Learning in a playful way

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

Most Irregular with Ben Craven

I love the way new ideas can spring from conversations , how one project can be the spring board for a new one. Here are a few words from Ben Craven about how Illuminating Geometry gave him a new idea that has kept him busy for months!

Ben's irregular polyhedron.

Ben’s irregular polyhedron.

One day last year I spent a few hours talking to Jenny about the Platonic solids that she’s been working with, and it made me wonder: what do irregular solids look like? Would they be ugly, beautiful, disturbing, interesting, boring, or what?  And how would you set about making them?


The thought nagged away at me, until eventually over the Christmas break I sat down and started writing computer code to generate irregular polyhedra. The starting point is a sphere: each face of the polyhedron is part of a plane tangent to the sphere. All of these planes intersect each other, and the lines of intersection form the edges of the polyhedron (and hence the boundaries of the faces).


By varying how the tangent points of the planes are distributed over the sphere, and also by having each face tangent to a sphere of slightly different radius, I can vary how irregular each polyhedron is. I don’t place the faces by hand – I set up a process and see what it comes up with.


Here are pictures of a 10-hedron made out of card, and an 83-hedron made out of thin layout paper. (Yes, the 83-hedron was difficult to glue together, and yes, it did take many hours!)  They have quite different characters: the 10-hedron feels like a wonky polyhedron, but the 83-hedron is well on the way to looking like an irregularly tiled sphere.


I rather like them, which is just as well given how much time they’ve taken.  What about you?


Ben Craven

Getting ready for Maker Faires

Elsie Kemp

Thank you to everyone who came along to the Illuminating Geometry workshops at the Scottish Parliament. We had a great time.Here is a photo of  Elsie Kemp with a beautiful dodecahedron that she made in comitee room three with us. I really liked the fact that we held the workshops in the commitee rooms. It made it feel that the building really belonged to the people.  Thanks to Toni Hamill and Hannah Ayre who helped me run the workshops too. I couldn’t have done it without you.

The next event for Illuminating Geometry is Edinburgh Mini Maker Faire. It is on Sunday the 19th of April starting at 10 am. Have a look at their website http://makerfaireedinburgh.com/ to buy tickets and  find out more. On Saturday the 18th, I’ll be at the National Museum of Scotland from 11-2.30 with some other makers to promote Maker Faire.

The following weekend is Maker Faire UK at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. It is two days the 25th and 26th of April. Here is their website to find out more http://www.makerfaireuk.com.

We have changed the design of the mini lanterns this year, they a re larger than last year and the participant can chose different colours of tissue paper to put in the lantern.

Well best stop chatting and better start counting LEDs to make sure we have enough for all these events.


Illuminating Geometry at the Scottish Parliament

Edinburgh Mini Maker FaireAs part of Edinburgh Science Festival the Scottish Parliament is hosting an exhibition on Lasers by the STFC.

They are also going to have some family science activities too including Illuminating Geometry.

I’ll be there on Saturday the 4th of April, Easter Monday and Wednesday the 8th of April. The events runs from 10 am to 4pm each day so drop in and make a mini illuminating geometry lantern.

Berwick Rocks for British Science Week

BSA_BSWNODATEB_RGBHILast year I had a look in the store room of Berwick Museum and Art Gallery. While I was there I saw a few natural history specimens that intrigued me. There is nothing like a Narwhal tusk to fire the imagination or a Sawfish rostrum to peak your interest. Using these items as our inspiration we put on an event for British Science Week (formerly National Science and Engineering week).

Anne Moore and Jim Herbert at the Museum took the specimens and made them in to a wonderful display.

fossil collectionDr Tom Challands came down from Edinburgh University to talk about the fossil collection and I was on hand to talk about the recent animal specimens. Tom brought with him a fossil preparation kit and got the visiting children to prepare some dinosaur bones he had brought with him.

narwhal tusk and carpenter sharks rostrum


I brought along some shells and encouraged the children to draw them, using their

observational skills to get all the details. We had a great day, I think that families that came along had a really great time to.  Thanks to Anne and Jim for all their hard work and thanks to Bristish Science Week for supporting the event.

The natural history exhibition will be open from Easter until September when the museum closes for the winter and it will be accompanied by a temporary exhibition of posters from the first World War.

Berwick Museum also houses part of the Burrell collection of art and antiquities. Part of the collection has been restored and hung to great effect at the Granary Art Gallery in Berwick until the 4th of May.