Picture it…


Sharing Molecules (part 1)

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A catch-up blog post from our chief editor, Dr Natalie Fey, to greet the new year and now Spring.

A little while after Jenny Slaughter and I set up this blog, we started to develop workshops for different audiences, with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) becoming a big part of my life for the last few years.

As you can see from the Picture It… Chemistry on Tour page, our collaboration with the NFWI certainly saw me get around England, Wales and even Jersey, and meet many interesting and inspiring ladies (see also my initial report and a follow-on). I was even invited back to some places, and we managed to secure additional funding, both from the NFWI and the Royal Society of Chemistry, to reach a lot of WI members. A number of students helped Jenny and I to develop workshop material, and a few, along with some colleagues and collaborators, came along to deliver workshops as well.

Key to the success of these workshops was that we developed themes of interest to the WI (note that Roses/Scents and Cream Teas were much more popular than Acids & Bases and Preserving), that there was hands-on work, and that the workshops included material suitable for different levels of chemical knowledge. One common feature of many workshops was that I would be approached at the end by some of the participants who were keen to carry out some of the experiments with their children or grandchildren, and they often asked me for additional details or tried to buy safety specs and glassware from my (deliberately very limited) kit to make the experience more authentic.

DSC_6990Jenny and I also built a strong and lasting relationship with the Weston-super-Mare Soroptimists, who have been offering Skirting Science workshops to female pupils in year 9 for the last 10 years, and it has been great fun to contribute Chemistry-focussed workshops for the last 5 years, and even greater fun to bring keen student demonstrators with me for most of these workshops. These activities highlighted a couple of things: that it helps young girls to see female scientists and engineers in action, and that most of our students, regardless of gender, are more than happy to come along to workshops but struggle to develop, resource and sustain activities on their own. I will, at this stage, doff my woolly hat to the professional Outreach operation run by my colleage Tim Harrison for the School of Chemistry at Bristol (you can read all about that here) which covers this beautifully, and make it clear that people tend to contact me for “Women in STEM” and related gendered role model activities as, sadly, there is still a shortage of women in UK Chemistry departments at universities. I should also make it clear that I’m not a natural fan of “pinking” science, or whatever you want to call it, but pragmatically, we have to start somewhere to improve the numbers, and if I can go and engage with girls and women on their own turf by talking about a topic they are actually interested in, then I will. And not everybody likes explosions and danger…

When the end of NFWI workshops started to come into sight, I wanted to try something related, but a little different – to develop a set of activities that would allow and encourage women to engage with children in their social circle (friends, kids and grandkids) to try some hands-on chemistry experiments that were pretty safe and could be resourced and delivered from within their kitchen/household. With support from the Science Representative of the West Kent Federation of WIs (and I think she might not like to be named, so I won’t), and my contacts at the Weston Soroptimists (ditto), we successfully applied for funding from the RSC to develop a booklet of such activities, called “Picture It… Chemistry: Sharing molecules – some chemistry you can try at home”. Thanks to the skills of my co-applicant, Bryony Wadkin-Snaith, a trained artist as well as, at the time, one of the Teaching Laboratory Technicians in Chemistry at Bristol, we were also able to include some chemistry-related colouring-in sheets. A lot of development and testing was done by a summer student, Eloise Hicketts, who is credited as a co-author.

booklet cover

Cover of the “Sharing molecules” booklet.


In the booklet, we cover building molecular structures, including some smelly molecules, using cabbage indicator to investigate household chemicals, exploring the scientific method by making bread dough and investigating soluble tablets, as well as the “Magic Milk” experiment and the “Mystery of the Sunken Iceberg”. We have tried out the activities at a range of workshops in schools, with kids of different ages, so I’m happy to report that they have been enjoyed by many; some of our Friday-Chemistry-Fixes (see here, here and here) give you an idea about what you can do yourself, too.

dsc_6702.jpgIf you are interested in this booklet, either in print or electronically, please feel free to get in touch with me via the blog email or my work email address – a simple google of my name will lead you there.

Contributor: Natalie Fey.

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