Trip to Meise Botanical Gardens

One of the benefits about being a Science Technician is getting to go on school trips. Back in Liverpool I had managed to go to lots of different places including Alton Towers, Science Museum in Manchester, Catalyst Museum in Widnes and lots of places in North Wales including the beach at Talacre. My trip to Meise was only the second time I had managed to get out of school after just missing out on a trip to the zoo.

http://www.br.fgov.be/PUBLIC/GENERAL/index.php

Meise is locates on the outskirts of Brussels and is a Botanical Garden which the Belgians created after seeing Kew Gardens in England. They are both famous for housing the infamous Carrion Flower that only flowers on rare occasions and also smells like rotting flesh!

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrion_flower

We had decided to take Year 8 for the day to gain some fieldwork experience and also to look round the massive greenhouses. It turned out to be a perfect day weather wise and it was extremely warm so the sunglasses were out. The first part of the morning involved working outside and using quadrats to do some sampling. The biggest thing that struck me was how close to Zaventem Airport we were. The sound of the planes taking off was deafening at times!.

In the afternoon. walking up the hill to the giant greenhouse, it made you feel like you were visiting Jurassic Park (before the dinosaurs destroyed it) and I kept expecting Richard Attenborough to come out and greet us!

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We were fortunate enough to have a couple of tour guides inside the greenhouses who were able to explain all the different zones inside including a Tropical and Desert zone. They also set the students some questions and sent them off amongst the plants to find the answers.

As somebody who doesn’t really do any gardening, I was very impressed with the variety and design of some of the more exotic plants. The height of some of the trees and the smell of the many herbs growing was quite intoxicating.

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Although there was a lot to see, the fact it was the hottest day of the year, standing in a huge greenhouse was starting to take its toll on a lot of us and we retired outside to finish our work.

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The grounds of Meise are quite large and there is a lot more to explore if we had the time. Over the lake was Bouchout Castle that looked really interesting but we had to make our way back to the coaches to head back to school.

I only have a few weeks left in Belgium now so I won’t be posting again until my final week but hopefully that will include a year in review 🙂

Thanks for reading.

RSC Lectures at The British School of Brussels

One of the benefits working at BSB is that we are host to quite a few lectures from the Belgian arm of The Royal Society of Chemistry. Last nights lecture was presented by Professor Sir John Holman from The University of York in the UK.

http://www.york.ac.uk/chemistry/staff/academic/emeritus/jholman/

I have a huge amount of respect for Sir John as he helped set up The National Science Learning Centres around the UK which deliver excellent professional development to science technicians and teachers. I have attended quite a few of these CPD courses over the years and learnt lots of useful skills that have helped me become a better and more confident technician. He is also a big advocate of practical science skills in students which are needed if they are to pursue a career in Science. He has worked alongside the Gatsby Foundation to promote these skills in schools which science technicians prepare practical lessons for students.

http://www.gatsby.org.uk/education/programmes/support-for-practical-science-in-schools

The title of the lecture was called “Gelato to Guncotton – The Art of the Demonstration” and last night was a great example of using demonstrations to enthuse students and encourage curiosity. Some of the demonstrations included making ice cream from liquid nitrogen, using dry ice to show that carbon dioxide is acidic when dissolved in water, “burning banknotes” and my favourite screaming jelly babies.

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This lecture had a very enthusiastic audience especially when we were handing around the ice cream… A lot of last demonstrations I have had the pleasure of demonstrating at school open evenings and on primary school visits to get younger students excited about Chemistry and how much fun it can be!

This was also a lecture that could not have been done without science technicians working hard behind the scenes to prepare and test everything beforehand. I would like to thank my team for ensuring that the lecture ran so smoothly.

There are lots of other RSC events taking place all over Belgium  this year if you want to attend any. Here is a link to their blog for details.

http://rscbelgium.blogspot.be/p/rsc-belgium-forthcoming-events.html

Other links you may find useful:

https://www.facebook.com/NationalScienceLearningCentre

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @floorphillaz

Solar Eclipse – A view from Brussels

Three days before the partial eclipse and the weather around Brussels was fabulous. Cold and frosty in the morning but then bright sunshine. 24 hours before the eclipse and it’s thick cloud and zero visibility. The actual day of the eclipse and it was just as bad, but undeterred we set up tables with our pin hole cameras and held our breath for a gap in the clouds! Whilst we were waiting to see anything we had the live stream from the BBC website in the prep room and it seemed that the Faroe Islands were having similar problems to us.

Then it appeared! Faintly at first but enough to get a good view and snap a few pictures. I’m quite pleased with some of the images and they where captured by my Galaxy S4. I even prefer this to a normal camera these days as the picture quality is great for day to day things.

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We had set up desks with pin hole cameras and binoculars so that as many students as possible could take part as can be seen in BSB’s official photos. It did become noticeably colder and darker but then again it wasn’t the best day for seeing the sun!

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Meanwhile back in my home town of Liverpool there were some fantastic shots appearing as they had a lot less clouds! This was my favourite picture of the day.

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/solar-eclipse-dazzles-liverpool-merseyside-8882832

All over social media there have been some great stories and pictures of such a rare occurrence and it’s great to see Science and Nature so prominent in the public eye. And that’s it for us for a while. Check out when the next one is appearing near you next!

http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/list-solar.html

The Role of a School Science Technician

My first post of the new year is not about living in Belgium but about the role that a Science Technician plays in a successful Science Department.

A number of times I have been asked to explain what I do, but it’s difficult as there are so many different things. One of the companies that support Science Departments (Sciencecraft) asked what was it like to be a Technician and this was the reply from Chris Hardie working in a school in Middlesex:

http://blog.sciencecraft.co.uk/

Fast forward to 2015 and I am one of the lucky ones who has been recognised for my achievements over the last few years which has culminated in my current role as Head Technician at BSB, one of the best schools in Europe. Without the advice and support from the many Technicians and Teachers I have had the pleasure of speaking to I would not be where I am today.

Because of this I try everyday to support other Technicians. As a member of The ASE Technicians Committee we discuss ways that we can support and improve not only how we do our job, but to ensure that people outside of Science can see the valuable role that we provide. We encourage more Technicians to apply for RSCi and RScitech. This is to show employers that we have the skills and experience to do the job. It also shows a commitment to the role.

http://www.ase.org.uk/professional-development/registered-science-technician-rscitech/

In 2013 I set up a forum for Technicians to complement the other ones available. In under 18 months this community has expanded to nearly 700 technicians who on a daily basis go out of their way to support others, share amazing ideas for new practicals or help us to improve our skills. In an age when education is losing money it is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to attend external CPD courses but this is the next best thing.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/schoolsciencetechnicians/

Inspired by others I set up a questionnaire and shared it across the internet to find out more about the Science Technician Community and found some interesting stats. Out of 627 replies:

80% of Science Technicians are female

0% Science Technicians were under 21 and only 10% were under 30. Only 20% were under 40.

25% have been a Technician for over 20 years

50% are educated to degree level including 10 who are P.H.D’s

65% had attended an external CPD course in the last 2 years

The full results of the survey can be found here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1xSLZLqFuOXhkfjYUC_TBjnzdcr8Oxz2oJRH0B43uDfE/viewanalytics

The biggest concern here is the ages of Technicians. With so few younger people joining our profession it is becoming less and less attractive as a career for the under 30’s and who can blame them? One of the questions I asked was what one thing would you change about being a Technician? Out of all the responses there were a couple of big things to come out. Now if you are a Technician these will not surprise you…

Better pay.

Lack of recognition for the skills we have.

These 2 responses are linked together but unfortunately a lot of schools and educational establishments can’t see this. Whenever I see jobs advertised it is very rare that the pay is over £20,000 even for a Senior Technician. For a Science Technician, pay is usually advertised at below £17,000 and even rarer that the job is full time. When you then look at the job requirements it nearly always asks for the candidate to be educated to degree standard. How many other jobs do you know where that level of education pays so low?

It is when you look at the actual job descriptions you realise how little school management understands our role. Often you see jobs such as photocopying, displays and invigilation listed as part of the job description. Departments that don’t have Technicians have to do their own so why is it different in Science? Until the majority of leadership realise we are more than just “staff who can do things teachers aren’t allowed to” nothing will change.

That’s where we come in. As a Technician who has managed to get Leadership to see my role as one that should be respected and the benefits it can bring in improving the Science Department, I call on other Technicians to do the same. Invite your Headteacher up to observe when you are demonstrating to a class, take photos of experiments were you can see students enjoying the Science, get involved in open nights so parents can see who you are. Promote yourself!

We are very lucky at the moment that we have the support of so many outside agencies who are trying to convince schools of our value. Some of these include The ASE, CLEAPSS, The Science Council, Science Learning Centres, Gatsby and companies such as Gratnells and Sciencecraft to name a few.

There are also a lot of Technicians getting involved in discussions on Twitter and promoting our role including @LammasScience @ASETechs @TechknowUK @Chimbles84 @quinnell75 and many more. We even started a Technician Tweetup last year which runs on the 1st Wednesday of the month. Previous ones can be found here:

https://storify.com/ASETechs

So although it can seem a bit doom and gloom at times we love our job and always do our best to ensure that students get the most out of their Science lessons and want to go on and study Science in the future. YOU can make a difference, YOU just have to believe.

The Social Side

It hasn’t all been work, work, work though and I have been exploring more. On a recent Bank Holiday (on a Tuesday!) I went for brunch with the technicians of BSB past and present to Stonemanor which is a British shop and Tearooms which serves teacakes, scones and cheese on toast!

The shop itself is amazing. It’s only when you walk round you realise how much “English” food you miss. Salt & Vinegar crisps, Hovis bread, potato cakes, scotch eggs! Not very cheap as they have to import it all via Waitrose…

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After brunch a trip to Leuven was on the cards. Nearly everywhere was closed apart from a pub called Domus which serves their own beer brewed on site. A few beers later and some amazing spicy chicken wings it was off to the cinema to see Interstellar. The film itself was in English but there were French and Dutch subtitles at the bottom of the screen which was distracting at first but after a while I started trying to practice my Dutch reading skills. Great movie by the way and a superb soundtrack as well.

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Last Sunday I was given the opportunity to visit a traditional Xmas Market actually in Germany. We visited a town called Monschau just over the border which was about 90 min away. It was just how I imagined it to be. Extremely quaint and old fashioned set in the base of a valley. Anyone who knows me also knows my nickname is The Grinch around this time of year but dare I say it? I actually felt Christmassy.

Some of the local shops where selling beautiful homemade mustards and pates and there were some fantastic arts and crafts places as well. Handy as I picked up a few Xmas presents as well.

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The food and drink was excellent especially the Gluwein (mulled wine) with Amaretto in (available in Aldi in the UK!). This was a great way of warming up in freezing conditions. Food wise I had some Brockwurst sausage, Mushrooms cooked in garlic butter with bacon lardons, potato cakes with apple sauce and of course Snitzel and Stollen. We went into a couple of pubs with really friendly and welcoming staff which made us feel right at home drinking some German Beer (not as good as Belgian though…).

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At the beginning of December I was honoured to be invited for drinks and to meet up with the Science Council and their partners as they were in Brussels visiting the European Parliament to discuss EU Science Policy. As an RScitech it was great to meet so many people involved in different aspects of Science on a daily basis.

As I went into the city straight from work, I took the opportunity to have a look around the Brussels Xmas Market and to visit Grand Place to see their giant tree. The bar we met up in was called Bonnefooi and I would heartily recommend it. A very shabby chic place with musical instruments mounted on the wall and playing a mixture of Soul, Acid Jazz, Trip Hop and Lounge Music. They even have live music and DJ’s on most nights.

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http://www.bonnefooi.be/

It has also been a difficult few weeks dealing with homesickness as it’s been over 2 months since my last weekend home and I really miss my family. Skype is handy and useful but it can’t replace the real thing.

Anyway this is my last update of 2014 and it’s nearly time for the Xmas holidays which I know a lot of teaching staff look forward to more than the summer ones. I’d just like to say a big thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my posts and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2015!

Visit to Technopolis and Mira

So it’s been a while since my last update but it has been a busy few weeks in the run up to Christmas. Lots of big practicals going on and the classic dilemma of trying to perform photosynthesis experiments in December! A couple of weeks ago I went on my first school trip to the amazing Technopolis which is only about 30 min away from School. We took Year 11 on a day of science discovery where they could try loads of great hands on equipment and experiments.

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http://www.technopolis.be/eng/

One of the most impressive things at Technopolis is their giant Rude Goldberg machine which I unfortunately did not see in action on the day but to give you an idea what one is check out this video by OK Go.

After a great morning exploring and a quick lunch break, we headed off to Mira which is an observatory just outside Brussels. (It’s also next door to one of the best breweries in Belgium but that’s another tale…). Not knowing what to expect, I was thrown by the coach turning a tight corner into a narrow road. Up ahead was a big hill with a beautiful church on top and my thinking was perhaps it’s in the church or at least next to it. Nope. We pulled in and there was the observatory. At the bottom of a hill, behind a restaurant! Very unassuming and quite small, Mira still managed to deliver. We sat through a presentation on sunspots and then headed up to the roof to look through a telescope and see them for ourselves. Again I was thrown by what to expect. In a very small “shed” they had a couple of impressive telescopes that we could look through. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse as we went to look through the lens and we didn’t get to see very much. Still it didn’t matter and it was great to see the students being enthused by our guides and we even got to see a small piece of rock from Mars!

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Sightseeing at last

Today is the first day back after half term and the first question you usually ask everyone is “How was your week off”. Well mine was a mixture of work, sightseeing and trying local cuisine. Last weekend was the first time my wife had managed to come over to visit so I was responsible for providing 4 days of showing her what Belgium has to offer!

We had decided to stay in Brussels on Saturday night as it was a good chance to actually do a bit of sightseeing. I arrived at the airport to meet her only to find that her flight had been delayed 45min (Thanks Brussels Airlines!). Upon arrival we jumped on the train and went to our hotel around the corner from one of Brussels iconic sights “Grand Place” which looks even more impressive lit up at night.

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After a lot of walking and sampling chocolates in the 100’s of shops around the area we decided to have our dinner in the Hard Rock Café in Grand Place square. Although not very Belgian for food we made up for that by sampling some lovely Belgian Beer instead and admiring the fantastic guitar wall and the view from above.

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After a leisurely breakfast we headed to Tervuren on the Sunday for the “Blessing of the animals” ceremony in the park. This involves loads of pets and animals being blessed by the local priests. There were so many horses, dogs, birds, cats and of course lots of noise as well. It was certainly a sight to behold!

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On Monday we decided to head into the historic town of Leuven. Famous for its University and also the Stella Artois brewery! Leuven also has some fantastic architecture and squares but is much more relaxed and traditional compared to the bustle of Brussels. There is also a very strange piece of art in one of the squares which is essentially a beetle on top of a needle!

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For Michelle’s last day after showing her Tervuren park and BSB, we headed back into Brussels for a bit more sightseeing including The Comic Book Museum and The Delirium Café which holds the world record for the amount of different beers it serves! Delirium cherry beer is delicious by the way 🙂

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Then of course came the hard part of saying goodbye at the airport. It was great being able to share all my experiences with Michelle and show her my new workplace but now it’s 7 weeks till I see her and my family again. I know it’s going to be difficult especially with it getting darker earlier and us both being busy with work but I’m a very lucky man who has a very understanding wife who is supporting me with my move. Until next time…