Category Archives: Education

Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.

1840’s portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Trey on the beaches around Lyme Regis

The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…

“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.

It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.

Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!

Making a geological model from Sand!

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been doing job applications this weekend and frankly I’ve been getting very bored, so this afternoon I decided I would wash away the boredom with a fun little project which I’d always wanted to have a go at but never really had the guts to try out.

I made this gorgeous (if I do say so myself) little subsurface geology model from an old vivarium, some builders sand, some different coloured food dyes and some other coloured poster paint powder:

The completed model with labels

The completed model with labels illustrating the important features.

It’s the sort of thing you see in smaller museums all the time – although they are usually based on real sub-surface geology in a relevant area, while this one is completely fictional!

So how does one go about making this beauty? here’s a step by step guide:

1. Decide what geological/geomorphological features you want to show: for me this was to show three of Nicolas Steno’s laws of sedimentology – superposition, original horizontality and cross-cutting relationships – then I just added stuff as I went along like the channel fills and the scarp slope (good way to use up spare sand that one!).

2. Gather up your materials: I used mostly builders sand, but beach sand will do just as well, or if you really can go for broke… go find all the different colours of sand naturally. I also used a few other things from my model railway cabinet (ballast/mock coal/flock for the grass/lichen for bushes) – these of course are optional extras.

– pro tip number 1: don’t do what I did and use sand you found lying about in a bag in the garden… I had to rescue/evict many of my invertebrate cousins during the build!

3. Colouring your model: At this point you can either dye all your sand in different buckets or do what I did and dye it bit by bit as you go along. Either way will work but if you’re limited on sand, I recommend the latter strategy. The easiest dyes are poster paint powders as this keeps everything nice and dry, but food colouring works too. If you’re dying the sand, the ideal sand is the white sort you can buy in arts and craft shops.

4. Start laying down your strata: not much to explain here really. Though you might notice a couple of pyritised ammonites hanging out in my model…

5. OK, this is the complex bit: If you want to put in folds like the ones I have, you will need a piece of strong cardboard or wood, stand this vertically in the tank with enough space on one side to get your hand in like in the image below…

Using Cardboard for a false wall

Using Cardboard to enable the creation of folds or faults.

…now you build up your strata on side of the cardboard with more accommodation space and keep building until you’re ready to fold them!

– Pro tip number 2: in order to fault the strata, just use the cardboard to squash the sand from one direction. For folds, apply pressure to the top of the sand with your hand and also squash with the cardboard MUCH more slowly… I cannot stress that enough! This technique will result in awesome folds or thrust faults, I don’t know how to produce strike-slip or dip-slip ones… if you have an idea of how to do this, please share it in the comments box below!

– Pro tip number 3: the cardboard also allows you to put in a nice, easy dyke or other cross-cutting structure.

Now you’ve folded or faulted your strata, fill in behind the cardboard and fill the tank. I should say I didn’t invent this technique, I copied it from an old Open University video I saw many moons ago where the professor was attempting to explain folding and faulting using a massive sand-box model and a screw-and-plate piston, sadly I cannot find said video now.

15/10/2012 Update: While I still cannot find the OU video; This video from the Structural Geology RWTH-Aachen YouTube Channel gives you some idea of the process.

6. Unconformities: Are a doddle; just remove some of what you have done. In my case I used a strong piece of single (not corrugated) card. Then just continue placing strata on top (in my case at a jaunty angle… but it can be done the other way round)

7. The Surface: Lastly for the construction phase, add a layer of Flock (if you wish) and diorama-ize your surface layer! Lichen works for bushes. Trees, animals, buildings and people can be bought at any rail modelling supply shop, or online.

8. (For the Geology Nerds/Geologists): Have a ball labelling your gorgeous creation! Here are my three labelled sides for your amusement. I used PVA and printed labels alongside a permanent OHP marker for the annotations/symbols.

Faults side (Rear)

The rear side of my model, showing a few faults

The labelled left hand side of my model

The labelled left hand side of my model, showing two channel fills (one much harder to spot…)

The glorious, labelled front side of the model.

The glorious, labelled front side of the model. showing a lot of stuff..

When you’re done you can sit back and enjoy your handiwork, some people have said this would make an awesome coffee table… I think they’re right, get a nice glass top for it and you can be explaining geology to your in-laws over coffee in no time!

I hope you enjoyed this post and have fun making your own geological masterpiece! Share pictures in the comments, especially if you have some new ideas, or fix the strike-dip-slip faults problem!


Edited at 21:36 on 07/10/2012: emboldened each point to make it easier to comprehend (hopefully)

400 Million Years in 30 Minutes

Poster for the talk: 400 Million Years in 30 Minutes (loading times may vary)

It's official and now inescapable...

It’s official and now inescapable… I’m giving a talk at the Craven Museum and Art Gallery on the 27th March!

The talk will encompass the processes that I’ve been undertaking in cataloguing the collections, and some of the more interesting of the museum’s geological and mineralogical specimens, covering specimens from the Ordovician right through to the Holocene (recent times).

If anyone wants to come along they’ll be welcome… though the venue is rather small.

Ben D Brooks

A physical tragedy in a digital world.

Encyclopaedia Britannica to stop the presses for one last time

Encyclopaedia Britannica to stop the presses for one last time

Today marks the end of another era, the onward and outward march of the digital world has claimed perhaps its most iconic victim with today’s announcement that Encyclopaedia Britannica will go out of print. This is a bittersweet thing to see, because while the technology lover in me sees this as merely the predictable result of the advance of digital resources like Wikipedia (and before that Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopaedia), the more traditional, book loving and nostalgic side of me sees this as a tragedy of near gargantuan proportion.

Why do I see this as such a bad thing you might ask? It has tremendous advantages, when people don’t have the option of an out of date book they’ll look up their questions on the up-to-date Wikipedia and Online Britannica articles… Well yes they might do, but there are good reasons that university lecturers penalise students for citing Wikipedia (indeed one of these being the changability) and insist instead upon printed (or unchanging) sources of information. But there’s a far greater worry for me, because just as some people don’t have enough food to eat or insufficient money for healthcare*, some do not have internet access, neither do all public libraries, so where then does the intrigued school child go to learn something new when there’s no web access, and no encyclopaedia on the shelves?

The printed Encyclopaedia Britannica provides something else that perhaps you hadn’t thought of…? The New York Times or The Times provide the US and UK’s respective “papers of record” – a historical record of public opinion, political leanings, social conventions etc. that sociologists find so useful, The Encyclopaedia Britannica does the same thing for the state of knowledge, take plate tectonics for example, just 70 years ago its predecessor (Continental Drift) was a whacky, outsider’s theory with no mechanism and no hope. Now plate tectonics is a paradigm, something went from one extreme of knowledge to the other in under 40 years, something recorded in a wonderful way in the pages of successive Encyclopaedias Britannica. With the modern, digital, changeability of knowledge such changes, shifts and about-faces would be easy to lose and drift forgotten from the collective consciousness of humanity. We’re only clever from what we learn from our errors and mis-steps, but what happens when they’re forgotten.

Encyclopaedia Britannicas on Bookshelf

I would be spending hours looking through the encyclopaedias, and never once was I disappointed

This is of course not to mention that great and good though the internet is, it is still (even today) relatively fragile. Or for that matter the oft repeated (and in my view perfectly valid) argument about the feeling and atmosphere of the printed word over a cold, electronic LCD screen, but this is the nostalgia talking.

Speaking of nostalgia, I remember when I was about 6 years of age, we had a computer in the house (admittedly rare for the time) but no access to online sources of information – did they even exist in 1995/6? But you would very rarely see me playing on the games, using the creative software and such – even though I was perfectly capable and savvy enough at the time… I would be spending hours looking through the various encyclopaedias that we had in the house, and never once was I disappointed with what I found in the pages of the encyclopaedias. There’s just something to be said for picking up a book, flicking trough and picking a page at random, and learning something totally new… Why do you think that the “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia is so cool!

I’m willing to make a prediction here; that in 10 years time the demand for the printed encyclopaedia will be such that someone will have resurrected it, possibly even the publishers of Britannica with a decadal “Special Edition”. I would almost be willing to bet on that.

Ben Brooks
*(in the US and quite possibly soon the UK unless our government grows a collective brain)

Southampton Social Media Surgery (02/07/2011)

Have you heard of a “Social Media Surgery”?

No..? Well… nor had I until a friend and colleague of mine from Southampton University Students’ Union mentioned that she was planning one a few weeks ago…

…Now she’s got it all organised, and it’s going to be happenning between 2pm and 4pm on Saturday the 2nd of July in the Shooting Star public house on Bevois Valley Road.

Now that I know all about it, I think these Social Media Surgeries are a fantastic idea, after all how many of us have helped a friend get their head around Facebook, or in more recent years Twitter? Now there’s a way to do that for the greater good, by helping local individuals, charities, organisations and volunteer groups get online.

The amount of net awesomeness that a charity or volunteer group can engage in once they are on the social media bandwagon is huge! Just imagine the conversations that can be had, the collaboration between groups, the extra awareness of fundraising or other activities… the list isn’t endless, but it’s pretty long.

Anywho, Southampton SMS is looking for “surgeons” to help people get online, and also of course they’re looking for anyone who wants to get online or any groups that are interested in getting online, so spread the word, and link people to the website. You’ll also find help organising your own if you are not from the southampton area.

If you want to follow what’s happenning with the planning of the event, it’s Twitter hashtag is #SotonSMS. And if you’re thinking about coming along to see what this “Social Media” malarky is all about, or you’re coming along to help out, I look forward to meeting you on the day!

Ben D Brooks


Observations on Teaching Observation

I’m about three months from finishing my degree at the University of Southampton (my my how four years has just flown by) and I now have to start thinking about what on earth I’m going to do after graduating with my degree in hand. One of the many options I’ve been exploring is going into teaching, specifically I am considering teaching in Further Education Colleges (AS & A Levels in the UK or upper High School in the US?).

Interestingly; in the UK so far as I can ascertain there is no requirement to have QTS (qualified teacher status) before starting work in a FE College though you have to get it within 2 years of starting. However; through discussions about the options it is fairly obvious that having a PGCE in secondary education would be far more beneficial than the PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education, especially with as restricted a job market as we are experiencing at the moment.

>30m Diameter blowout in the Psammosere Succession in Studland Bay, where the school took it's year 10 pupils on a field trip.

In response to this and the requirements of some universities offering secondary PGCE courses, I have just undertaken a week of teaching observation in my old school. This was thoroughly enjoyable and despite it being the last week of the school’s term I managed to sit in on classes from every year group from year 7 through to upper 6th form, helped out on a field course in swanage and also got to observe a practical lab, revision lessons and even a lesson given by a very capable PGCE student. Anywho, now that it’s come to the end of the week and I thought I might as well share my thoughts and observations, and would appreciate any thoughts people have on the matter…

Variation in teaching styles
One of the first and by far the most startling features that I noticed this week was the widely variable teaching styles employed by the teachers in the school, and not just between different year groups (who all have different abilities anyway). For example I sat in on two year 11 (2nd year of GCSE) science lessons by two different members of the department, the first of which I can only equate to the sort of to-and-fro discussion crossed with lecturing I would expect in a University environment, and the second being a more traditional “teacher at front” class environment. I have to say I was far more comfortable in the less formal teaching environments than I was in the rote learning classes.

The most interesting thing about these differences is that I never really noticed it when I was at the school, The teachers were the same people (for the most part) as when I left, and I always liked some teachers more than I did others, but I never really twigged as to why.


BTEC Logo, click to go to edexcel exam board...

“Tactical” education
Something that has definitely changed since I left the school four years ago is the very clear tactical nature of some of the subject matter in later years. What I mean is that the students who tend to “flake” in the exams but who show a real potential in the classroom are removed from the “traditional” GCSE curricula and moved onto more “modern” coursework only courses such as the BTEC first and national diplomas. I have to admit to being in two minds over this. On the one hand I believe in education for education’s sake, and I don’t see how the way you learn something should have any bearing on anything… so long as you learn and get the education every individual deserves. On the other hand I would worry about how taking less common curricular programmes such as the BTEC, NVQ’s and others that fit in to the English Baccalaureate may affect a student’s success in the job market… not that it should.

“Loss of Traditional Subjects”
Another major and interesting change since I left the school in question is that some subjects in lower years have been combined (most notably Geography and History, now “People and Places”) to make room in the school timetable for Literacy classes, over and above English lessons.
Ostensibly this is a good thing because many students struggle with the transition from one teacher in primary to a plethora of teachers in secondary school, but I worry about two things; firstly how can a geography teacher make a good, competant effort of teaching history (and vice versa), and why do literacy lessons need to be added to the curriculum? Surely any decline in literacy rates is an indication that the english curriculum isn’t working and should be changed, not an excuse to add more lessons (and so more teachers) to the curriculum… you don’t see the same thing with numeracy and mathematics.

Classroom Content… and why I couldn’t teach lower school (Years 7-11)
My final observation goes back to the classroom and away from curriculum issues and changing the system. The biggest problem I had sitting in on many of the lessons was that because I got to see all year groups, the differring content was clearly visible, and I can safely say that I would hate year 7-9 teaching, because the subject matter just isn’t there… that’s no fault of the teachers or the children, and I remember when I was in those years and the teaching was no different. I just don’t think I could handle “dumbing down” my subject knowledge to the level required to teach science or geography at year 7 level. I could do it, but I think I would hate it.

…So After an enjoyable week of observing teaching, teaching methods and teacher-student interactions… I have had fun, reinforced my decision to do FE teaching rather than general secondary, and learnt a fair bit about how curricula are decided upon by staff and departments in schools. Still not sure about doing the PGCE secondary or PGCE PCE, but I think that might be decided for me by my applications down the road.

On popularity politics and the Students’ Union

Ben Brooks at Hustings

Speaking at hustings on Friday afternoon.

I entered into the recent SUSU Sabbatical elections with a clear vision of how I would like to run my election campaign. It was really simple and very different from how I know the other candidates would be running their campaigns, I would run a low-key campaign driven by my policies and experience, without gimmick or palming people off with soundbites.

As the last couple of weeks have progressed it has become steadily clear to me that I could not win the election with the resources at my disposal, so I have today withdrawn my nomination to the position of VP Academic Affairs.

Firstly and fore mostly I have to extend my deep and sincere thanks to the small group of supporters I have who showed both enthusiasm for my candidacy and who kindly gave up their free time to help me. To you I have to apologise in no uncertain terms for wasting your time and support, I realise my decision will be frustrating to you as there will now be no end-game to your work and I hope you will understand the decision I took when I have set out my reasons for withdrawal.

My supporters have been a great help over the last week, providing logistical and emotional support which I greatly value. However as I and they are final year undergraduate masters student’s they all have Masters projects which require their attention more than the SUSU elections, and with almost the entire campaign team currently undertaking a short-course module with lectures running from 9-5 every day they have been unable to campaign on my behalf. Further more I would not ask any person to jeopardise their education on behalf of helping me apply for a job – that is after all what the SUSU elections are about.

This unfortunate and unavoidable state of affairs means that I have been attempting to campaign on my lonesome, which has proven to be both an isolating and nerve-wracking experience. As I said earlier I am a policy and ideas driven candidate who has to rely on both these and my experience to make my case. I do not find popularity driven politics to result in the best results with respect to the winning candidates. That is of course my opinion and it is probably informed by no small measure by being a shy and reserved individual.

I do not wish to make any political statements in this post, but the other major reason for my withdrawal needs some political explanation. This reason for withdrawing my candidacy is that I feel that the current front-runner in this election race as far as I see it is Sasha Watson. Whilst I think he has some fantastic plans and ideas, I would be happier knowing that someone with a wider experience of the representation system at SUSU is taking it forward to next year. For this reason I am withdrawing to allow those who would have voted for me to reconsider Jonathon Davies for their votes, he is in my estimation the best qualified of all the candidates that are running for VP Academic Affairs this year now that I have withdrawn my nomination.

I would like to extend my deepest gratitude also to the various SUSU media departments for keeping their elections coverage balanced and fair, and for providing all the candidates with ample opportunities to put across our manifesto ideas to the student population. If I had my time at Southampton again, I would certainly have wanted to get more involved with the SUSU media department.

To the other three candidates running in the race I have now left, I would like to thank them all for being amicable opponents and I am glad to have been able to get to know them better over the last week or so and hope that we can remain friends no matter what the end result of this race. I would also like to thank them for keeping to the spirit of the elections and running honest, fair campaigns.

At the end of the day I’ll be happy to discuss the things in my manifesto with whoever wins, as every candidate brought great, new ideas to the table, and they should all be considered for taking forward to next year. This election is about getting the best for the students at southampton university, and it would be both ungracious and small minded of me not to be prepared to discuss my ideas with the winning candidate.

To those students who were considering voting for me now that elections are open, I’m sorry for forcing you to think again, and whilst it is not my place to inform your decision, I would say that the best thing you can do for the students’ union is to read through the manifestos of the remaining candidates with care before making your decision.

One final note, voting closes at 4pm on thursday 3rd March, Make certain to vote before then.

Benjamin David Brooks

28/02/2011 @ 16:30