Learning in a playful way

Bright Lights in the Borders May 2017

The aim of this project was to high light the work of scientists connected to Berwick upon Tweed and the surrounding area covering both sides of the border. The project was funded by the Royal Society Local Heroes Award.

Growing up in Northumberland I often thought all the exciting moments of history and science had happened somewhere else. As I have grown up I realised that isn’t quite true and I really wanted to tell children in this area about the scientists that have a connection to the area.

I started this project with a trip down to the The Royal Society, I wanted to take a look in the archives to checkout some documents from my favourite scientists. It was really exciting to read letters from Mary Sommerville in her small neat writing on light blue paper. I read letters between Mary and John Herschel that spanned 40 years. Mostly they discussed their scientific work but they also mentioned the small personal details of life. The final letters from Mary were written by her daughter as her health failed.


I was also keen to find out more about Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope. The archives contain manuscripts that he submitted for publication. Unfortunately his writing was very difficult to read and I couldn’t gain much insight from them. The manuscripts were filthy! It seemed to me that he wrote them on a fireplace. However he had also submitted many watercolour diagrams of the effects of polarised light on different materials and these were beautiful and it was a magic moment to see them with my own eyes.


For this project we decided to concentrate on James Hutton, James Veitch, Sir David Brewster, Mary Sommerville and Dr. George Johnston. Twelve classes of school children took part in the project by visiting the museum or by the museum coming out to their school. We talked about tectonic plates using sponges to represent the plates, made models of our own Solar System and of another planetary system,  we made kaieldoscopes and we wrote letters to Dr George Johnston the naturalist whose collection became the basis for Berwick Museum.  W had lots of fun too.



We held two events for the public too. A stargazing evening and a family day. Dr Tom Challands of Edinburgh University brought a fossil preparation kit along to allow people to remove some local marine fossils from the stone they were trapped in. To complement the project Anne Moore and the team at Berwick Museum made an amazing display in the museum using their Natural History collections. The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh Kindly lent some microscopes that may have been made by James Veitch or his son. Many of the children’s letters to Dr George Johnston were also included in the exhibition.


letter to George Johston


The Mother of the Nation Festival, Abu Dhabi April 2017

Check out this video of my wokshop at the MOTN Festival Lanterns on the Beach.

In April I found myself back in Abu Dhabi for the Mother of the Nation Festival. Taking up one kilometre of the Corniche, and packed with amazing things to watch, do and eat, this certainly was a mother of a festival.

The festival was to celebrate Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the third wife of Sheik Zayad who brought seven emirates together to make the United Arab Emirates.

It was a difficult set up as stormy weather kept us away from site, however this did give us the opportunity to discover some of Abu Dhabi’s cultural highlights that I wouldn’t normally get see during a festival. I managed a trip to Warehouse 421 at Mina Port. This is a warehouse turned in to an art gallery. There was some amazing things inside including an exhibition on traditional emirati adornment. This included amazing daggers, fantastic jewellery, how kohl was traditionally made, how pearls were sorted and weighed, and how to apply hennah. The best bit was all about perfume. The raw ingredients were there to sniff and some traditional family perfumes were there too. They were the best perfumes I have ever had the opportunity to smell. The exhibition in called “Lest we forget” and is on until the 27th August 2017.

We did manage another trip to another Art Gallery Manarat al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island. It conatins several pieces that have been bought for the Gugenhiem Abu Dhabi which is currently under construction. The best bit for me was the Education Room where friendly staff were on hand to help you make something inspired by all the wonders you had just seen. I could have spent days in there.

MOTN team

When the festival got started it was really busy, one day there was a footfall of 24,000 people on site. We had a great team and I would like to thank Johnny, Ninisha, Nadia, Amjad, Ahmed C. Babu, Mahadi, Amal and Ahmed J. for all their hard work. We couldn’t have done it without you. Over the ten days we made 5200 lanterns which breaks all previous records.

Thanks to Brian and Zoe from EISF for helping us keep the show on the road.


Artist in Residence Spectra – Aberdeen’s Festival of Light

I was delighted to be Artist in Residence at Spectra, Aberdeen’s festival of light.

The brief was to work with twelve classes of children across the city to make an installation based on my workshop Illuminating Geometry. Throughout this project I worked with Hannah Ayre, Head of Public Engagement for Curated Place . It was great to have someone to sort out all the logistics for a change.

I went to the University of Aberdeen and have very fond memories of the city so I was very excited to be spending some time there. Our first visit in November was to meet the teachers we would be working with, check out the venue and run an Artists CPD workshop.

It was great to meet local artists form all disciplines, painters, glass makers, and poets to mention a few. I was amazed at the Anatomy Rooms, which were once part of the anatomy department of the University of Aberdeen but now house artist’s studios, and amazing woodworking workshop and other spaces that can be hired out for events.

In January the project got going in earnest, we ran half day workshops with P5 and P6 classes. Each child made a lantern, and hid two symbols inside it, one that I had given them to represent their class and one that they designed themselves. When the lantern was illuminated the symbol would be revealed. I was inspired by the wonderful Pictish symbol stones that are found across the North East of Scotland. I felt that using Pictish symbols and getting the children to design their own symbols was a way of connecting Aberdeen’s past and it’s future.

symbols for spectra

Here is a link to a video of our workshops in action:

As part of the workshop we used Little Bits electronic kits to explore circuits. The circuit used to light up the Illuminating Geometry lanterns are very simple and the children had lots of suggestions on how we could change improve the circuits by using light sensors, sound triggers or pressure sensors.

Large installation

The festival was in February, 8-11. Our venue was Seventeen on Belmont Street. I turned up with more than 300 paper lanterns and about 35 m of LED lights. I spent the next two days putting it all together with the help of Isobel Towler who was a great volunteer.



Even as we were putting the finishing touches to the installation some of the children came along to make sure we were doing a good job of displaying their lanterns. As part of the installation we had rigged some lights to a colour sensor controlled by an Arduino. We then invited the children to change the colour of the lights by sensing colours on their clothes.


Through the window


Once the festival had opened we had more visits from the children with their schools and with the mums, dads and grandparents. One boy came at least four times with different family members. It was lovely to see his excitement as he shared his part in the installation with his family.

While the festival was live we also ran some public workshops.  I was helped by Katie Ward who was a great help in the workshops (and is also an amazing painter!). In these workshops we showed children and adults alike how to make their own lantern to take home.

At the end of the four days Spectra had received 63,ooo visitors across the four sites. It was great to be part of this festival and great to spend some time in Aberdeen once again. It was truly lovely to work with the children from Bramble Brae School, Skene Square School, Cults Primary school, Kingswells Primary School,  Hanover Street Primary School, Loriston School, Manor Park School, Danestone Primary School, Forehill Primary School, and Walker Road Primary School. I would like to thank all the teachers and pupils for their support and I hope you enjoyed this project as much as I did.Seventeen Belmont Street



Illuminating Geometry at Abu Dhabi Science Festival 17- 26 November 2016

I was delighted to return to the Abu Dhabi Science Festival this year.

We were in the Oasis city of Al Ain where the festival is held inside the zoo. On this trip I was supported by Hannah Ayre; Artist Educator who helped me keep the show on the road and was a great travelling companion too.

Here is a little video about it all featuring yours truly :


As a third party provider our job was to take everything we needed to run the festival out to Abu Dhabi and to train teams of local students to help run our workshop to school classes and families.

The first couple of days were spent installing the large lanterns that I had brought in flat pack form in my suitcase from my studio in Newcastle. I have to say I think it was the best install I have ever done. A big thank you to Dino, Brian and Wesley for taking the time to hang the lanterns to look their best.Lanterns in the dark

The next day was spent training our groups of students on how to make the lanterns and how to help the school children and families get the most out of our workshop. We were lucky to have so many motivated students who really took ownership of the workshop. They even made some instructional videos that we played throughout the festival. They did a really good job in one hour using only their phones to record.

Student’s video

Student Video Two

Over the course of the festival we made 2730 small lanterns with schools and the public.

Here are some photos of  our morning workshops for up to 30 school children One day we had 48 school children in one class, but Illuminating Geometry is such a flexible workshop and we had such good science communicators that we could cope with this increase in number.



Mohamed Subhi Jalabi

Mohamed Subhi Jalabi



Mohammed Atef

Mohammed Atef

Ayman Warrak

Ayman Warrak


Mohammed Amjad Kazkaz

Mohammed Amjad Kazkaz

Ibrahim Saber

Ibrahim Saber

Mohammed Mustafa

Mohammed Mustafa

Bakar Belarabi

Bakar Belarabi

Thanks to Hannah for the photography.

We did manage to leave the Zoo one lunchtime to take a trip up Jebel Hafeet a mountain that is right on the border between Abu Dhabi and Oman. The mountain is just a short drive away from the zoo. I am afraid my photo doesn’t do any justice to the amazing views of the desert and the city from it’s summit.

View from Jebel Hafeet

View from Jebel Hafeet

It was a great festival and we met so many amazing people, colleagues at the science festival, families attending the science festival (thanks for the fossils!) and students. I really enjoyed sitting by the pool enjoying a rose lemonade in our mornings off too.


Orcadian dreams

The ring of Stenness

The ring of Stenness

I can’t out in to words how delighted I was to be asked to return to the Orkney International Science Festival this year. I am developing a serious Orkney addiction. What is it about these islands off the North coast of Scotland that makes them so wonderful? I am not sure if I can find the words but the stunning scenery, amazing wildlife, friendly people, amazing music, fabulous myths and go getting attitude of the inhabitants must count towards it.

This year my friend Toni and I got to visit Stromness and I was impressed by the Pier Arts Centre with it’s collection of Hepworth sculptures and prints by Anish Kapoor. I know what you’re thinking Anish Kapoor has made prints? It is true I saw them with my own eyes!

One of the more geeky sights we took in was the Stromatolites at Yesnaby. It was a perfect day out for a Microbiologist and a Geologist. Stromatolites are the fossilised remains of bacterial mats that once flourished on the floor of shallow seas.

Stromalites Yesnaby Orkney

Stromalites Yesnaby Orkney

We took a late night trip to the Ring of Brodger and saw the green glow of the Northern Lights with the sound of geese honking on the lake in the background. Then it was off to The Reel for too many whiskeys and great live music from local musicians and Andy Munroe (also known as Mr Boom).

I managed to check out a potential new home on the beautiful sandy bay at Evie. It is a bit of a “doer upper”.

Hut at Evie

Hut at Evie

On the Saturday we took part in the family day at the Kings Street halls.  The Family day is always bustling with lots of activities covering all sorts of topics from particle physics, bees, fair trade coffee to 3D printers. We had great fun and really enjoyed chatting to our participants about life in Orkney.

Family day at the Kings Street Halls

Family day at the Kings Street Halls

The we headed off to the island of Westray where we spent the day at the Junior High in Pierowall to make lanterns with the children there.

Westray Junior High

We got to check out the local wildlife too. We saw 23 seals on the beach, some one the beach and others frolicking in the water.

Seals on Westray

The following day we took the ferry to Stronsay where we made lanterns with all of the children in the school from P1 to S4. When I designed the Illuminating Geometry Workshop I wanted it to be a flexible as possible and I think we met the needs of all the different classes we saw that day.

Seniors at Straonsay Junior High in their new science lab

Seniors at Stronsay Junior High in their new science lab

P1-3 Stronsay Junior High

We spent the last afternoon on the beach at Roithisholme, a beautiful sandy bay strewn with shells . Turquoise water lapped the shore with gentle waves and Toni and I swam until we were in danger of missing the ferry.


Unfortunately all good things come to and end and before we knew it, the time had come to get the ferry home.

Sunset on the ferry

Sunset on the ferry

I hope to see Orkney again next year.

Sea Tales from Berwick Museum


narwhal tusk and carpenter sharks rostrum

A few years ago I was looking around the store room of Berwick Museum, when I cam across an object that really sparked my imagination. It was a Narwhal tusk. Sea Tales is the project that was inspired by that amazing object.

In this project we hoped to encourage school children and their families to make up their own tales of the Sea.

We worked with five schools in and around Berwick. Some schools came to the museum and we went to others. We showed them objects from the museum, shells, carvings of mermaids and ship wrecks, shagreen boxes, model boats, engraved shells, and of course of the Narwhal tusk. We told a  story  about local hero Grace Darling and Jane Miller, Education Officer at Berwick Museum made up an incredible adventure story  based on a newspaper clipping from 1775 about a shark getting tangled in salmon nets on the Tweed. We hoped that all of these things would inspire the children to make up their own stories and set them away with a storyboard sheet. We also had some storytelling tokens to help out when if they had writers block. When the children had completed their stories we recorded as many children as possible telling them. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to record everyone’s story and some of the stories we recorded were lost due to a fault on the reorder. I hope you enjoy listening to these stories. They are amazing stories of pirates, sharks, mermaids, narwhals, dogs and treasure!

Duns Primary School

Holy Trinity Year 2

Holy Trinity Year 3

St Mary’s First School.

Tweedmouth West Year 3

Tweedmouth West Year 4

We also held a family day at the museum and invited the Dove Marine Laboratory to bring along some of their sea creature friends. We met Larry the lobster, edible crabs, shore crabs, sea anemones and some starfish. They were a great hit with the families who came along. We encouraged the families to make up their own stories too. Quite a few of the faces were familiar as the children we met at the schools brought their families along to make up more stories.storytelling tokens sea tales

We also asked some fishermen from Seahouses for their stories of their life at sea. Here is my favourite story of the things you can meet out at sea off the coast of Northumberland. Tale from Seahouses

A literacy loans box based on this project will soon be available. It will contain the stories we used during this project , the storyboard sheets, the story tokens, puppets, shells, and other items to encourage storytelling. Please email J.Miller@woodhorn.org.uk for more details.

Illuminating Geometry kits now available to buy online.

Platonic solids

I am delighted to say that you can now purchase illuminating geometry kits from Proto-Pic. Here is the link : https://proto-pic.co.uk/

It was hard to know what to put in the kits but this is what I went for in the end:

Icosahedron kit- enough to make one icosahedron (20 sides).

Platonic Solids kit - everything you need to make a tetrahedron (four sides), a cube (six sides), an octohedron (eight sides), a dodecaherdon, (tweleve sides), and an icosahedron (twenty sides).

Perhaps you are having a party, you might like to try my 10 icosahderon kit .

If you are looking for activities for a class we have two class size kits, octohedron class kit (makes 36 eight sided shapes)  or  icoashedron class kit (makes 36 twenty sided shapes).

The kits have everything you need except a glue stick and a battery. We haven’t  included the batteries as there are lots of regulations when it comes to shipping them however they are available at most supermarkets, look for a CR2032 coin cell battery. If you are making them with a class or group of brownies, cubs, guides, or scouts you can buy them in bulk from educational suppliers such as Hope Education.

I will be at Edinburgh Mini Maker Faire on Sunday 10th April with my Illuminating Geometry lanterns. See you there! Better get the car packed up!

Throwing light on the rocks at Berwick Museum for British Science Week

This year for British Science week we thought we would celebrate the work of Sir David Brewster. Born in Jedburgh and educated to be a Church of Scotland minister, he was a self taught astronomer, mathematician and scientist. He sepcialised in optics and found that polarised light could be used to look at the crystal structure of minerals. This paved the way for Optical Mineralogy where thin sections of rock are viewed under a microscope using a polarizing filter. Under normal light, these thin sections appear to be shades of brown and grey but under polarised light they come alive with colour! A trained eye can then distinguish the different kinds of mineral in the rock. The rest of us can just enjoy the beautiful colour and patterns.

no polarising filter

A thin section of rock under normal light


Sir David was also one of the founding members of the British Science Association and  famous for inventing a famous toy, the kaleidoscope! We decided that we would celebrate in style. Borrowing some thin sections and microscopes from Newcastle University, geologist friend Toni Hamill showed our visitors the wonders of optical mineralogy. We took these photos on the day using a camera attached to the microscopes.

polarising filter

The same thin section under polarised light

Our participants also had the opportunity to make a kaleidoscope. I love kaleidoscopes and had spent a little time working on a kaleidoscope kit made from laser cut parts. I wanted to make something quite sturdy as there is nothing more upsetting than to make something and it falling to bits.

kaleidoscopic image

An image through one of the kaleidoscopes we made for British Science Week

We had a great day, lots of kaleidoscopes were made and our participants really enjoyed using the microscopes. Thank you Sir David Brewster for the inspiration.

Orkney Science Festival 2015

Earlier this month I had the great privilege to take Illuminating Geometry to the Orkney International Science Festival.

The Orkney Islands lie just north of mainland Scotland. These flat, treeless islands seem to spend a lot of time shrouded in mist if my experience of the last few days is anything to go by. However, beneath the mist lives a creative and innovative community. For 25 years the Orkney Science festival has been held every September attracting scientists from all over the world. This year’s star attraction was the Nobel Laureate Peter Higgs (of Higgs boson fame).


St. Magnus' Cathedral Kirkwall

St. Magnus’ Cathedral Kirkwall

At the cutting edge of renewable energy, the Island of Eday is home to the European Marine Energy Centre, where wave and tidal generation devices are tested. I was surprised to find out that Orkney exports electricity produced from wave, tide and wind to mainland Scotland. They produce so much energy from renewable resources that they can’t export it all at peak generation times. Rather than let it go to waste they are about to start using this excess electricity to produce Hydrogen which they hope to use in many ways across the Islands. It may even power the ferries that are such an important part to life in the Orkney Islands.

The range of topics covered by the festival was diverse. As it is the 150th anniversary of the first presentation of Maxwells’s equations, the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell was celebrated. Maxwell’s Torch has been made to signify how Maxwell’s work on Electromagnetism underpins so much of the technology we use today. The links between Maxwell’s work and that of Peter Higgs were also discussed.  It seems that even in Neolithic times Orkney may have been a centre for innovation. By the late Neolithic mainland Orkney was running out of good clay for making pots. This was a challenge for the potters of the time but it seems they may have added duck fat to the clay to make it more malleable inorder to make their beautiful groove ware pots only three millimetres thick.

Paper bag lanterns at Firth  Primary School

Paper bag lanterns at Firth Primary School

I was delighted to bring my Illuminating Geometry workshop to the festival. This was made possible by sponsorship from Proto-pic.  I visited three primary schools on the mainland of Orkney to show the children a little about geometry and electricity. We had so much fun making paper lanterns. For the younger classes we made lanterns out of a paper bag. The children decorated the paper bags with tissue to form a wide variety of designs. My favourites included: dragons, sailing boats, flowers and butterflies.

The older children and I made octahedrons from folding circles of paper to form triangles and then gluing them together. We illuminated these paper shapes with an LED to make a lantern. We talked about where the Platonic solids are found in nature. I love the fact that the pollen grains of Heather are tiny tetrahedrons. We also discussed how to make an electric circuit and how useful and energy efficient LEDs are at making light.

Octahedrons with Primary 6 Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

Octahedrons with Primary 6 Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The focus point of the festival for me was the family day. Both floors of the King Street Halls were filled with science activities for families to do. Again the topics covered were wide-ranging, from developing photos the old fashioned way, how we can achieve zero waste, a remote controlled robot, geology and all sorts of Orkney foods. I made Illuminating Geometry lanterns with 96 children and one or two adults over the day. Many of the families told me how they looked forward to the festival and come every year.

The moment of illumination at Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The moment of illumination at Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The Orkney Islands are magical, they are full of folklore and legends, and covered in ancient archaeology that gives intriguing clues to how people once lived, now they are looking to the future developing technologies that may affect the way we all live.

Here is my appearance on the Proto-pic blog: http://proto-pic.co.uk/The_Proto-PIC_Blog/

I also made an appearance in Frontiers, the OISF magazine. Follow this link to take a quick peek: http://frontiersmagazine.org/geometry-by-lamplight/


Path of the Ponies

Ernie and Jenny






Pit Pony Banner

I am very excited about a new project that will be starting next week. For the last couple of months I have been working with the National Coal mining Museum near Wakefield on a storytelling project to complement their summer exhibition the Path of the Ponies.

It has given me the opportunity to write four short stories about the lives of pit ponies and the miners that worked with them. It has been great to hear so many stories about working in the mines  from Chris and the other miners at NCM and from friends nearer to home too including Harry Robinson who told me lots of stories about his first job in the mines some of which become incorporated into the stories I will tell as part of the project.  My Aunty Janet also reminded me of my own family history and part of that has been woven into the stories I will tell too.

Starting next week we have a number of workshops with key stage 2 classes. I’ll tell them my stories in different parts of the museum and encourage them to soak up the atmosphere. As well as meeting Eric, Ernie and Finn, the horses in the NCM stable, they will also get to go in the mine. I wasn’t sure I’d like the mine as I am a bit claustrophobic, I thought I would feel the weight of all the tonnes of Earth above pressing down on me, but actually it was fine. I soon forgot we were so deep underground. After we have explored the museum we will go back to the museum’s classroom and the children will have the opportunity to write their own pit pony story. I have laser cut some story telling tokens to help them a little. Each one has a sentence that could be the turning point of a story , for example “he felt a searing pain in his…” or “The harness broke.” and “They saw a light coming towards them.”.

In the summer holidays we have seven days of workshops with families. We will let them explore the museum on their own and then they can book into workshop to make their own story booklet. I’ll tell one or two of my stories and have some artefacts from the museum collection to get their creative juices flowing and then they can fill the pages of their booklet with pictures, drawing and words to make their own pit pony story.

For more information see the NCM web pages https://www.ncm.org.uk/whats-on/summer-family-story-writing-workshops