in an uncountable amount of space debris. This under-reported phenomenon, also known as space junk or space waste, is the cluttering of the universe with man-made objects, and it has potentially dangerous consequences. But why should it capture people’s attention globally?

Hundreds and thousands of unused satellites from all over the world and fragments of spacecraft (including rocket stages and paint flakes) are in the same orbit, together with the functioning spacecraft. This is because many pieces of unwanted space debris take a long time, even decades, to deorbit and fall back into earth. Clearly, due to rising global interest in space exploration, the chances of collision are growing ever greater.

A report from the U.S. National Research Council in 2011 warned NASA that the ‘amount of orbiting space debris was at a critical level…enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures’. More than half a decade has passed since, and the removal of space debris definitely seems urgent.

A key solution to this issue is the removal of space waste from the atmosphere; this is important as even tiny particles of less than 1cm can have dramatic effects due to the high speed at which they travel and the risk of collisions. Perhaps surprisingly, these particles are a major threat to space walking astronauts and humans aboard spacecraft. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that collisions are unlikely due to space being unimaginably huge, the possible consequences could be dramatic, rendering it absolutely essential to diminish the growing threat posed by space debris.

To demonstrate this point, less than two years ago Sentinel-1A suffered an impact, where an object slammed into one of the solar panels and caused a dent of nearly half meter across. Had the main spacecraft been hit, it would have resulted in serious damage. Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre), stated, ‘We appear to have survived this unexpected collision with minimal impact on this particular satellite. We may not be so fortuitous next time.’

The leading astrophysics agencies’ announcements have emphasized the critical quantities of space debris and although space travel has always had risks, the rising amounts of space junk puts existing spacecraft under a continuous threat, especially as millions of small particles are untraceable. Encouraging further experiments focusing on the removal of them is necessary, as it is urgently important to come up with a solution and this is putting many space agencies under pressure to find the best solution to this ongoing problem.

The solution may be closer to home than we think! Not too far away from Wimbledon, the ongoing mission RemoveDebris at Surrey Space Centre aims to capture and destroy space debris in low cost initiatives, which will hopefully reduce the risk of future collisions. The experiment, planned to be launched this year, consists of four ways to capture space debris. If these methods turn out to be successful, it will be a step towards a safer orbit for the future. It includes: a net experiment, a VBN (Vision based navigation) experiment, a harpoon and deployable target experiment and a DragSail. The RemoveDebris will carry its own junk and measure the success of their methods in space.

The initial experiment involves capturing the debris by firing a net. When the CubeSat (which is released by RemoveDebris to try to capture the objects), is at a distance of 7m, the net will fire and hit the target. The large surface area enables the CubeSat to deorbit at an accelerated rate, which will hopefully remove the debris from space.

Airbus, an international aerospace company, is involved in a harpoon target experiment and many scientists believe that this could in fact provide the solution to space junk. In the RemoveDebris experiment, a small miniature harpoon is planned to be on board. A DragSail, also on board, is to quicken the de-orbit of the satellite when deployed and to speed up the rate of burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, explained by Surrey Space Centre.

The success of this experiment in removing space debris will lessen the risk of collision. It will create a safer environment for functioning satellites and any space vehicles, especially those with humans aboard. This is an absolutely necessary precaution to take before taking further steps in space exploration, and the success of this experiment will provide a new, innovative way to increase safety in outer space.

Despite this experiment providing hope for a better solution to the problem of space debris, how long it will take to make the orbit safe again is questionable and yet to be answered. Nevertheless, the many experiments being undertaken to help tackle this pressing problem provide some consolation. Although it seems like we are extremely far away from junk-free space, it might not be an impossibility.

Follow @Physics_at_WHS on Twitter.

Using images to inspire and engage our future scientists.

Alex Farrer, one of our Scientists in Residence, looks at ways images can be used both inside and outside the classroom.

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation that supports scientists and researchers to work on challenges such as the development of Ebola vaccines and training health workers in ways to reduce the risk of infection when working on the front line. What you might not realise about the Wellcome Trust is that they also invest over £5million each year in education research, professional development opportunities and resources and activities for teachers and students. A key part of their science education priority area is primary science and they have a commitment to improving the teaching of science in primary schools through compiling research and evidence for decision making, campaigning for policy change and making recommendations for teachers and governors. Their aim is to transform primary science through increasing teaching time, sharing expertise and high quality resources, and supporting professional development opportunities such as the National STEM Learning Centre.

One of the excellent resources that the Wellcome Trust provides is Explorify, a free digital resource, developed with help from teachers and partners such as BBC Learning and the Institution of Engineering and Technology that is “focused on inquiry and curiosity, designed to appeal to children but also ignite or reinvigorate teachers’ passion for science”.

The resource can be found here https://explorify.wellcome.ac.uk

It consists of fun and simple science activities that utilise teaching and learning techniques that give pupils and teachers rich opportunities to question, think, talk and explore STEAM subjects inside and outside the classroom. Confidence and passion is harnessed as links are made and pupils and teachers can see that STEAM knowledge and skills connect us all. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and Explorify uses images to great effect with videos, photographs and close ups, as well as hands on activities and what if discussion questions.

Explorify is an excellent tool to use in science lessons, especially in primary settings, but many outstanding lessons use different images in a variety of ways to promote talking and thinking in all subject areas, with all age groups. When images are used higher order questioning can be developed and there are also many opportunities to

  • use subject specific vocabulary
  • explain and justify
  • work together
  • ask questions
  • think about different possible answers
  • identify misconceptions
  • look for connections
  • generate further lesson ideas
  • model thinking
  • listen to each other

Common examples of questions to ask when using images might include

  • odd one outs
  • true/falses
  • similarities and differences
  • sequencing
  • what happened next…

All of which involve reflection and asking pupils to justify their answers and persuade others using evidence and examples.

Some less usual examples for you to ponder on include the following:

What is this?



Come up with a question that can only be answered yes or no to help work out what it is. Once 8 questions have been answered it is time to decide your answer using the evidence you have gathered. Which question was most useful in finding out the answer?




What is this?



Be specific! Are you sure of your answer? Come up with a 5 convincing bullet points to persuade everyone you are correct. Do you change your mind when you hear the ideas of others?




This is the answer:



What is the question? What do you already know about what is happening here?





Scientific words?



Which 5 keys words would you choose inspired by this image? Have you chosen the same words as others have? Where was this photograph taken?





What should the title be for this lesson?



Return at the end of the lesson to your title. Was it the correct title? Do you now need to alter it?





Are polar bears good swimmers?



Are polar bears good enough swimmers for 2018? What time of year was this photograph taken?

As well as in lessons images and questions can be used around the school to promote talking and thinking with all members of the school community.



How many metres per minute does a fly move?



Is it possible to check your estimate?





For more details and examples please see a copy of the presentation entitled Using images to inspire and engage our future scientists that I delivered at the Primary Science Teaching Trust Conference in Belfast.


We are now working on exciting new resource for PSTT utilising images to inspire and engage pupils in conjunction with schools in SW London and with Paul Tyler @glazgow and schools in Scotland. If you have any inspiring images and questions please do send them in!

We look forward to continuing to inspire and engage the scientists of the future as our STEAM journey at Wimbledon High continues.

Follow us on @STEAM_WHS    

Engineering – Take a closer look

Alex Farrer, one of our Scientists in Residence, looks at the value of science capital and the potential that this can have on future careers in the sciences.

Engineering 2018

2018 is the Year of Engineering – a government campaign to support the engineering profession in recruiting tomorrow’s engineers. Over the last 30 years efforts to attract girls and women into engineering have been unsuccessful. Currently less than 1 in 8 of the engineering workforce is female; boys are 3.5 times more likely to study A level Physics than girls; and boys are five times more likely to gain an engineering and technology degree (Engineering UK 2017).

Our STEAM focus at Wimbledon High provides insights into a variety of opportunities in engineering and in related areas such as design, sports, medicine and computer science. Through STEAM we strive to broaden what counts as science and help build the skills that future employers will value highly such as communication, problem solving and adaptability. We aim to encourage all pupils from Reception to Year 13 to think that STEAM is relevant and important to their lives, both now and in the future, and aim to build their science capital.

A national survey of young people aged between 11 and 15 found that 5% had a high level of science capital (ASPIRES projects).

Professor Louise Archer from UCL Institute of Education, directs the ASPIRES projects and has developed the concept of science capital which refers to someone’s science related qualifications, understanding, knowledge, interests, attitudes and contacts.

The Science Capital Teaching Approach aims to build on the existing science capital of pupils, encourage engagement with science and promote social justice.

If you have a high science capital you might:

  • watch scientific TV programmes
  • have science qualifications
  • enjoy reading popular science books
  • have friends and relatives that work in science and engineering professions
  • visit science museums and fairs
  • engage in science related hobbies or activities
  • talk about science and engineering news topics with people you know

The evidence from this research project shows that the more science capital a pupil has the more they will aspire to continue with sciences post-16 and see science and engineering as fulfilling roles.

Below are some suggestions that schools could consider to build the science capital of pupils and adults in their communities so that everyone sees science and engineering as something of value.

  1. Host a family STEAM challenge event. This will help to encourage science talk with family members and show that STEAM is for everyone in the school community.
  2. Encourage science and engineering activities to “pop up” in the playground. Pupils, parents or staff could run the activities and the high visibility will encourage all members of the school community to get involved.
  3. Celebrate interest in scientific TV programmes and films. For example show a screening of a film like Hidden Figures with scientists or historians on hand to answer any questions, or encourage staff and pupils to talk about the science on TV they have seen.
  4. Signpost STEAM books, magazines and events to staff and pupils. An example is Itch by Simon Mayo, which contains a great deal of chemistry, and there are also some excellent science magazines such as Whizz Pop Bang and BBC Focus that can be linked to lesson content.
  5. Think about ways to get families talking about STEAM homework that is set. Linking tasks to science or technology in the news will encourage talk as will setting tasks where help from adults is very much encouraged such as making a marble run, growing a mystery seed or taking a STEAM photograph.
  6. Find out the sorts of science interests, hobbies, and expertise pupils and their families have so that lessons and assemblies can be personalised. Setting a “Science and me” homework will heWHS Gymnasticlp to discover how many parents and pupils you have in your class with scientific interests and skills.
  7. Elicit and value the wider links that pupils have to science and engineering and draw upon them in lessons. For example using the experience of a gymnast in your class in a physics lesson will enable pupils to broaden what they thinks counts as science in their life.
  8.  Invite scientists and engineers that pupils will relate to into lessons and encourage them to talk about the skills and attributes they use. This could be a parent who uses STEAM skills in their job, a STEM Ambassador or someone who has relevant interest and knowledge. Even better if the scientist or engineer visits a lesson other than science! @STEMAmbassadors

Science lesson Wimbledon

If you are a primary teacher and would like to find out more about how you can build science capital in your school we will be hosting a Science Capital Workshop on February 7th 1.30-3.30pm. Please contact joanna.sandys@wim.gdst.net if you would like to come along.

If any parents with STEAM expertise would enjoy sharing some of their knowledge, skills and insights with our pupils please do let antonia.jolly@wim.gdst.net know and we will be in touch.

We look forward to enriching the science capital of our community in this exciting Year of Engineering as our STEAM journey continues.

Follow @STEAM_WHS on Twitter – #YoE

O Chemistree, O Chemistree: The Wonder of Chemistry at Christmas

By Georgina Hagger, Year 12.

In this article I will endeavour to convince you of the magic of Chemistry, through Christmas related examples, and why we should all care a little bit more about not only the science itself but its contribution to our daily lives.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and whilst we all enjoy the lights, presents and the much-anticipated food, the reason behind all of these is forgotten. What makes your turkey go brown, what makes the smell of Christmas trees so enticing and what do your wrapping paper and Sellotape all have in common? To answer all these questions, we need one thing only: Chemistry. Chemistry is what makes this time of the year so enjoyable and yet it is overlooked, ignored and underrated.

When cooking many foods, a reaction called the Maillard Reaction is undergone: such is the case with the iconic Christmas Turkey. This is a chemical reaction between reducing sugars (for example glucose) and amino acids, and the different combinations of these two components is what makes the many different flavour compounds produced in this reaction. In turkey, some of these compounds are furans which produce the meaty, burnt flavours and also pyrazines for the cooked, roasted flavours. This reaction is what makes crisps go golden brown, along with giving some meat its brown colour, as melanoidins are formed which contribute to the brown colouration in cooking.

The smell of Christmas Trees, and pine trees more generally, is much-loved. This scent comes from three main compounds; the two types of pinene (alpha-pinene and beta-pinene) and bornyl acetate. It is this bornyl acetate that produces the pine smell, making it commonly used in fragrances and air conditioners for that fresh aroma. This smell originates from the just three elements that the compound is made from: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

When giving a gift at Christmas, or any other time of the year, the wrapping of the present is an important part. Whilst, wrapping paper and Sellotape do not immediately seem to be that similar, they are in fact both based on the same fundamental compound, the very same compound that gives plants their strength: cellulose. Whilst Sellotape needs an additional adhesive element to it, these two items are largely similar.

These ideas are all easy to understand, yet they are never talked about. Chemistry is simply defined as “the branch of science concerned with the substances of which matter is composed” and then how these substances react with each other. When the discipline is defined in such a way it is hard to see how this cannot be part of our everyday lives. Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant and unfortunately often forgotten chemist, once said:

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

However, we seem to have strayed from this, and now Chemistry is just for the people in white coats and goggles, whilst the vast majority of the others, according to a 2015 survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry, seem to only associate the subject with their school days and scientists. Yet we take selfies on our lithium powered smart phones, brush our teeth with our fluoride filled toothpastes and cure headaches with medicine without even knowing how any of this actually happens.

You may now ask, why do we need to know about Chemistry? And there are so many answers to that question; the emergence of disciplines like Green Chemistry to combat the disastrous effect we have on our planet and the shortage of engineers in this country alone, means more Chemists are needed now than ever before. As well as this, there is the simple answer of why should people not know, why should everyone not have the chance to understand the world around them? In recent weeks we have seen guides written by scientists, including chemists, to explain the use of scientific methods – such as DNA fingerprinting – to judges in order to aid better understanding of the chemistry that is used to prosecute and defend people in court. This is just one example of how chemistry is returning to the forefront of society and so needs to be understood.

By encouraging the sciences, and encouraging the explanation of the chemistry we all use; this makes one area of science so much more interesting and accessible to everyone. If everyone can hear about how this discipline is connected to their current situation through the engaging explanations of something like Christmas or cooking or electronics, then perhaps less people will feel marginally indifferent about Chemistry and more will feel interested and passionate about a subject that richly deserves and needs it.

So, as you pull a cracker this Christmas, become disgusted at the bitter taste of a brussels sprout, or watch the fireworks explode at New Year, remember to think about why and how these things happen and add a little bit of Chemistry induced magic to your life.

Follow @Chemistry_WHS on Twitter.