Problems can be opportunities to teach and learn

On March 13, 2015

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I moved house just recently. It’s a lovely location with views over hills and moors. More specifically, in the distance, we have a panorama that is largely Dartmoor. Geologically, as you are most likely aware, we are talking a solid granite base, which occasionally erupts into the rugged and beautiful raised tors. So, somewhere under my house, albeit quite deeply, will be a layer of granite. Slippage or subsidence really is not a threat then. But cancer? You see, granite is a very hard rock, but it’s not impervious. It behaves like a leaky sponge to radon gas. This radioactive element rises though the rock, then the subsoil, and is prone to collect in pockets wherever it meets what it thinks is an enclosed space – like a building basement, or living room.

Public Health England (PHE) to the rescue. Their site is both lucid and instructive, with an interactive map providing estimated dose-rates by postcode. I checked. Good news! All I’ll say is, I’m very pleased my property is not another 8 km to the west.

Now the bad news. Dose rates vary considerably and although, according to the map, I’m in one of the lower-dose regions in the area, my particular type of building construction may serve as a radioactive amplifier to the deadly gas. The only way to be sure of our safety is to apply for a radon measurement pack from PHE at a cost of £48.80. Once the detectors are returned to PHE, I’ll be given a more accurate assessment, and my results will be added to the national figures.

Radon gas is a real problem and this is how the British ‘authority’ chooses to deal with it. No doubt it works and is efficient. But compare and contrast:

Some years back, I was lucky enough to go to Athens, Greece in the course of my work, and, while there, I visited the Greek Atomic Energy Commission. Like so many Greek establishments, there’s an atmosphere of laid-back activity – a mix of apparent chaos and organisation that just seems to work. The rooms and corridors of the Commission were populated by such an eclectic mix of characters, some in white coats, some with suits and notebooks, ladies in headscarves, old men in tweed jackets, children with teachers, children without teachers. Yet all looked like they were there for a reason. I at least discovered why the children were there.

Like Dartmoor, some areas of Athens are also granite-based, and the residents are similarly concerned about carcinogenic vapour seeping up into their properties. But the Athenians have at their disposal a massed army of free employees – one that we in the UK also possess, but choose to disregard. Radon education packs were sent out to every junior and senior school in the affected areas. The lesson plans contained in the packs were enacted in the classrooms; students learned radiation essentials before taking bundles of detectors with information sheets back to their home districts. The ‘little people’ (as some Greeks like to term them) then visited their neighbours, explaining to them the problems of radon and why measuring levels at individual homes was important. They further provided instructions for the placement of the detectors and told them when they would be returning to collect the devices.

Children as young as six were involved in the project (I’m guessing accompanied by guardians where appropriate). After the prescribed measurement period, the children returned to collect the detectors and returned the bundles to school which, in turn, sent them back to the Commission where the detectors were opened and the measured radiation data logged.

The essential analysis was performed by the Commission and promulgated back down the scholarly channels and to the individual homes. However, the raw data is open and the higher education classes may carry out the same analysis to confirm results, or indeed do their own, often more localized, analyses.

So, do you see what happened here? Simply, a problem was turned into a learning opportunity. The key word is in the opening sentence of the paragraph before the last. The children were involved. But I would like to make two further important points.

Firstly, this was much more than a simple learning opportunity. When the children were talking to their neighbours, the students became the teachers, and we know that that is one of the best ways of achieving what educationalists term ‘deep’ learning.

My second point is a little more fundamental, but lies at the heart of what I believe are respective societal differences between the British and the peoples of many Mediterranean nations. In Greece, the little people are treated, as much as is possible, as full family members. For instance, seldom will you find babysitters guarding offspring while their parents go out to dinner or some celebration, or even a quick drink down the taverna. Children are expected to accompany their parents or guardians; they are treated as adults and are expected to behave as such. In Greece, you won’t find restaurants with ‘Kids Play Areas’ where chicken nuggets are not so much food as military ordnance. Just imagine all those young Greeks with their newly-acquired radon knowledge, sitting in their neighbours’ lounges, being listened to, being trusted and experiencing adult responsibility.

About a year ago, and as a consequence of persistent and heavy storms, the coastal railway line at Dawlish, Devon, was undermined and collapsed. More accurately, it was the substructure ballast that was storm-blasted away, leaving only the lines swinging in mid-air like a hammock, seemingly contravening the laws of physics. The disaster thrust both First Great Western and Network Rail into the limelight. But they were equal to the challenge of the public’s demands to have their curiosity sated. Network Rail wrote blogs, set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, employed professional public presenters and even airborne drones to capture footage of the progress of the repair. We watched in awe as they brought in empty shipping containers and filled them with ballast to hold back the sea’s unceasing hammer forces. And then, under the protection of these massive defending walls, they employed semi-robotic mechanical monsters to steadily reconstruct the West Country’s railway system.

Full credit to Network Rail for completing the repair (on time and on budget, I might add) and using social media to engage with the public. But, what if….what if…. They had published study packs which explained the engineering, the technology, the physics and the mathematics behind their activities? What if the packs had described the challenges and even invited students to suggest possible solutions? This is what students want and need. They don’t want to spend hours working out the forces on a ladder against a wall. But the angle and forces on a brace, clamping back a crumbling sandstone cliff, preventing it from cascading down on machinery and workmen below? Now, that’s an exciting scenario they have watched played out on local television each night. It’s both a real and contemporary problem.

Now, I know we are in this period of austerity, but companies like Network Rail already present a professional front to the public, which is not cost-free. They do this to maintain the reputation of their corporate identity – it’s their shop-front, if you will. What I am suggesting is an extension of their current public relations activities. It needn’t cost much. Maybe just one charismatic employee with an interest in such matters taking on the responsibility of engaging with the educational system, both teachers and students. I imagine the internet being used extensively to promulgate information from the company as well as for interactive discussions. The technology makes it cheap and viable.

Obviously, I chose Network Rail as just one possible opportunity. Some years back when I lived in Portsmouth, I watched the progress as Portsmouth’s 170m Spinnaker Tower was being erected using some sort of amazing extendable crane mechanism. Surely there were opportunities for learning activities here. All over the country there are large engineering projects being undertaken, from roads being laid to skycrapers erected. So many areas for fertile learning opportunities.

All I’m really suggesting is that large companies involved with these high profile construction activities employ their own version of the International Space Station’s Commander Chris Hadfield to act as an educational ambassador to excite the next generation of engineers and scientists.

Image: Damage to the railway line at the sea wall in Dawlish. Credit: Network Rail

About Colin White

Colin White began his career as a software engineer working on guidance systems before joining the academic fraternity as a physics lecturer, teaching microwaves and computer science while researching ferrite applications. He branched for a short time into geology to work on climate models, and latterly into sports science working on the dynamics of breast motion and sport projectile dynamics. He is the author of Projectile Dynamics in Sport – Principles and Applications, published by Routledge. He is supposed to have retired three years ago, and yet strangely still finds himself with project students, tutorials and lectures. He happily draws the line at marking though!