Learning in a playful way

Create a Kite at Abu Dhabi Science Festival November 2017

Last year I was at a festival where there was a kite making workshop on the beach and some of the kites were ending up in the sea. I wondered if I could make a kite that would fly well yet be biodegradable. It took months of testing different materials but by the end of the summer I had done it. 

I was delighted when I was asked by Abu Dhabi Science Festival if I would bring my kite making workshop to the festival in November. I was lucky to have a great team of students to help me and Hannah Ayre work with school groups and families to make thousands of kites over the festival. The best part of making a kite is of course flying it, and we had great fun with the school groups flying the kites in the square next to our workshop.

The kites make a great workshop as they encourage children to be dexterous, a skill that our screen loving children often lack.


They are also great as there is so much science to talk about we talked about how kites fly and the effect of plastic pollution on our oceans and how we, as a society need to think of way to reduce plastic waste.



Hannah and I didn’t get much time off during the festival but the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened while we were there and we couldn’t resist taking a look. It was breath taking and I thought their exhibitions were very thoughtful.

Illuminating Geometry at Enlighten, Bury

Enlighten is a Light and Music festival in Bury just north of Manchester. I was very happy to work with Bury Archives to make a installation for their foyer working with schools from the local area based on my Illuminating Geometry project.

At the beginning of October I went down to Bury to check out the venue. Bury Museum, Library, Art Gallery, Sculpture Centre and Archives all inhabit one amazing Victorian Building. I was taken down in to the basement to see the foyer that we would use for the installation. It was a great space as it received little natural light and the lights could be controlled. Adam, one of the archivists took me through a labyrinth of corridors to the back rooms to show me a bundle of maps that had been donated. The archives already had copies of these maps so they wondered if I could use them as part of this project. The maps covered the area form Bury towards the centre of Manchester going back in time to the 1700’s. I spent the evening looking for interesting features on the map and cutting out circles for the school groups to use the next day.

I worked with three schools, Our Lady of Lourdes in Bury, Parkview Primary in Prestwich and Webster Primary school in Central Manchester. Each school had chosen a symbol to represent them and each child also designed their own symbol to represent themselves. In this way each lantern came to represent the past, present and future of Bury.

At each school we made our lanterns, thought a little bit about how we use symbols, learned quite a bit about electric circuits using Little Bits kits and discussed the creative process and how programming works.

A couple of weeks later I was back in Bury for the install. I measured out a pentagon on the floor of the Archives and placed studio poles at the points. I then hung the lanterns around the pentagon. I connected some of the light to two colour sesnors so that visitors could change the colour of the lights.

The best part of these projects is when the children who have made the lanterns at school come along and show their parents and grandparents their work.  We also ran workshops for visitors to make lanterns during the festival and some of the school kids had their whole families making lanterns to take home. After the festival, I boxed up all the lanterns and sent them back to school along with batteries and LEDs so that the children could enjoy their lanterns in the class room or at home.


As well as the light festival, which was free to visitors, with wonderful works of art inside and outside, there was a music programme too. I was lucky enough to catch some of the bands when I had finished at the Archives. Mount Wolf and Science of the Lamps are now regular features of the studio play list.


Learning in the Roundhouse at St Cuthberts

I was delighted to be asked by St Cuthbert’s RC Primary School in North Shields to come and work with two groups of children in their outside space. St Cuthbert’s have built a round house in their school grounds along with a dedicated campfire area. How could I resist?

I worked with two groups of children, from years 2 and 4. I wanted to use the outdoor space to increase confidence,  social skills,  dexterity and engagement in children who struggle to engage in class.

Over five weeks we made marble runs on a pile of soil left over from building the roundhouse, we painetd autumn flags, we made clay pots and got the Muddy Fingers potters to glaze and fire them, we made bird feeders, we ground flour from wheat, built dens and many more activities. We blew giant bubbles thanks to a great recipe from Philip Noble for the perfect bubble miture. It was a truly magical session for the children.

I’m not sure who enjoyed themselves the most when we played conkers; Mr Dillion, the headteacher, or the children. I think my favourite activity was making apple crumble in a dutch oven. We divided the children in to two teams, team apple and team crumble. Team apple had to peel and cut up the apples and team crumble prepared mixed the flour, butter and sugar to make the crumble. I had built up the fire to make sure we had lots of hot coals for cooking the crumble. We put the dutch oven on it’s tripod over part of the fire. and covered the lid with coals too. After about 40 mins the crumble was cooked and we ate it hungrily around the camp fire.

Each session ended with stories and songs around the campfire followed by a reflection on the day.

One aspect that I particularly enjoyed about this project is that the parents were encouraged to come along at the end of the day to see what the children had been doing and to have a go themselves. The parents really enjoyed getting their hands stuck in, particularly when we made the clay pots.

Working with St Cuthbert’s was a real inspiration for me as the staff their are so enthusiastic and so dedicated to providing the best experience for the children at the school.


Orkney Science Festival Sept 2017

Last year I was at a festival where there was a kite making workshop and I was a bit horrified to see so many plastic kites ending up in the sea. Once plastic gets in to the sea, it floats around the world possibly for centuries reaching parts of our globe that we might think are far away from any kind of pollution. This bottle of 7 up is thought to have left Florida about ten years ago and washed up in Birsay, Mainland Orkney earlier this year. It contained a sweet smelling liquid, thought to be the remains of the 7 Up. (No-one wanted to taste it to find out!)

Plastic bottle from america

So over the summer I had been working on making a kite with no plastic parts. After weeks of testing I was happy with the result and the Orkney science festival proved to be the best place for the first outing of this new workshop.Kite sideways viewI spent months researching different kinds of paper, different lengths and weights of bamboo canes, finding pure linen thread etc etc. but finally I was ready. How would classes of school children find making these kites?

I’m always a little nervous when doing a new workshop for the first time, but everyone managed to make a kite from P2 to S3. It is a great workshop as you can tailor the science to be appropriate for the class.

There wasn’t time for me to get involved in flying the kites with each class but, the older kids on Stronsay let me join in their kite flying session. Here are a few picures:

We had loads of fun on a blustery Orkney day!

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.