Tag Archives: science demonstration

Everyday Science: How to know if your batteries are dead or alive

8 Sep

Running an outreach program, one of the tasks that I get to ask my student assistant to do is to clean up the outreach lab after we run a month of summer camp activities. This involves putting supplies back to their boxes, updating the inventory list so that I can find things around, sharpening all the colour pencils, and…checking whether the batteries are dead of alive. We order batteries in bulk for many of our hands-on electronics activities, and at any given time we probably have 100+ batteries in storage…

Obviously, our go-to is the multimeter (given that it is a physics lab…) and we go by the voltage of each battery, one by one. However, a friend of mine (Thanks Jone!) sent me the following video – a easy way to check batteries, and a bit of science (dare I say physics?) behind it.

(it’s an old video from 2013, but was recently picked up by Lifehacker)

Well, guess this will be a standard video that I will use as part of my student assistant training…!


The state of science events around the world in one huge blog post

26 Mar

Things have been relatively quiet on this blog – mostly because work became rather hectic in the past two months, with me running from conferences to workshops, from workshops to science competitions. I finally have some time now to sort out all the notes I took when I was at the International Public Science Events Conference (a pre-conference to AAAS) and the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February. There w

Going to conferences is always very exciting – and this time it is particularly so. First of all, I had never been to Chicago!!! (and NOW I know why people were complaining about Chicago winter…) Secondly, I never thought that I could attend conferences for science outreach and communication. But most importantly, it is an opportunity to meet people from around the world to chat about what we are working on, the issues we encounter, and come up with potential solutions and collaborations in the future.

Here are my notes from the session, “The State of Science Events: Reports from Across the World and Across Sectors” during IPSEC. Through the session, I was hoping to learn what other countries are doing for science outreach and communications, how science communication “entities” (for the lack of better words?) are structured, and also how we in Canada do in comparison to other countries – and I was not disappointed.

Let’s start with Australia.

Australia – The “Inspiring Australia” program is part of the Department of Industry, Government of Australia. It’s main objective is science engagement and communication. The program provides science engagement awards, develop toolkits for science engagement, commission reports on science engagement within Australia, organize the Big Science Summit for Science Communication (I want to go to this! Time to buy lottery…), and coordinate the country’s National Science Week.

From the program came many cool ideas for the National Science Week – Simon France, the manager for the program, said that they were using small ideas with big impacts:

According to Simon, having a national lead is critical in getting university/organization buy-in. This is something to keep in mind.

UKThe British Science Association is a charity organization. Based on their 2012 financial report, most of the association’s income came from grant funding, sponsorship, and charging for events and activities. 

Master BRISCI_0

The British Science Association’s vision is a society in which people are able to access science, engage with it and feel a sense of ownership about its direction. We provide opportunities for people of all ages to discuss, investigate, explore and challenge science, through our annual programme of events and activities.

Their activities include running the British Science Festival (reaching 43,000 visitors in 2012), organizing the National Science and Engineering Week (with 1.6 million people participating), helping scientists develop communications and engagement skills, organizing science competitions, and supporting local branches. They also run an annual science communication conference. In my impression, UK has been in the forefront of science communication, and it was pointed out by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, during the session:

We don’t consider tennis or politics just as a thing that tennis players and politicians do, yet science and scientist seems to get that <impression>.  So there is still work to do cultural-wise.

China – Each year, CAST (the China Association for Science and Technology, the largest national non-governmental organization for scientific and technological workers in China) runs its National Science Festival. According to Yang Lijun, Director, Division of Public Science Events for the CAST, the annual participation is incredible. Unfortunately I don’t recall the exact number being either 20 million or 200 million (only that there was a huge gasp from the audience when she said the number), but a reference I found stated that in the past 10 years, more than 700 million people participated in the activities, a number that most of us could only dream of. The Festival is also a way to celebrate China’s National Law on popularization of science and technology, which again, is something that most of us could only dream of…

Europe The European Science Events Association (Eusea) has 90 members in 36 countries. This means that the association needs to cover 500 million people in Europe who speak different languages. Jan Riise, Director of the European Science Events Association, said that this makes it tricky to have a central conference and to coordinate different events. Because of the difference in language, culture, and geography, science centres, museums, and festival could be quite far apart from each other, leading to isolation and possible miscommnication.


However, the European Union is doing its job in keeping the Eusea together. EU recently announced (January 2014) “Horizon 2020” Programme

Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.

Within Horizon 2020, a specific program called “science with and for the society” with a budget of 500 million Euro (!!) will be included – and it seems that Eusea will be well supported via this channel.

US –  The Science Festival Alliance is a professional association of independent science and technology festivals, supposed by the US National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It is also the organization behind the IPSEC. The annual report for the SFA is now available online. According to the annual report, almost 1 million people attended SFA member events. The SFA also grew from 17 members in 2012, to 42 members by the end of 2013 – some of which are organizing their first festival event in the coming year. What’s in the future? Its manager Ben Wiehe from the MIT museum mentioned that live science events are finally being recognized these days; for SFA, how to come together to support [each other] but to also allow diversity, is still a puzzle and will be the goal for the coming year.

SFA Annual Report is now available for download. Image source:  www.sciencefestivals.org

SFA Annual Report is now available for download. Image source: http://www.sciencefestivals.org

Italy (Genoa Science Festival) – “In Italy, it is better not to be coordinated.” Arata Manuela, President of the Associazione Festival della Scienza, started with this jokingly. The Genoa Science Festival / Festival della Scienza is an annual cultural event (in fact, this is something that was discussed many timely throughout the conference – should science events be about just science, or about the culture of science? Many, including me, agree that is should be the later if we do want to reach the general public). The event was described by Arata as

a model at international level for science dissemination; a bench mark for science communication; a melting pot of researchers, artists, creative people, opinion makers with people keen on science, schools, and families; a think tank; an added value for the Country namely the City.

(Oh man, I want to go to this too)

The impact of the Genoa Science Festival has been significant, both culturally and economically, as the event brings in a large number of visitors that hotels in the city are typically fully booked. And, this is quite an interesting take on the event – the event charges admission. In some ways, this actually makes sense; the rationale goes that if we pay tickets to see a theatre performance or a concert (cultural events), then perhaps we should pay to attend a science festival. The festival also involves ~700 scientific explainer (university students, graduates, young researchers) during the festival. These explainers go through a training called EASE (European Academy for Science Explainers) and are given the tools necessary for communicating with the general public. In fact, through a collaboration, there is now also a EASE program in Shanghai, China.

The festival will be from October 24th to November 2nd this year. In 2015, the festival will be in France in 2015. An exciting time to come – with international exchange, collaborations and contributions!

Canada? It is very interesting to see how science event/outreach/communication leaderships take different shapes in different countries – via government agencies, non-profit organizations, and professional associations. All these reports from groups around the world actually make me a little sad and well, envious.  At the moment there is no government or non-profit organizations to take on that important leadership role to encourage more collaboration and interaction between different science engagement groups within Canada. Even worse, with how things go in Canada, I personally expect negative news about budget cut, muzzling, or elimination of science programs by the Canadian Government almost regularly. The good news is that there are now many more local efforts for science events and festivals (for example, there are now several major science festivals across Canada – Science Rendezvous, Eureka!, Around the Dome in 30 days, Beakerhead, and likely a few more that I missed. The BC Charter of Science was kicked started a few months ago. The future is looking slightly brighter…but we are now years (if not decades) behind and there is much more catching up to do.

The thrill of DIY electronics

23 Jun

Our summer camp program will begin in about two weeks. This is the time we  start looking at empty spots in our schedule and thinking about what we can do with them. One thing that is still missing is an electronics activity for our Grade 8-10 kids.

Now, while I have worked in the Department of Physics & Astronomy for almost 5 years, the last time I took a physics course was in first year undergrad. So the memory of how electronics work is a vague one. This is a pity because we have so many cool things in the department (3D print, water jet cutter, machine shop, you name it) – I just had no time. BUT this is work, right? So I sat down and started working on it.

Originally my coop student came up with a light-sensing electrical fans. “eh…kinda boring,” I said (I know, I was harsh haha). “What about something that moves?” “Like a car? Can these motors do that?” This went on for a while, and I started putting things on the breadboard, occasionally not knowing what the components are doing (“eh, what’s a mosfet?”). But I was pretty determined. I broke a LED and a light sensor in the process (“I smell something burning…”), but luckily my coop student figured it out for me 😉

Anyways, this is what we ended up putting together! It’s a light sensing car: the switches control whether you want it to be in the light sensing mode or not. And when there is no light, it stops running but turns on the LED light.

(I don’t have a video of it running because it was too hard to film that in my office, but it does work really well. Also, it is not a solar-powered car – I don’t think the power input would have been enough, plus the car is too heavy, but maybe we will try that later on)

The circuit is messy at the moment, so he is working on cleaning up the circuit, perhaps changing the switch to something smaller/simpler. Once we finish, we plan to put the instructions up on Instructables. Of course, the camp kids will be able to build these cars during the camp.

But, the really cool thing is that we put this together!! This is so exciting – I guess this is why many people are behind the Maker movement. I also told my coop student that I will brag about it for another few weeks. Haha.


Back from Portland, back to blogging

10 Jun

If you read my previous post, you would know that I spent my May organizing multiple conferences, public lectures, and outreach events. After we wrapped up CASCA (Canadian Astronomical Society Annual Conference), I escaped to Portland so that I could force myself to stop checking work emails.

Of course, I was really lying to myself when I said that I was going to stay away from work!! One of the reasons for going to Portland was to visit the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) – part to research demos and activities that we could use for our upcoming summer camps, and part to act like a kid and play with science toys (with a legit reason, even though I am about 20 years older than most of the visitors there).

I had fond memories of science museums. Growing up in Taiwan, I was a frequent visitor of the  massive Taiwan National Museum of Natural Science when I was little. I am also a huge fan of the London Science Museum – you probably won’t see another person as excited about science artifacts as I was. While the passion might have faded a little because of age and education, once in a while the excitement comes back to hit me in the head. I was originally planning to spend 2-3 hours at the OMSI, but ended up staying there for the whole afternoon.

The most awesome demo I saw during my visit was this one – The  Harmonic Pendulum. The wonderful demo person (I don’t remember your name! If you see this please email me as I would like to credit you) did the demo twice so that I could record it. Watch the timer above and observe how the pattern of the pendulum came about:

I am no physicist (which is even better, because I think I get amazed by physics demos more so than the physicists I work with everyday), but if you are interested here is the description of the demo and some calculations.

 Harmonic Pendulum Explanation   Calculation for the Harmonic Pendulum

Next up is a demo with the strobe light (if you don’t like spinning objects or lights going on and off, this is not really for you, but it is rather mild). It was simply two ball bearings stuck together by epoxy glue, but it’s so much fun to watch:

(Updated on June 21. I recently learned that the spinning ball bearings have a name – the Hurricane balls. There is a stack exchange question/answer regarding how they can spin so fast, and a link to a pretty awesome YouTube video)

And then the orbit table, which a graduate student in my department is now thinking about making:

Other than checking out the demos and activities, I also spent about an hour touring the USS Blueback (SS-581) submarine – yes, there is a submarine next to the science museum! How cool is that? And then another hour watching the IMAX movie “Hubble.”

So here is my update about the trip. This also serves as a post that I can write up quickly so to get back into the rhythm of blogging. Thanks for staying around and more posts are coming!

Me standing in front of an Infrared Camera with my camera

Water Balloons, Fire Balloons, and Some Science to Go with Them [videos]

26 Jan

A few weeks ago we ran a really awesome science show on the phenomenal science of fluids! I got inspired to write a little bit about fluids.

In Wikipedia a fluid is defined as “a substance that continually deforms under an applied shear stress.” Translation? A fluid is something that takes the shape of its container. Think about pouring water from a mug to a fish bowl. The shape of the water changes to conform to the shape of the fish bowl.

Now, for a water balloon, what shape does the water in the balloon take? (think about this for a few seconds…) Our outreach coop student Alice took the following slow-motion video of her popping a water balloon.

Did you get it right? So the water actually took the shake of the balloon, suspended in the air for a little bit when the balloon broke, and then dropped down all over (Slow motion videos are so cool, I can watch this for the whole day).

Although when we think of “fluids” we usually think of liquids (water, juice, coffee, and more coffee…), gases are also fluids. When we fill a container with a gas, it conforms to the shape of the container.

Now, what happens when we pop a balloon that is fill with a gas? More specifically, what happens when we light a balloon filled with hydrogen gas on fire?!

This happens really fast! Here is a video taken when my colleague Tamara from UBC Chemistry Outreach lit a balloon filled with hydrogen gas (highly flammable, don’t do this at home!).

So fast that we actually cannot see what really happened without using a high-speed camera to take a slow-motion video. Here is a video about hydrogen-filled balloons from the Period Table of Videos (with additional explanation!).

You can even see a little bit of the outline of the balloon in the hydrogen only balloon video. And it is also very nice to see a scientist talking about the mistake he made in thinking what might have happened and how he went about to test a viewer’s suggestion 😀

Hope you enjoyed them!

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