Does sharing your passion for your subject enhance teaching and learning?

Clare Duncan, Deputy Head Academic, looks at the impact sharing passion for your subject can have on learning outcomes and STEAM.  

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire’ W.B Yeats 

I’m guessing that most, if not every, teacher came into the profession, not because they had a love of assessment and report writing, but because they had a passion for something – whether that be the writing of W.B. Yeats or, in my case, the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. I find it fascinating that such a simple recurrence sequence, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers, is found so often in the natural world. The sunflower seed formation – from the centre outwards, of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on – is one such stunning example.  

As educators, we have the envious position of having a captive audience on whom to unleash our enthusiasms. As teachers we are always reflecting, always thinking of ways not just to impart knowledge but also to spark pupils’ interest in our subject. By demonstrating passion and curiosity ourselves we allow pupils to do the same – surely a worthy aim in itself, particularly if we want them to become lifelong learners. 

Even more than this, students modelling your behaviour can assist them in their next steps. It’s clear that the university applications that achieve the greatest success are those in which students demonstrate their deep enthusiasm for the subject, whether through their personal statement or at interview. In a recent Telegraph article about the application process, Peter Claus, the new access fellow for Oxford, discussed this idea:

‘Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond and are aware of the culture of their subject.’ 

Our own Sixth Form Review reinforces that what teachers say and how they say it is hugely important, particularly in terms of the expertise and interest they themselves demonstrate. One student commented:  ‘(it’s) impressive when teachers know their stuff‘ and described taking the time after such a lesson to ‘let things sink in’.

So my tips for teachers to think about would be to:  

  1. Impart your passion to your students. By showing your excitement you may ignite it in them. 
  2. Find resources that fuel your passion and allow you to show them what excites you about your subject. (For me one such example is the BBC’s More or Less1 where the presenter explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.) 
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary learning. It is at the heart of our STEAM+ agenda. The best way to help reinforce a student’s passion is to show them that it can be applied to, and enriched by, multiple subjects.  

And why is instilling passion in students important? Here are words of Sara Briggs.  

‘When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.’ 2 

So what will I be adding to my lesson plans this Autumn? The Year 13 Further Maths students will be introduced to the beauty of the catenary curve and how it can be modelled in using hyperbolic functions.

Footnotes

1. BBC More or Less: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

2. S. Briggs, ’25 ways to institute passion-based learning in the classroom’, 2013. Originally published on opencolleges.edu

Our coding Journey with Bit and Byte (our school robots)

Isabelle, Lauren, Olivia and Homare (the WHS Social Robots team) describe how they are working on using the school’s social robots Bit and Byte as reading buddies in the Junior School, and update us on the progress made so far. 

We are the Social Robots team, and we would love to present our project, which is robot reading buddies, to you. This club started in 2018 and we work with the 2 robots which we have at school. Since then, we have taken part in competitions (such as the Institut de Francais’ Night of Ideas competition[1] – which we won!) and other projects and challenges within the school. Currently, we have been working on how we could use these robots in the Junior School to help encourage reading practise.

What we want to achieve and how

At Wimbledon High School we are lucky enough to have two Miro-E robots. They are social robots meaning they can react to touch, noise and other actions due to the sensors and cameras that they have. We can then code the robots into changing colours, wagging its tail, pricking up its ears and many other possibilities! The Miro-E robots are designed to mimic a pet.  But we are not the only one’s coding Miro-E robots for a social cause: they are also used for the elderly to combat loneliness.[2] We hope they will have a similar calming effect on children.

We all know how important it is to learn how to read since it broadens knowledge and vocabulary, as well as opening doors for future learning; therefore, we want to include the Miro-E robots in the Junior School as reading buddies. In addition, reading improves presentation skills and develops confidence and independence. Enjoying reading from an early age will help to support these skills.

To encourage this crucial development in the child’s life, we believe that it is vital to make those learning to read feel comfortable and stimulated. As a social robotics team, we realised that one way to achieve this was by creating a robot reading buddy that helps young children at school to practise reading whilst also being motivated by a cute robot dog (cat, kangaroo, cow, bunny, or whatever animals you think the robots resemble)! If we can compel children to read with our social robots, as well as to teachers or parents, this might change the amount they read or the difficulty of the books they attempt; therefore increasing the speed of reading development, as it is encouraging in a non-judgmental environment.

Our research about reading buddies

Research has shown that it is beneficial for children who are learning to read to have a companion who just listens, rather than correcting them, as we know that reading can be a challenging and sometimes daunting experience for some students. Of course, it is equally important for a teacher to help the child when reading and correcting them so that they can learn and improve. But we also think it is crucial for children to enjoy the reading experience, so that they have the motivation to keep learning.

Therefore, Miro-E robots are perfect for this job as they can help find the balance between learning to read, and practising to read. Also, we can code the robot to adapt to the situation and make the reading experience the best it can be. As we have 2 of these robots at the school, it will also enable the Junior Staff to have multiple reading sessions at once. Finally, as we mentioned, the robots can react with sounds, movement, and lights which we are hoping will engage the students and keep the experience enjoyable. 

While researching, we did also find many studies and papers regarding the effects of animals such as dogs on learning. However, we found little about robotics and coding to achieve the task we set out to complete, making it no mean feat. As school-aged children ourselves, what we are trying to do is pioneering and exciting but also has its challenges. We look forward to introducing Bit and Byte to the Junior pupils and inspiring them to get involved, not only with reading but also to get them excited about robotics and coding! 

Our progress so far

We have been working on this project since the start of 2021, and we have been focussing on research, as well as some coding. At first, we had a discussion with some Junior School pupils, and we sent a survey to parents to see what their top priorities would be for the reading buddy and what their opinions were. We find it really important that the users of the robot reading buddy can contribute their ideas and opinions so that the reading buddies are as beneficial for them as possible. 

An example of these results is that both the students and the parents wanted the robot to guide the child through nodding. Because of this, we set up 5 key stages of the reading process, with different coding programs (and therefore different emotions and actions shown in the robot) for each. We have coded these 5 key stages separately already. These stages are: 

  1. Starting to read, so when the students have just started their reading session or when they continue after a break. We have coded this to have an excited emotion, through tilting the head up towards the child, for example.
  2. While reading, so while the robot can detect someone speaking through the microphone. We have coded this to have a motivational emotion, through slow nods and opening the angle of the ears.
  3. A pause in reading, so when the robot is unable to detect someone reading for a fixed amount of time (for example, 10 seconds). We have coded this to have a questioning emotion, such as with a tilting head position. 
  4. Session finish, which is when the teacher says that the reading session is over. This could be a fixed time (for example, after exactly 10 minutes) or a different action which the robot could sense. We have coded this to have a celebrating emotion, such as moving in a circle.
  5. Early finish, which is when the student decides to stop their reading session before the finishing time. We are still thinking about how the robot could sense this: either if no sound has been heard for over a minute, for example, or if the student does a specific action, such as clapping three times. We have coded this to have a sad emotion, with the robot looking down and the tail not wagging any more. Here is the example code of this:

Social Robots as Reading Buddies sample code

Throughout all these stages, we have also made use of the lights on the robots to portray what stage the students are on.  This will allow the teachers to see the same.

We have learnt a lot in the project so far. For example, through the opportunity to talk with the younger students, we practised gathering data interactively, and how we can use this information. We also learnt a lot of new skills through our research, such as how we can receive papers from the writers and how we can use these effectively. Finally, we have experimented lots through coding by finding out how we can use the new functions in the miro2 library, as well as how we could use different libraries to overcome challenges such as not having a function to sense consistent sound, such as someone reading.

Our next steps

Our next steps for next year and beyond are to successfully complete the coding of this project and run a test with students in the Junior School, before finalising the code to make the robot reading buddy as effective as it can be. There are still a lot of problems that we need to solve for us to code the program successfully.

A key problem that we are facing now is that our robot currently cannot distinguish between a human voice (which can be constant) and a machine whirring away in the background. This is because the robot can only “hear” the difference between fluctuating noises and constant noises. There are many factors that contribute to this problem that we still need to test. Is it because the microphone is not good enough? Is it simply that the communication between the laptop, robot and lights is too slow for the robot to reflect what it is hearing? And how could we adapt our code to work with this? 

It is problems like these which slow down the coding process. For example, there were times where the program would not send to the robot, which we struggled to fix for weeks. Or smaller problems, such as when I thought the program was not running but it was simply that the movements on the simulator that I had coded were not big enough for me to notice the impact of my code.

When all our coding works for each of the 5 stages, we are going to link this all into one bigger program, which will decide which stage the reader is at. For example, if no reading has been detected for x seconds, then the robot may go into the “pause” phase. We will need to experiment to see what timings suit these decisions best. While we continue to develop the coding, we will also need to constantly test and receive more feedback to improve. For example, how could we find the balance between distractions and interactions? 

As you can tell, we have made progress, but we also have lots to do. We will continue to try to find effective solutions to the problems that we may encounter.

Reflection

We have all thoroughly enjoyed this project, and we also think that it has, and will continue to, help us build up several skills. For example, we have learnt to collaborate well as a team, being able to work both independently and with others. However, as previously mentioned we have encountered many challenges, and in these cases perseverance is key. Finally, we appreciate the project because it has been really rewarding and lots of fun to work with the robot and see our progress visually. 


However, we cannot do this project alone. As mentioned, we know it is vital that we receive feedback and act on it. This is why we would also really appreciate any feedback or suggestions that you may have for us! Feel free to complete this form with any comments: https://forms.office.com/r/3yNJZEHBfy. Thank you so much!


[1] Our video entry for Night of Ideas 2020: https://youtu.be/RlbzqTKAOTc

[2] Details about using Miro-E robots to combat loneliness for the elderly: https://www.miro-e.com/blog/2020/4/14/the-isolation-pandemic

Cross-Curricular Education: fostering links between English and PE through cricket

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – CLR James

“I understand cricket – what’s going on, the scoring – but I can’t understand why.” – Bill Bryson

Mr James Courtenay-Clack, English Teacher and Head of Year 9 at WHS, looks at the possible links between English and PE.

You may have noticed that the idea of ‘cross-curricular’ education is having a bit of a moment. Making links between disciplines and across subjects is undoubtedly rewarding and helps pupils to move beyond a straightjacketed approach that keeps everyone and everything in their own place. There are some subjects that fit together so naturally it hardly seems worthy of mention.

As an English teacher, it is rare to plan a unit of work that doesn’t in some way cross over with both the arts and humanities subjects. To pick one example, the current Year 13 students have been writing a coursework essay that compares Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the poetry of TS Eliot. In this unit they studied the philosophy of Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard, post-WW1 European history and the climate emergencies of the 21st Century. They also explored the fragmented voices of Eliot’s poetry alongside Picasso and jazz. All of this I (and hopefully they) would argue, helped to enrich their experience of the literary texts they were studying.

There have also been links made with other subjects that are not usually seen as having much to do with literature. We have had a STEAM lesson that explored the science of nerve gas alongside Wilfred Owen’s poetry and I know that the Maths department produced some wonderful number-based poetry. What I would like to draw attention to in this article, however, is the links between English and another part of the curriculum that have for too long gone unnoticed.

Now, it might be thought that English and PE are not natural bedfellows. In the staff rooms of our cultural imagination, you could not ask for two more diametrically opposed tribes. The stereotype of the PE teacher, head to toe in school stash, whistle at the ready and exuding the aura of good health that comes only from breathing in the sweet, sweet fresh air of Nursery Road, does not fit well with that of the bookish, tweedy English teacher. Of course, all of this, as stereotypes so often are, is complete rubbish. Mr Daws seems to have run more marathons than had hot dinners and if I wanted a book recommendation I could do far worse than turn to Ms Cutteridge.  

Now this article is far too short to be able to tackle the many links between English and all of the sports played at WHS, so I am going to focus on just one, cricket.

WHS Cricket

You may roll your eyes at this, but I believe that cricket can tell us as much about the messy business of being a human being as any other cultural practice. This is something that has been explored by a surprising number of writers and so I would like to take a look at just four examples where cricket and literature combine in illuminating ways.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

Whilst Dickens doesn’t actually appear to understand the laws of the game, the cricket match between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell in his wonderful novel does reveal an important truth about cricket and life: friendship and conviviality are far more important than material success. Also, that exercise is more fun when followed by a substantial multi-course feast.

‘Vitai Lampada’ – Henry Newbolt

This almost impossibly Victorian poem begins in the final moments of a school cricket match – ‘ten to make and the match to win’ – before moving to a soldier dying on a battlefield in an unnamed part of the British Empire. Newbolt’s refrain ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ gives us insight to a worldview that is almost entirely alien in 2021, but that goes someway in helping us to understand our own history.

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

I love this novel. Karunatilaka uses cricket – or a dying sports journalist’s futile attempts to track down the greatest bowler of all time – to explore the political and social history of postcolonial Sri Lanka. If that all sounds a bit dry, please don’t be put off. It is rambunctious, hilarious and well aware of both its own and cricket’s ridiculousness.

Beyond a Boundary – CLR James

This is widely argued to be the best book about sport ever written. James, a Marxist intellectual, traces his own interest in the game alongside Trinidad’s journey towards independence. He reflects on how both cricket and English literature were introduced to the Caribbean as ways of enforcing British supremacy and sees in both the potential for anti-colonial rebellion.

I hope this whistle stop tour goes some way to showing that the cultural practices of cricket and literature both help to illuminate what it means to be a human being and that the symbiotic benefits that arise from studying English and playing cricket together are just as valid as those that arise from any other subject.

The two epigraphs I have chosen sum this up beautifully. I deliberately misread Bill Bryon’s puzzlement as to the point of cricket and imagine that he too wants to know all about its cultural value. More seriously, CLR James paraphrases Kipling by asking ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ and urges us to look beyond the boundary at the world around us. This is the best metaphor for cross-curricular education that I can think of and for that reason I am proposing a mighty union between the English and PE departments. Perhaps we could even build our own version of the STEAM Tower…

Immunology: a brief history of vaccines

Sienna (Year 11) looks at the history of immunisation, from variolation to vaccination, exploring some of the topics around this important science.

History of Immunisation:

Variolation: 

While vaccination is considered quite a modern medical procedure, it has its roots in more ancient history. In China there are records of a procedure to combat smallpox as early as the year 1000. This was called variolation and was a procedure where pus was taken from a patient with a mild case of smallpox which was then given to another person. This means the person gets a less dangerous version of smallpox than they may have otherwise, promoting an immuno-response to act as a way of preventing the disease. This method became established around the world and was later seen in the work of Edward Jenner, who is considered the ‘father of vaccinations’, after he used this technique in Africa, England and Turkey in the 1700s.

Later in the 1700s, the USA learned of it from slaves who came inoculated from Africa. Even though a remarkable feat for the time, it wasn’t without risk, as the way the immunity was reached was by direct exposure to the virus, so infected patients could still die from the virus – as is what happened with King George III’s son and countless number of slaves. However, the risk of dying from variolation was far smaller than the risk of catching and dying from smallpox, so variolation was popular despite the risks.

 

Origin of the first widely accepted vaccination: 

Vaccination, as we know it in modern terms, was first established in 1796 by Edward Jenner. He was a scientist and fellow of the Royal Society in London. Seeing how much of a problem smallpox was at that time (and for most of history prior to then), Jenner was interested at innovating the process of variolation to tackle smallpox.

He was inspired by something he heard when he was a child from a dairymaid saying I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.” This inspired him later in life to carry out an experiment where he inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox disease. He recorded the boy felt slightly ill for around 10 days after the procedure, but afterwards was completely fine. After being injected with active smallpox material a few months later, the boy did not show any symptoms of the disease; Jenner concluded his experiment had been a success.

After writing up his findings, Jenner decided to name the new procedure vaccination as the Latin for cowpox is ‘vaccinia’. His paper was met with a mixed reaction from the medical community. Despite this, vaccination began gaining popularity due to the activity of other doctors such as Henry Cline, a surgeon whom Jenner had talked closely with.

Due to the success of the procedure, especially compared to variolation, by the turn of the century (just a few short years after Jenner had run his experiment) vaccination could be found in almost all of Europe and was particularly concentrated in England. The success of Jenner’s work is outstanding. By 1840 vaccination had replaced variolation as the main weapon to fight against smallpox so much so that variolation was prohibited by law in British Parliament. The disease that had ripped so mercilessly through the world for centuries was finally declared eradicated in 1977 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – perhaps more than the deceased Jenner could have ever hoped his discovery would achieve.

Edward Jenner: 

Image via Pexels

Despite undeniably being a force for good in terms of the world, Jenner was also a remarkable person on a slightly smaller scale. Despite low supplies at times, Jenner would send his inoculation to anyone who asked for it – medical associates, friends and family, even strangers. Later in his life, he even set up his ‘Temple of Vaccinia’ in his garden where he vaccinated the poor free of charge. Despite the opportunity, Jenner made no attempt to profit off of his work, rather viewing his invention as a contribution to science and to humanity, and this was perhaps vital for the speed at which the vaccine and vaccination process spread.

Modern Vaccinations: 

Nowadays vaccinations have changed – not in principle but in the nitty-gritty science of them – as we have begun to know more about how our immune system works. Jenner’s inoculant was adapted and changed to suit different diseases, containing either very mild strains of a virus with similar spike proteins, a dead strain of the virus, or even the isolated spike protein, enabling the body to recognise the pathogen without being exposed to the danger of it.

Introducing the body to the same spike proteins found on the harmful pathogen is in essence how vaccination works. The body responds to these spike proteins are foreign and so send phagocytes (a type of white blood cell) to destroy them, and lymphocytes to create antibodies to activate an immune response. This is why a few days after vaccination there may be a feeling of discomfort or slight fever – this is because the body is fighting against those spike proteins.

While the spike proteins are being destroyed, the body creates memory cells. These are the most important part of the vaccination procedure and mean that if the body is exposed to the actual, more dangerous pathogen in the future, the memory cells will recognise the spike protein and the body will have a secondary immune response, so that antibodies are produced in much greater quantity, sooner and more rapidly. Secondary immune responses to diseases are far more effective and often the person will never show any symptoms they have that disease, with the pathogens being destroyed within a matter of days.

Viral Vector Vaccines:

These are an example of exciting advances in vaccination. The way these type of vaccines work, such as the COVID-19 vaccine developed in the UK by Oxford University, is that the DNA from the actual virus is injected into an adenovirus (a deactivated virus that acts as a carrier for the actual virus DNA to our bodies), causing the antigens for actual virus to develop on the adenovirus. These can then trigger a strong immune response from the body without the actual virus itself being introduced into the body. This is an effective way to ensure memory cells to that virus are created, and this attributes to the Oxford vaccines high efficacy reports.

mRNA Vaccines:

The exciting new vaccination adaption is the mRNA material in the vaccine, and this has been used in some of the COVID-19 vaccines. The mRNA essentially is a set of instructions for the body to make the spike protein of the pathogen meaning the body makes the protein rather than it being cultivated in a laboratory and then put into a vaccination, but after that has exactly the same response. This allows the vaccination to be produced quicker and to be more effective. However, due to the newer and more complicated nature of the vaccine, it is more expensive to produce and needs to be stored at very low temperatures due to the mRNAs unstable nature. This can cause logistical issues with storage and distribution and is why the DNA based vaccine has been hailed as the best option for low income developing countries who do not have the facilities to store the mRNA vaccines. DNA vaccines can be stored at fridge temperature as DNA is far more stable than mRNA due to its double helix structure. This novel type of vaccine was developed by two Turkish immigrants living in Germany, who thought outside the box, like Jenner to improve human health in the race against time to find an effective vaccine. They have been enormously successful with the mRNA vaccine displaying 95% effectiveness against COVID-19 seven or more days after the second shot is administered.

Image via Pexels

Controversies of vaccinations:

During this pandemic, there has been wide-spread appreciation of how vital vaccines will be to control the spread of COVID-19. However, the voices of skeptics, often amplified by social media, seem to have found a more prominent platform to spread their opinions. They do not trust vaccination due to a variety of unfounded concerns. One of these is the argument that that the vaccinations are really ways for the government to implant chips into its citizens. Not only does this theory ignore the historic science of vaccination but logistically the needle would need to be far wider and the subsequent puncture wound would be far more noticeable.

The autism study:

Unfortunately, even though an article by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 was quickly shown to be based upon unfounded evidence, it continues to resurface among skeptics in their argument against vaccines, falsely claiming there is a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Wakefield not only used only 12 children to test his hypothesis, far too small a group to draw up any kind of reliable conclusion, but he was also struck of the UK medical register for this paper. Wakefield’s study was disproven and redacted, and his hypothesis has been disregarded in the medical community through subsequent research and publication. The amplification of this fraudulent study has been cited as a reason for a decline in the uptake of the MMR vaccination and the subsequent small outbreaks of measles.

Development of COVID-19 vaccines:

For some, when they look at the speed with which the Covid-19 vaccine has been developed – under a year compared to more standard research time which can be as much as a decade – they are skeptical.

However, this is not because of cutting corners in the process; rather it is due to the immense amount of funding and equipment being given to scientists, as well as the sheer number of people working on the vaccine, to prioritise its development. In Phase I, II and III human trials are used and are assessed extensively for how the vaccine works in a diverse range of age groups, races, body types and pre-existing health conditions, as well as to accurately measure the exact immune response of the body – the antibodies and cells that have been produced and the efficacy and safety of the drug. This is then tested again by the approval companies – The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for the UK, the European Medicines Agency for the EU and the Centre for Disease Control for the USA.

The World Health Organisation listed ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. This will play a crucial role in how quickly life can return to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccinations are humans’ biggest weapon against the pandemic; they are, in the words of Sir David Attenborough, ‘a great triumph of medicine’, and although there has been recent news about mutations of the virus, it is important to remember that this is completely to be expected. The recent talk of the South Africa, UK and Brazil mutations have been due to small changes in the spike protein of the virus which have affected the transmissibility of the virus. There are tests currently being run, but early signs show that the vaccines are still effective against the mutation.

Even in the worst-case scenario, the vaccines can be adapted in a matter of weeks or months, and the government is preparing for a situation in which a COVID-19 vaccine has to be given annually to those at high risk, similar to the current flu vaccine. It comes as a relief that finally, in the wake of such a disruptive and terrible pandemic, there is light at the end of the tunnel and a reason to look forward to better days ahead, knowing that this lockdown will be very much so beneficial as every day more people are getting these game changing vaccinations.


Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/

https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline/all

https://www.britannica.com/science/variolation

https://www.nhs.uk/news/medication/no-link-between-mmr-and-autism-major-study-finds/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4944327/

https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4826

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-attenborough-anti-vax-ignorance-covid-b1797083.html

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02989-9

Is geothermal energy the answer to our climate problems?

Lucy in Year 10 looks at issues surrounding climate change and the damage our current ways of living are having on the planet. Might geothermal energy offer the UK, and the world, a solution for us to clean up our act?

We are in the midst of a climate crisis; the UK government has recently made a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to help stop further damage to the environment. The burning of fossil fuels to generate power is a significant contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so the use of renewable energy sources is critically important to meeting this commitment to achieve net zero emissions. There are already many established sources of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and tidal power, but geothermal energy might be an unexpected solution to the UK’s problems.

Geothermal energy: a solution to a cleaner future?
Picture from https://www.britannica.com/science/geothermal-energy

Geothermal energy uses the natural heat from within the Earth’s crust to heat water and create steam.  This steam then powers a turbine in a similar way to the production of energy using fossil fuels, with the key exception that the heat comes from the earth instead of from the burning of coal, oil or gas.  So, like other forms of renewable energy, geothermal energy produces far less CO2 than fossil fuels do.

The key advantage geothermal energy offers over many other forms of renewable energy is consistency.  Solar cells and wind turbines rely on climate and weather conditions to operate, which means that the amounts of energy produced varies and can be unreliable.  Geothermal energy doesn’t have that problem. No matter what happens, a geothermal plant will always produce the same amount of energy. The problems caused by inconsistent energy provision have already been seen; only weeks after setting a new wind power generation record, a breezeless day in January 2021 resulted in a shift back to fossil fuelled power and a tenfold surge in spot energy prices.[1]

Geothermal energy is currently in the news due to a recent announcement to build the first ever geothermal plant in the UK, in Porthtowan, Cornwall.  It will produce enough energy to power 10,000 homes[2] – enough to power almost all of Birmingham. So, why don’t we build them everywhere?[3]

While geothermal energy does have significant benefits, it also comes with its own set of problems.  The most prominent of these is the very specific characteristics of the Earth’s crust needed to be able to superheat the steam and power the turbines. As opposed to somewhere like Iceland, on the boundary of a tectonic plate, these locations are few and far between in the UK. Some will unfortunately be located in populous areas, where the negative aesthetics of a power station would outweigh its benefits. Another worrying fact about geothermal plants is that their construction, and the drilling of geothermal wells into the earth’s surface, have been the cause of several earthquakes over the past decade (5.5 magnitude earthquake in Pohang, South Korea in 2017).  While this is less of a risk for the UK, being geologically more stable, it still is a factor to be considered. I would hasten to add that this risk is less than that of CO2 from fossil fuels or the toxic clean-up of a nuclear power station!

While geothermal energy plants are undoubtedly an effective and positive use of the Earth’s natural resources to create a sustainable and consistent supply of energy, the problems that their construction and capabilities raise mean that it would be impossible for them to become the sole provider of the UK’s energy. However, it is undeniable that their existence and use could aid the UK greatly in our battle against greenhouse gases and the climate crisis. While geothermal energy cannot solve the climate problem alone, it should definitely be a part of the UK’s, and the world’s, solution to the threat that is the climate crisis.

 


REFERENCES

[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-energy-answer-is-not-blowin-in-the-wind-xbntdm6pv

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032000-300-supercharged-geothermal-energy-could-power-the-planet/

[3] Check out https://cornishstuff.com/2019/09/11/successful-drilling-at-uks-first-deep-geothermal-plant-in-cornwall/ to see the new Geothermal Plant take shape

 

Will we ever be able to live on the moon?

Isabelle in Year 11 looks at whether we will ever be able to live on the moon, and what this might involve.

 

Ever since man first stepped onto the moon, the possibility of one day living there has become increasingly prevalent. NASA’s several lunar missions have brought back information that shows the potential of a new home for the human race and, with Earth slowly becoming less inhabitable due to global warming, it is now more essential than ever to find a (potentially radical) solution. In our solar system the other planets have extreme temperatures and pressures that would make it impossible for us to survive and, since technology has not advanced enough to send life beyond the moon, it is unlikely the habitable planets outside of our solar system are within reach in the next 100 years.

Astronaut on the moon
Above: Astronaut via Pixabay

Data collected by NASA has shown that the moon’s surface (made up of regolith) has a consistency and cohesiveness of baking flour and although it is similar to sand on the Earth’s surface, it has very different properties. A build-up of electrostatic forces causes the regolith particles to stick to equipment and astronauts’ suits and clouds of dust could become trapped around the wheels of vehicles rendering them immobile. It would definitely be difficult to build infrastructure on this type of surface but a planned Artemis mission in 2024 will send scientists and engineers to the surface to examine the potential.

Water is an essential for humans and although the moon lacks liquid water, molecules can be found trapped in the rocks and minerals or in the form of ice at the poles. This water can be extracted to sustain human life for some time – certainly not the entire of Earth’s population but potentially enough for a moon base. Oxygen for breathing can also be found in the moon’s surface as it makes up 42% of the regolith. This can easily be extracted by robots which NASA have already built prototypes for, and used as fuel for rockets alongside hydrogen. So, the moon already has the raw materials for 2 necessary conditions for humans to live.
Food is a little more complicated. In previous space missions, astronauts have brought light, compact packets of non-perishable food but going back and forth from the moon bringing food every few months would cost a huge amount and a whole civilisation would require a lot more food compared to 3 or 4 astronauts. The moon’s soil contains toxic elements that would kill plants before they would have the chance to grow but experiments have found that if you add human manure, the soil becomes safer to use. This sustainable way of producing food would only need seeds to be brought in the spaceship.

A major difference between the moon and Earth is the strength of gravity. The moon’s gravity is around a 6th of the Earths. This has a negative impact on humans as the weightlessness causes bone density and muscles to deteriorate as they are not being used and heart rate and blood pressure to decrease dramatically. Fitness levels of astronauts have been shown to drop as aerobic capacity reduces by 20-25%. However, there have been no deaths related to lack of gravity over a long period of time and medicine can help our bodies to adapt to the new norm.
Cosmic radiation rarely affects us on Earth due to the ozone layer that protects us from most of the waves however the moon doesn’t have anything like this. Scientists have found that hydrogen can act as a shield and have considered wrapping a form of it around infrastructure. Another option would be to use regolith to create bricks to create housing as this would also protect humans. Much like the Earth, the moon’s poles receive sunlight almost 24/7 and so that would be an excellent option for providing power through solar cells.

Scientists have really thought about just about everything to sustain a base or civilisation of the moon. The problem with this all is the cost. There haven’t been very many missions to the moon due to the expense of building a rocket that contains all the necessary things and the advanced technology such as the rovers that are used to transport astronauts around the surface of the moon. It would currently be impractical as even a handful of people would still require several rockets and as well as robots and technology the idea of sending enough people to even create a base would be impossible for the near future. The dream is not dead yet though. Elon Musk recently became the richest man in the world and he has set his sights on building a small civilisation on the moon among other things through his SpaceX programme and with all the information gathered this could become a reality for the next generations.


Sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/a-few-things-artemis-will-teach-us-about-living-and-working-on-the-moon

https://www.iop.org/explore-physics/moon//how-could-we-live-on-the-moon#gref

https://theconversation.com/five-things-that-happen-to-your-body-in-space-52940

How can studying our surroundings enrich historical enquiry?

Emily Anderson, Head of History, reflects on how the pandemic has thrown the department’s thinking about place into relief, and how this is manifest in the History classroom and in inter-disciplinary thinking.

Let’s observe, Attenborough style, the historian at work. What comes to mind as you peer tentatively into your imagination, careful not to disturb? I would be certain that, to some extent, you would gravitate towards a library, or an archive, and rightly so. For this is where the historian finds their treasure, following lead upon lead to synthesise their research into new understanding, often of people and events far removed from our own experience. Whilst the primary location for our WHS historians is the classroom rather than the archive or library (with a healthy engagement with the latter, of course), the principle remains; understanding emerges through study of the sources.

And yet, how much poorer our understanding would be if we stayed in the archive. Venture outside, and our surroundings become another historical source, there to challenge and broaden our thinking. The potential of this has long inspired me: my Master’s dissertation in 2014 considered how far the political context of the debates over Home Rule in Ireland influenced the construction of Belfast City Hall, building on both an element of my undergraduate study but also my teaching at A Level at the time. Recently, I have felt the draw towards such lines of enquiry particularly keenly, as our world has shrunk due to the pandemic and the opportunities normally available to me and my department to explore the world for ourselves and, crucially, share this with our students on trips (always a wonderful experience) have not been available. Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I know that we are not alone in this.

Within the curriculum

We can, however, still incorporate the study of places into our curriculum. At A Level, we teach a study of the British Empire from c1857-1967. It is, of course, a very wide-ranging unit in terms of geographical reach and this is one of the things which drew us to it; the opportunity, not widely available at A Level, to study global history. The uniting focus of the course is Britain, but to only study the impact and debate from this perspective would be a severe dereliction of our duty as historians. The impact of the European empires on the physical landscape of periphery and metropole alike is striking – the more you look, the more you see and traditional narratives are disrupted. In our city, Notting Hill, now a by-word for the celebration of multi-culturalism, has become so because of migration from what was the Empire. To wander the streets and museums of South Kensington is to experience, to my mind, a showcase of the imperial project. Reading the testimonies of those involved in the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica, and coupling these with the incredible sense of place evoked by David Olusoga in his documentary work, means that even sites of memory far away and currently inaccessible to us can be explored in the classroom.[1]

At GCSE, our course looks at Berlin during the Cold War. I find the city both wonderfully vibrant and hauntingly evocative, and love taking our students there to experience it for themselves. It is the unexpected, small-scale artefacts that intrigue the most – the oversize floodlight which lit up the approach to the Berlin Wall, still on the front of an apartment block though the Wall is long gone; the first memorial to the Holocaust, barely registered by those who pass it in the suburb of Schöneberg; the American-style cinema built for the occupying troops but more at home in the Midwest. The questions students ask both on such trips and back in the classroom show how such experiences enable them to see the history they study in new ways. Excitingly, our new GCSE, which the current Y9s will study from September, gives us the opportunity to conduct a study of Spitalfields, an area shaped and enriched by the diverse communities which have settled there. Classroom and in-situ enquiry will work together to bring our understanding to life.

At Key Stage Three, we are embarking on a total overhaul of our curriculum. This gives us the exciting opportunity to reconsider how we incorporate our surroundings into historical study, and how we can use trips to their best advantage to complement it. Inspiration has abounded – one of the upsides of the past year has been the extraordinary availability of online seminars and training. We have been trialling some new enquiries with Year 9, including ‘What secrets of the past are hidden within the walls of a house?’, which uses the BBC programme and book ‘A House Through Time’ as a starting point for a study of social change in Liverpool in the 19th and 20th centuries.[2] Again, we have found ourselves drawing on a place – here a home – to focus and enrich our historical thinking.[3]

Inter-disciplinary opportunities

An interest in place, in all its complexities, is something we share with our colleagues and friends in Geography. You will have seen Dr Stephanie Harel’s article in October on this blog and this sparked thinking about how we could collaborate to share expertise and experience and develop understanding.[4] The Y12 History and Geography students participated in an initial exploration of themes around place during the STEAM+ event in November, and led the first joint session of Geog On, History Girls and Politics Society, sharing what they’d discussed. We are continuing our joint meetings this term.

I hope that this has given you some insight into an aspect of our current thinking as a department. We would love the wider community to be part of the conversation about our curriculum. Please do get in touch if you would like to via email or Twitter.


Further reading/ideas – along with the material referenced in the post

There are some wonderful walking tours of London which I would thoroughly recommend – some are online at the moment. Try www.open-city.org.uk, https://sixinthecity.co.uk/ and https://www.womenonthewalk.co.uk/women-on-the-march.

Brian Ladd’s ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ – a wonderful reflection on this most fascinating of cities.

‘The Companion Guide to…’ series – for in-depth itineraries around different cities and countries.

[1] P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019; Black and British: A Forgotten History, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2016

[2] A House Through Time, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2018; D. Olusoga and M. Backe-Hansen, A House Through Time, London, Picador, 2020

[3] With thanks to Holly Beckwith for masterminding and planning this enquiry

[4] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/positive-geographies-covid-19/

How are organoids going to change biomedical research?

Microscope

Kate in Year 13 explores how organoids are going to contribute to biomedical research. 

At the moment, biomedical research is almost exclusively carried out in animal models. Although this has led to a better understanding of many fundamental biological processes, it has left gaps in our understanding of human specific development. In addition to this, the variability of human individuals is in sharp contrast to inbred animal models, leading to a deficiency in our knowledge about population diversity.

These limitations have forced scientists to invent a new way of looking at and understanding how the human body works; their conclusions were organoids.

An Organoid (Wikipedia)

Organoids are a miniaturised and simplified version of an organ produced in vitro in 3D which shows realistic micro-anatomy. They originate from renewable tissue sources that self-organise in culture to acquire in vivo-like organ complexity. There are potentially as many types of organoids as there are different tissues and organs in the body. This provides many opportunities such as allowing scientists to study mechanisms of disease acting within human tissues, generating knowledge applicable to preclinical studies as well as being able to offer the possibility of studying human tissues at the same if not higher level of scientific scrutiny, reproducibility and depth of analysis that has been possible only with nonhuman model organisms.

Organoids are going to revolutionise drug discovery and accelerate the process of bringing much needed drugs to reality. Nowadays, the process averages around 20 years from conception to reality. This is a lengthy process mainly due to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has relied on animal models and human cell lines that have little resemblance to normal or diseased tissue – possibly one of the reasons behind the high failure rate of clinical trials adding to the high cost of drug discovery – an average of $2 billion for each new drug that reaches the pharmacy.

Organoids can help this development by using human cells instead of animal cells due to the improved compatibility, making it quicker and more efficient. Organoids are also able to provide a better understanding of human development.

Organoid graph
Above: Uses of organoids from https://blog.crownbio.com/key-organoid-applications

The human brain, especially the neocortex (which is the part of the mammalian brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as sensory perception, cognition, spatial reasoning and language), has evolved to be disproportionally larger compared with that of other species. A better understanding of this species-dependant difference through brain organoids will help us gain more knowledge about the mechanisms that make humans unique, and may aid the translation of findings made in animal models into therapeutic strategies answering the question what makes humans human.

Organoids are the future of biomedical research providing the potential to study human development and model disease processes with the same scrutiny and depth of analysis customary for research with non-human model organisms. Resembling the complexity of the actual tissue or organ, patient derived human organoid studies will accelerate medical research and generate knowledge about human development which is going to dramatically change the way we are going to study biology in the future.

Steam+ in MFL

Claire Baty, Head of French and Mandarin, considers how Modern Foreign Languages connect with other subjects.

“No subject can exist in isolation: discourse and community are central to the progression of knowledge and understanding”[1]. This is the absolute backbone for the study of Modern Foreign Languages. It makes no sense to learn a language in isolation because a fundamental purpose of learning a language is to communicate; to facilitate discourse between different communities, countries and nationalities in order to further our understanding of each other and what connects us.

It is easy to make superficial links between subjects; learning numbers in Year 7 by doing basic maths or practicing the imperative by giving instructions for a PE warm up in a foreign language. These lessons all provide valuable opportunities to reinforce vocabulary, but they feel like an add on, a tick box exercise. The key to true interdisciplinary learning is to stop seeing our own subjects in isolation and start seeing the themes, the skills, the whole world problems and solutions that we examine with our students.

Above: Business vector created by freepik

Take for example students learning Mandarin Chinese. Being able to recognise and write in character is linked to a deeper insight into the culture and civilisation of countries where Chinese is spoken, which in turns requires an understanding of the history of that country. This inevitably leads to an appreciation of the current economic and political climate in that country. Three key areas of study for Mandarin Pre-U overlap significantly with History, Geography and Economics. This is what is so wonderful about Steam+ as an approach to curriculum building: expertise across the school can be used to fuel a student’s curiosity and develop a passion for a subject that is not limited to one perspective.

At A Level the interdisciplinary links between MFL and other subjects are more obvious; Y13 French students study the occupation of France and German students the reunification of Germany. However, Steam+ is about creating opportunities within the curriculum for all year groups.

Consider for example our Year 10 German students who were able to explore 100 years of the Bauhaus movement by attending exhibitions and screenings in German. The language they had been learning in class to discuss their fictional interior designs gained more significance when they saw it in a real-life context.

Students in Year 7 French consider the idea of secularism and religious freedom and how fundamental that is to the French constitution and everyday life in France when they look at what it is like to be a pupil at school in France. Delving deeper into this value system, alongside others, is an opportunity to encourage tolerance and understanding and to allow students to make connections where perhaps they had not expected them.

The connections between learning a foreign language and travel are clear, so our Year 9 scheme of work is structured around a project where students discover the varied and exciting world that is la Francophonie. Using the vocabulary learnt in class to examining the geography, culture, traditional dress, culinary delights and song of different French speaking countries they are able to broaden their understanding of what it means to be French yet also begin to consider the implications of France’s colonial history.

Languages vector
Above: people vector created by freepik

Reforms to the GCSE since 2016 have meant that the study of literary texts has become an essential part of any MFL scheme of work. This presents so many opportunities for the transfer of skills between MFL and English. The sense of pride and achievement that students in Year 9 experience from being able to decode the future tense from an authentic French poem (Demain dès l’aube, Victor Hugo) is far greater than that any grammar exercise would give them. Year 11 close analysis of Maupassant’s la parure in their French lessons gave students a deeper understanding of French society in the 19th Century, themes occurring in other French works and the literary movements of the time, all of which enhanced their ability to study the same work for GCSE English. The key here is for the departments to work together on devising a programme of study that meets all their requirements rather than teaching the same topic twice in isolation.

Steam+ creates the space for interdisciplinary thought. It is an exciting opportunity for us and our students to collaborate more intensively to explore ideas that do not fit neatly into a lesson plan.  But it is also an opportunity to examine the skills that are required and developed by one subject that can support a student’s understanding, expression and ultimately progression in another. Attention to detail required for effective translation that is also needed when examining data in Science and Maths; performance techniques in Music and oral proficiency in MFL. Yes, at times we are confined by exam specifications, but by encouraging our students to make connections between subjects, they can take their learning beyond the syllabi and into the real world because that is the fun in learning and ultimately the point.

[1] Steam+ manifesto

Recursive Creative Improvisation: STEAM+ in action

Rebecca Owens (Head of Art), Lucinda Gilchrist (Head of English) and Richard Bristow (Director of Music & SMT Secondee) reflect on recent work completed by WHS pupils combining three art forms; writing poetry, painting and performing music. This event formed part of the recent STEAM Tower opening.

Rebecca Owens – the view from the artist

The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)
Above: The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)

The links between art, poetry and music are many and varied, exemplified in the shared language around the disciplines such as composition, rhythm, tone, accent, vibrancy, dynamism. In an effort to create an emotional response in their audiences, visual artists, architects, composers and authors often use underlying mathematical concepts such as the Golden Section in their works. For example, Mozart made use of the Golden Section proportions in many of his piano sonatas. As we are all familiar with seeing the Golden Section sequence in nature, the use of these proportions and divisions in Art and Music is something the artist or composer hopes will help induce a natural affinity towards the composition, enhancing the sense of harmony in the piece of Music or Art.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a music lover and first realised the emotional power of music when listening to Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ in 1880. He then became friends with Schönberg, whose 12-tone method of composition was a turning point in 20th century music. As Kandinsky’s work developed, he came to believe that painting, as with music, should inspire emotions without having to necessarily be a visual representation of a particular thing, place or person. Arguably the first abstract artist, he transformed the course of Art using his synaesthesia to inspire his painting. Colours in his mind were linked to sound, shapes and emotions. Kandinsky said ‘The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble’.

Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’
Above: Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’

Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.
Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who created rhythmical paintings, in which he almost danced over the large-scale canvas which he laid out on the floor. He was obsessed with Jazz music listening to Jazz records for days on end and the controlled elegant movements with which he poured, dripped and threw the paint onto the canvasses, conveyed the dynamism and freedom of Jazz music.

Pollock ‘Convergence’
Pollock ‘Convergence’

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) often discussed the interest in the emotions that music created in her work, and for her there was a powerful link between music and her form of minimalist abstract art. She said ‘Our response to line and tone and colour is the same as our response to sounds. And like music, abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning beyond the power of words’.

Martin ‘Summer’
Martin ‘Summer’

These were some of the starting points for the art scholars, when exploring the connections between music and art, which was initially planned for our Cadogan Hall concert in March 2020. Sadly, owing to the pandemic, this event was cancelled, but the work and ideas were instead put towards the opening of our STEAM Tower in November 2020, with the addition of poets composing alongside the artists and musicians.

The artists responded to the rhythms, the tones and the emotions the music inspires as we work. As with all Art, there will be no correct answer, and in this experiment the process of creating the work will be as important as the outcomes. The speed with which one works undoubtedly affects the marks one makes. With timed drawings, which is something we often use in Life drawing classes, the fluidity and spontaneity of the marks created often more that makes up for the less accurate proportions. With less than 10 minutes to work on these pieces it will be interesting to see how each person responds differently to the music and how the canvasses develop during the time.

Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’
Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’

Alex in Year 13 reflects on the creation of her artwork: “Exploring links between different forms of creativity was fascinating. In this process I was able to respond to the music I heard and the poetry I read with a variety of colours, mark-making, and compositions. I was most influenced by replicating bow movements with brush strokes, which gave energy and flow to my artwork. This activity developed my skills as an artist as I was more aware of each creative decision I made.”

View some of the art created during the STEAM opening below.

STEAM Art
STEAM Art

Lucinda Gilchrist – the view from the poet

 We know proverbially that ‘two heads are better than one’, but collaboration is more than just combined brain power. Educational theory highlights that words and language solidify and consolidate thought, meaning that sharing and communicating with others is essential for learning. In collaborating across subject disciplines, we can make the most of others’ expertise in a way which serves to enhance and enrich our understanding in countless ways.

From the perspective of English, in looking at a poem, for instance, we can benefit from a wider contextual understanding that History can bring us, the deeper understanding of rhythm and tone from Music, attention to detail and imagery from Art, global artistic movements from History of Art, forensic attention to detail from Science, and grammatical understanding from Languages. But it is not just about what individual subjects can gain from using different disciplinary perspectives, but how the meeting of different disciplines then serves to open up horizons which would have been unthinkable without the combination of perspectives.

Jess in Year 13 writes: “Usually I would start writing about a preconceived subject matter, whereas responding in real time to music and visual art meant it took longer to establish a topic or a narrative. Therefore I think the influence over the structure of the poems is most pronounced- there’s the dislocation of short or non-sequiturial lines that correspond to staccato parts of the music; but on the other hand, there’s a lot of enjambement, since I think the timbre of the strings might have evoked a watery quality for the writers and painters.”

If lightning could be gradual
If it could be a majorette ribbon
If it could be a suturing needle
If it could be a hairline fracture
If it could be the persistent tautness of a diaphragm
If it could be the searing blaring flaring scarlet that stays in the back of your eyes
If it could cut
If it could be a vaulted ceiling
If it could be sweet, and if it could ache
If it could be the ridge of a mountain
Protruding through snow
Snow packed on scars
When figure skaters turn
And the air takes their necks
In its hands
Suddenly, very afraid of heights
Is lightning catching?
Can it reverberate down vertebrae?
Electrify the nervous system?
Pluck out spinal chords?
The spine a rose between
the lightning’s jagged teeth

Lauren in Year 13 writes: “I found writing to music and live art extremely helpful as each piece created a different atmosphere and led to me writing a range of poetry. I think I may even use music when writing poetry again in the future.”

Sky city suspended between storm clouds
Golden rain and bare feet
Feathers outlined in molten metal
Twisting as they fall
Like sycamore leaves
Laughter thrown at the sun
With the wild abandon of Icarus
In his final moments
Before reality came up to meet him.
Cradled by Zephyr as they spiral down
Either ignorant of the danger
Or too immersed in music to care.
The ground is far too restrictive for dancing
When falling allows them to fly.

Richard Bristow – the view from the musician

I still vividly remember the first time I experienced the music combined with art and spoken word. It was 1990, I was 5 years old, and Disney’s Fantasia had just been released on VHS. The whole school watched it in one afternoon and it introduced me to music that I had never heard before in such a powerful way that the memory still lives on, some thirty years later.

The film Fantasia was made in 1940, featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with animations by Disney. I still recall seeing Mickey Mouse battling against brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, the strange abstract shapes to Bach’s iconic Toccata and Fugue and of course the petrifying mountain demon pictured to Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. If you haven’t seen it, please add it to your Christmas list. It is simply brilliant viewing.

Fast forward to more recent times; it’s now the summer of 2019 and I’m busy planning the WHS Symphony Orchestra repertoire for the next Cadogan Hall concert, scheduled for March 2020. We have a large brass section this year and also a harp – a first for our orchestra – and as such Mussorgsky’s epic Symphonic Poem is something that provides challenge but is also accessible to all our players – from our new Year 7s right up to our Year 13s who will shortly be heading to University. The pupils take to it well, so much so that the simplifications I’d anticipated needing were quickly discarded in favour of the real authentic score.

Rehearsing the piece brought back memories of watching Fantasia for the first time and it is from here that we started to explore the idea of live painting to live music, essentially recreating Fantasia in Cadogan Hall in 2020. Combining these art forms, utilising some nifty camera technology, would allow us to see links between the disciplines in real time. Exciting stuff.

Sadly, the pandemic meant the concert couldn’t happen in March 2020, and obviously this was a huge disappointment to us given we had been working towards this for 7 months. However, with the opening of the new STEAM Tower, we had another opportunity to explore the combination of different art forms, showing inter-disciplinary learning in an improvisatory way and putting our previous learning to work. Current coronavirus restrictions meant the Symphony Orchestra was replaced by our wonderful socially-distanced String Quartet A and we expanded our thinking to include two Sixth Form poets to add another dimension to our exploration. Combining these art forms together facilitates wider conversations about art and creativity, and enables pupils to make connections and to think about things in more advanced ways.

Sophie in Year 11 writes: “It was really interesting to see how the poets, musicians and artists responded to each other, as all of us are artists. I loved how it allowed us to really explore our creativity and it has helped us to think of the pieces we are playing as an ensemble in new ways.”

It was fascinating to see the pupils work out how the inner bars of music evoked a sense of water with this being picked up in both the poetry and the art in various different ways. This prompted conversations about whether this was intentional by the composer or if it was more subtle in nature, perhaps influenced by our previous learning. Exploring the arts through different artistic lenses allows us to explore art in a larger, freer way, inter-connecting our learning and enhancing our understanding.

Final thoughts

Making connections between subjects, filling in the gaps and tinkering with new ideas are central to our educational provision at WHS. We relish the chance to investigate things we are expert in through lenses in which we are less accomplished, feeding into the kaleidoscope that is limitless learning in the modern day. This is STEAM+ in action.

We are all lucky to work and learn in a school where collaboration, exploration and adventure are inherent qualities that are highly valued.

Who knows what we’ll discover next…