Interview with Paul Downie, Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award Winner

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Paul Downie. I’m a biology teacher based in Glasgow, where I’ve been faculty head of science. I’m currently on secondment developing West OS [part of the National e-Learning Offer in Scotland providing recorded video lessons created by teachers] and the creator of the Higher Biology Podcast.

You have just won the Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award – the first Scottish teacher to have won. Can you tell us about the award, and why you won?

The award seeks to identify and celebrate the UK’s leading secondary teachers. For me, it provided an opportunity to reflect on my practice and share the work that I’ve been involved in over recent years. Hopefully, that work has played an important role in educating and inspiring the next generation of biologists – it’s not an award that I could have won without being surrounded by some fantastic colleagues.

What made you decide to be a biology teacher?

I like my subject, I’m passionate about it, but the biggest thing was that I wanted to leave work at the end of the day – or week – and feel like I’d made a difference. There is a lot of hard work involved in teaching, but it’s a special career, in that you get an opportunity to make a difference to others every single day, and I don’t think that there are many jobs that can give you that feeling.

Can you tell us about your teaching philosophy?

Primarily, my teaching philosophy is to enthuse young people about the subject. To ensure they understand why we’re learning something and why it’s relevant to their life. We need our young people to leave school as both responsible and informed citizens, equipped to participate in debates around global issues which will impact their lives and also to have an understanding of the world they live in.

You took a class of students on an expedition to the Galapagos a few years ago. What gave you the inspiration to do this and what was the primary goal of the trip?

I was lucky enough when studying at the University of Dundee to participate in a research expedition to Trinidad led by Professor Steve Hubbard. It had a big impact on my studies and the direction that I took after that.

It was an incredible experience. It allowed me, at the time, to play a very small part in what I believe is now the largest data set of its kind, looking at the survival rate between tropical and temperate bird species. I always said that if I had the opportunity to give pupils even a little taste of that experience, it was something I’d try to do. 

A young person in an S3 class had asked the question “could we go on a school trip to Galapagos?” and the rest of the class laughed, but the thought in my head was “why not?”

Two years of preparation, two years of fundraising and a lot of hard work by the students and everyone else who was involved, and we got the Galapagos. We wouldn’t have been able to have that experience if it hadn’t been for a range of partners, all of whom played a big role in supporting the trip and we were incredibly grateful for that support, especially our fantastic expedition shirts which were provided by Twig.

Any advice you would give to teachers planning on undertaking such a big trip in the future?

It’s certainly going to be more challenging, given the ongoing pandemic, but what I would say is that you don’t have to travel across the world to find excellent learning opportunities. It was a fabulous trip and a fabulous experience, but there are loads of great places to visit in Scotland, with amazing learning experiences, right on our back doorstep.

Tell us about The Higher Biology Podcast, and the inspiration behind starting it?

I created the Higher Biology Podcast during the first COVID-19 lockdown, really as a response to my own frustration and trying to be able to deliver a more engaging learning experience for young people at that point. Myself and my wife listened to a lot of podcasts, and I started wondering if it was possible to produce something with educational value and add depth to their learning. 

There was a lot of learning [for me] as I went and a bit of DIY, but it was good fun, and hopefully it has provided young people a platform to be able to access really interesting and fantastic subject experts from across the planet to add a little bit of depth and insight into different areas of the higher course, which has been really exciting. 

One of my own students summed it up really well, saying it’s far more interesting than just listening to me talk.

You’ve been a Twig user for a long time. What attracted you to the program?

The quality of the videos on Twig are excellent, simple as that.

How do you use Twig in your lessons?

I’ve used Twig in lots of different ways. The materials can be really good for putting a learning point into context, sharing as part of an example in a lesson, or summarising a piece of learning. They can also be useful for supporting revision as well.

There’s a lot of different ways you can use the videos, depending on what they are. I’ve certainly utilised the heart dissection videos, for example – the class can do a live dissection along with the video and we just stop and pause it on the projector and it gives a really clear visual explanation of the steps involved in the process. Then we might bring the class together to discuss different bits and have a closer look at what we’re doing, and then break back into pairs to do the dissection and get that hands-on practical experience.

You’re also a regular Twig Science Reporter user. What do you like about the news updates?

The quality of the weekly Twig Science Reporter updates are fab. They give really good weekly topical news stories and they never fail to capture the imagination and interest of my classes, particularly in the BGE. 

[I use them] at the end or the start of the week to stimulate a little bit of conversation around topical science stories that are in the news. Equally, I’ve found myself using them in assemblies or in other circumstances with larger groups of young people to take that 3, 4, 5 minute spot in the day and just focus on some different stories from around the world and use it as a stimulus to spark some curiosity and discussion. 

What is a piece of advice that you would give to young people who want to go into a career in teaching?

If you are enthusiastic about your subject and you’re passionate about it, and you’re looking for a career that you can make a difference in, then there is no better thing than teaching. There’s a lot of hard work, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Topical Science—September 2021


The back-to-school season is upon us, and it’s time to get inspired. We’ve collated another month of fun topical science content that hopefully inspires a great start to the new school year.

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Saturday, September 4

National Wildlife Day

First founded in 2005 to honor wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin—famously known as the “Crocodile Hunter”— National Wildlife Day brings attention to the world’s endangered animals and celebrates animal sanctuaries for their preservation efforts. Today, why not learn about Global Positioning Systems (GPS), used to track the movements of wild animals in Namibia, Africa? Learn more.

Tuesday, September 7

International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

This day, facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme, aims to raise awareness of the importance of clean air and encourage actions to improve global air quality. Watch this video and learn why our sky is blue: Watch now.

Thursday, September 16

International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

The ozone layer is a vital part of Earth’s atmosphere, absorbing almost all of the Sun’s ultraviolet light. In the 1980s, scientists discovered that a deep hole had developed in this protective layer, attacked by harmful greenhouse gases used to make products such as hairspray. 

This UN day commemorates the signing of an agreement between 197 countries to minimize the use of ozone-depleting substances. Learn more about the ozone layer:



Saturday, September 18

International Coastal Cleanup Day

International Coastal Cleanup Day is a global movement that encourages people to remove trash from their beaches and waterways. Since the event’s conception 30 years ago, over 100 million volunteers across the globe have contributed to the cleanup of more than 300 million pounds of trash. On this day, take the opportunity to teach your students more about keeping Earth tidy: Learn more.

Wednesday, September 22

World Rhino Day

There are five species of rhinos and, fun fact, their horns are made of keratin, a protein that also forms the basis of human hair and fingernails. World Rhino Day celebrates rhinos and aims to bring international awareness to how critically endangered they are. Today, why not learn about ecotourism ventures in Namibia? Learn more.

Monday, September 27

World Tourism Day

World Tourism Day brings awareness to the myriad benefits that international tourism has societally, economically, and politically—from bringing cultures together to having a global contribution to GDP of 2.9 trillion US dollars in 2019 alone. Today, why not learn about Butler’s Tourism Model? Learn more.

Wednesday, September 29

World Heart Day

Heart disease is one of the world’s leading causes of death—tragically, however, up to 80 percent of cardiovascular deaths could be avoided. World Heart Day aims to bring attention to cardiovascular diseases and educate people on the factors that can increase the risk of developing such a disease, such as tobacco use and unhealthy diets. Learn more about the heart: 

Wednesday, September 29

International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste

Did you know that an estimated one-third of all food produced goes to waste? Designated by the United Nations General Assembly, this day aims to generate awareness of this problem and makes a call to action for both public and private businesses to increase efforts to reduce food waste. Today, let’s watch a video about the cities implementing innovative policies to reduce food waste: Watch now.

Thursday, September 30

International Podcast Day



First celebrated in 2014, International Podcast Day highlights the power of podcasts and gives an opportunity for podcasters, and podcast enthusiasts, to connect with one another. Today, why not listen to Twig’s podcast: Twig Education On..? Listen here.

Thursday, September 30

World Maritime Day


World Maritime Day celebrates the seafarers of the world and brings attention to the importance of the shipping industry, which accounts for the transport of around 80% of international trade. Did you know that shipping is one of the oldest industries in the world, with a history that dates back thousands of years? Today, why not learn how sailors in the 18th century first mapped the sea? Learn more.

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5 Cool Science Activities to Keep Kids Learning During the Holidays

In the past, summer learning was sometimes treated as an optional, not-so-important part of education. After all, summer was all about taking a break from school. Not this year! With the COVID-19 outbreak, parents have been getting involved in home schooling this summer whether they like it or not, and we know that sometimes it can be hard to continually come up with new educational activities! 

Never fear, we’ve got a few good ideas of our own—after all, Twig Science Tools is packed full of them—and we’d like to share five of our favorites. We know all about how important it is to fight the summer learning gap, but at the same time, summer is all about fun, so we’ve selected activities that kids will really enjoy. They may not even realize they’re learning science at the same time—but they will be! So whether you’re a teacher looking for inspiration for summer school, or a parent looking to keep their kids busy over summer, the following activities are a great addition to your toolbox!

1. Grow Your Own Geode

Geodes are natural rock formations that have cavities lined with crystals or other minerals. They’re typically formed in igneous rocks by cooling lava or magma—but you can encourage your children to grow their own geodes, helping them to learn how different minerals create crystals of different sizes and shapes based on saturation levels and cooling rates.

What you need:

  • Alum powder
  • Epsom salts
  • Borax
  • PVA glue
  • Empty, clean eggshell halves
  • Food coloring
  • Three cups
  • An empty egg carton

Procedure: Coat each eggshell half with glue. Sprinkle a couple of shells with Epsom salts, a couple with borax and a couple with alum powder. Let these dry overnight in the empty egg carton. In the morning, fill the three cups with boiling water and add several drops of food coloring to each. Pour alum powder into the first cup into it stops dissolving; add borax to the second cup in the same way; and saturate the third with Epsom salts. It’s essential that in all three cases the mixtures are saturated—i.e., as much as can be dissolved in the liquid is dissolved. Pour each mixture into its corresponding geode: the alum mixture should be poured into the eggshell coated with alum, the borax mixture into the shell coated with Borax, and the Epsom salts mixture into the shell coated with the Epsom salts. Leave the shells to cool. Observe them after an interval of four hours and another of 10 hours, and then look again the following morning. What happens to the geodes? Do the crystals get bigger if they are left to cool longer? Which mixture creates the most beautiful crystals? See? Fun and scientific learning rolled into one. You now also have a number of beautiful paperweights!

2. Windmill Garden Ornaments

These beauties help kids learn how to measure the velocity and direction of the wind, as well as providing you with beautiful decorations for your garden. Why could it be important to measure the wind? Well, this natural resource is a major source of energy, and countries all over the world use wind turbines or windmills to harness this energy. Pinwheels use the same principle as windmills or wind turbines, providing an excellent way to study how wind energy can be captured so that it can then be converted to electric energy.

 What you need (per windmill):

  • Square of colored paper, 8 x 8 inches (20 × 20 cm)
  • Scissors
  • Pushpin
  • Length of thin dowelling

Procedure: Fold the square of paper in half diagonally, then open out before folding diagonally again perpendicular to the first fold. Open out flat. Use the scissors to cut along the folds, stopping each cut around 3 cm from the centre. Pull down alternating corners to the centre of the square, taking care not to fold or crease them. Hold each of the corners gently in place until you’ve pulled down all of them, then secure with the pushpin. Push the pushpin into the top of the dowelling, but leave just enough space to allow the windmill to turn.

Choose a windy day to take the windmills out. Ask your child to look at the front of the pinwheel. How fast does it go? What way do they need to hold the pinwheel in order for it to spin the fastest?

3. Color Your Flowers

This is a fun little activity to get young children interested in botany by showing them how water is transported in plants.

What you need:

  • Several white flowers (chrysanthemums or carnations work best)
  • Several different colors of food colouring.
  • Lukewarm water
  • Small vases

Procedure: Begin by cutting about a quarter from the bottom of a stem of each flower, making sure to cut at an angle. Line up the vases and fill each about halfway with lukewarm water. Ask the children to pour around four or five drops of food coloring in each vase. Alternately, you could vary the amount of one color that you put in each vase: one drop of dye in the first vase, four in the second, eight in the third, and so on. Now place a single flower in each vase and leave them for a day. Over time, you’ll see the flowers take on the colour of the water. How did that happen? Which colour is the darkest and which is the lightest? Why is one flower a pink colour while the other a deep red when they all have red food colouring? You can also remove a flower to cut the stem halfway, showing your children how the inside of the stem is the same colour as the water. You can have a lot of fun with this experiment using different flowers—you could even split the bottom of the stem of a flower vertically into two and put each half in a vase with a different color!

4. Edible Stained Glass

Food science at its best! Adding food coloring to this experiment gives it that artistic touch that kids love. It does require constant adult supervision, but the results are stunning and delicious. You can find the full experiment here.

What you will need:

  • Saucepan
  • 13/4 cups (350 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) light corn syrup
  • Pinch cream of tartar
  • 1 cup (240 ml) water
  • Food coloring (preferably in at least three different colours)
  • Cooking thermometer
  • Baking sheet or disposable baking tray
  • Nonstick cooking spray

Procedure: In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and cream of tartar with the water and place over a very low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is dissolved and becomes transparent. Check the temperature using the thermometer and let the mixture slowly come to the boil: for this mixture, about 300–310℉ (149–154℃). In the meantime, spray the baking tray with the nonstick cooking spray. When the sugar mixture comes to the boil, remove from the heat and pour the mixture very carefully into the baking tray, watching out for splatters. Allow the kids—still under supervision!—to sprinkle drops of food coloring over the mixture before spreading them in swirling patterns using a wooden spoon or butter knife. Leave the mixture to cool for a few hours. Once cool, remove the stunning glasslike sugar pane.

5. Grow a Plant Without a Seed

Farmers and gardeners use botanical science all the time when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. Asexual reproduction of plants is an important part of the curriculum, so why not give the kids a head start for next year while cultivating some homegrown herbs at the same time?

What you need:

  • Old jelly jars (cleaned thoroughly)
  • Shop-bought basil, mint, and coriander
  • Room-temperature water

Procedure: Select a couple of healthy stalks and trim their ends. Let the children gently remove the lower leaves, but make sure to keep the top leaves intact. Half-fill each glass jar with the room-temperature water. Place the stalks in the water so that the nodes left from where you pulled the lower leaves off are submerged, but make sure the top leaves remain above the water line. Place jars in a well-lit area (although out of direct sunlight). In two weeks’ time the stalks should sprout roots and be ready to be potted up. Ask the kids if they thought that this would be possible.

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For lots more inspiring activities—plus high-quality science videos and lessons—check out Twig Science Tools

Business Vision

What is Phenomena-based Learning?

Phenomena-based learning (PhenoBL) has been in the spotlight recently. First popularized due to Finland’s decision to revolutionize their curriculum in 2016, this buzzword is back on everyone’s lips again. This time, it’s in connection to the Next Generation Science Standards. We decided to demystify exactly what phenomenon-based learning is, and why it’s becoming increasingly popular.

Finland’s Phenomenal Institute says that in phenomena-based learning and teaching, “holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects”.

In simpler words, PhenoBL is a method of understanding a phenomenon—an observable event—using various methods and perspectives, which may often overlap. PhenoBL takes a broad, multi-faceted look at events and occurrences happening in the real world, such as climate change, migration, or even the European Union. Looking at these subjects from a number of different angles helps the students to truly understand the workings of natural and societal events. We’ve created a quick shortlist of all the features of PhenoBL to give you a quick overview of what it means in terms of teaching in the classroom:

  1. Getting real: The real world is the bedrock of PhenoBL—providing a much-needed starting point that is repeated at every stage. Students and teachers choose to focus on a real-world phenomena: rain, space travel, or perhaps something problematic, like soil erosion. Students study a phenomenon that interests them, and use scientific enquiry and problem-solving skills with the aim of understanding it and demystifying it.
  2. Question and more questions: PhenoBL thrives on curiosity, and so students are encouraged to question what is around them. It’s not a revolutionary concept. Centuries ago, Socrates used a similar method of questioning to guide his students—in order to find the right answers, they had to know how to ask the right questions. PhenoBL echoes this approach, prioritizing how over why in order to inspire students to make observations.
  3. Contextualize: Phenomenon-based learning builds tangible connections between curriculum theory and the real world, but it also serves to link the various, separate subjects that students learn in schools. For example, the Egyptian pyramids display an acute knowledge of physics engineering, both of which require precise, complex calculations. Similarly, the study of fossils and sedimented craters—a perfect mix of geography and science—have helped scientists come to understand the Earth’s biodiversity millions of years ago.
  4. Change in a teacher’s role: PhenoBL recasts the teacher’s role, changing them from a provider of knowledge to a guide that helps students find knowledge on their own. This might initially be a slightly uncomfortable proposition for both teachers and students—watching students struggle prompts many teachers to want to jump in with the answer. But stick with the altered lesson structure: the aim is still to achieve learning goals.
  5. Other skills: The beauty of PhenoBL is that it also integrates the learning of important social skills, such as clear communication and the ability to function in a team. PhenoBL also encourages the use of other pedagogy models: project-based learning, integrated-learning, and inquiry-based learning, to name just a few.

So do we really need PhenoBL? Absolutely! In a world that is changing rapidly, PhenoBL lays the foundation for truly preparing the next generation to think and act like real-world scientists. PhenoBL allows students to own the learning process, transforming them from passive participants within education to active learners. What’s more, PhenoBL goes a step further in addressing the STEM crisis by combining it with the creativity of the arts, giving the next generation a rounded, holistic education.

Want to find out how PhenoBL works with our products? Contact us today.

Low Section Of Man Standing By Dinosaur Footprint On Rock

Why should kids study dinosaurs?

The word paleontology might not always inspire a lot of general interest, and yet we’d be hard pressed to find a kid who doesn’t love dinosaurs. The giant reptiles that roamed the Earth millions of years ago continue to captivate the interest of young and old alike. But what makes these extinct beasts so popular? The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould attributed the popularity of dinosaurs to three main qualities: they were big; they were fierce; most importantly, they are extinct – and there’s merit to this theory.

 

Many of the well-known dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Brachiosaurus, or the Triceratops were all massive animals. But there are also other, considerably smaller dinosaurs that defy this theory – look at the Compsognathus, the Hadrocodium and the Microraptor. No matter their size, dinosaurs manage to capture interests.

 

Ferocity also has a major part to play in terms of popularity. Humans love the thrill of danger – we go bungee jumping, ride rollercoasters and watch horror films. Dinosaurs are as fierce as they come, but of course, they can’t hurt anyone – they’re extinct. They provide the ultimate leap of the imagination.

 

Finally, possibly the biggest contributing factor to dinosaurs’ popularity is the mystery around the their disappearance. After millions of years successfully roaming the Earth, their sudden mass extinction continues to haunt the human imagination: What killed the dinosaurs?

 

So, is it worth studying a group of animals that has been extinct for 65 million years? We certainly think so. Here are four reasons why:

 

1.The study of fossils – yes, including those of dinosaurs – are invaluable to scientists trying to understand climate change. A recent scientific expedition saw a team of scientists drilling into the crater long believed to have been caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The extensive process, documented by the BBC, helped scientists understand what happened the day the collision happened. Scientists theorise that the asteroid was travelling at 64,000 km/h when it smashed into the Earth – so hard, and with so much energy, that it vapourised the ocean and completely obliterated the asteroid. The surrounding sea floor was forced outwards and upwards to extraordinary heights before collapsing in on itself, forming a ring 141 km in diameter. Earth’s climate was changed drastically: the Sun’s light and heat was blocked out by the ash cloud that rose as a result of the impact. Fossil evidence has helped scientists to understand all this, and more.

 

2. The study of dinosaurs is crucial to understanding to the mechanics of evolution. More than 700 species of dinosaurs have been found and identified so far, but there are hundreds more unknown. There is a huge amount of variation within the species we know: the Triceratops has the largest skull ever recorded, and the hadrosaur continually replaced its teeth as they wore out. What’s more, there are even creatures living today –like birds, turtles and crocodiles – that share evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs.

 

3. Scientists around the world today are undertaking extensive research on extinction, using dinosaur fossils to understand the biodiversity of the Earth millions of years ago. Human activity has severely altered Earth’s biodiversity, and succeeded in entirely wiping out hundreds of species. By studying extinction and the subsequent effect it has on food chains and Earth’s ecosystems, scientists can begin to understand the complex relationships between species and their surroundings.

 

4. Despite the popularity of dinosaurs, the general public knows very little about fossils and their distant origins. Some people believe that dinosaurs can be resurrected through the extraction of DNA found in fossils – although yes, that was mainly the fault of the film Jurassic Park. But on a different level, people simply don’t know how to uncover and excavate fossils properly. Precious samples are being discovered by people all over the world, but a lack of proper education on how to dig up and handle fossils means that many specimens end up getting damaged, sometimes irreplaceably so.

 

As our world changes, scientists continue to research dinosaurs, and for good reason. Whether it’s to gain an in-depth understanding of the animals in the hope of finally, unequivocally figuring out the actual cause of the mass extinction, or to gain a better understanding of the Earth’s ecology – there’s no denying the importance of studying dinosaurs!

Helen Quinn talks to Twig about NGSS

As many of you will know, America is about to undergo a sea change in science education and Helen is firmly at the heart of that transformation. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that created the Framework for K-12 Science Education – the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS program is a new way of teaching and learning science where students are supported to think like scientists and ‘figure things out’ rather than memorize key facts.

 

As you can imagine, our conversation with Helen dived straight into the Next Generation Science Standards; specifically, why she thinks the introduction of these new standards is needed so urgently, and her vision for what she hopes they will achieve.

 

“[Science] gives us the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in a different way, and I want every citizen to have that knowledge and be able to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive.”

 

So if you’re looking for some inspiration or just a reminder of why you work in education for a living, just click the link and watch the interview with Helen. We hope you’ll leave with a sense of reinforced purpose. We know we did.

 

View a clip from the interview here: