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Think Universe!

Cultural / Educational project

NOTE: This page will be expanded as a dedicated website in March 2012. What follows is based on an article published in Education in Science, Association for Science Education, No 244, pp 20-21, Sep, 2011

Think Universe! is a cultural and educational initiative around the concept of Natural Philosophy, understood as the observation, exploration and discovery of the natural world. Think Universe! is proposed for all key stages of the Science National Curriculum. and also as a major contributor to modern culture.

Building blocks

At KS1 and KS2, every child should know that absolutely everything we see is made out of small things. That small things are made out of even smaller things that can be called building blocks. Therefore, that large things have not been created, but rather ASSEMBLED. That, everything around us, including ourselves is the result of bringing together building blocks, so tiny that they can not be normally seen.

Large things may look very different from each other, but their building blocks look alike. The smaller the building blocks, the more alike they look.

Analogy of lego bricks. The bricks are almost identical to each other, but they can be assembled in a wide variety of large and complex structures that look very different from each other. Analogy of impressionist painting that young children love reproducing, creating complex paintings with simple tiny dots of different colours and shades, much in the way also found in the aboriginal art from Australia, for example. Analogy of electronic images on computer and mobile phone screens produced by pixels with the primary colours: red, green and blue, clearly visible through a strong magnifying glass or a simple microscope. Analogy of houses made out of bricks, which in turn are made our of grains of sand.

Cross curricular links (i.e. art, design, technology, history, myths, etc) can be used from KS2 to promote lateral thinking and fertile discussion as powerful ways of promoting engagement and enjoyment during this process of discovery.

nuclei

Magnetic balls simulate protons and neutrons and come together to model the nuclei of atoms of hydrogen (top), helium (middle) and oxygen (bottom). The same effect can be achieved with simpler plasticine balls.

At this stage the concept of diverse chemical elements made out of atoms can be introduced. Including the most familiar ones like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, iron, lead, silver etc and how they ASSEMBLE together to form simple molecules like water and carbon dioxide. By KS2 the child would realise that the concept of building blocks applies to absolute everything we see in the universe, from the sun, the moon and stars, to the earth, mountains, plants, animals and people. Indeed, at the level of fundamental building blocks, everything in the universe looks the same.

KS2 is perhaps the most fertile of learning stages, when curiosity peaks. Questioning is everywhere: how small can things be? What are atoms made of? The KS2 child enters the world of subatomic particles, to find out that all atoms are made of only 3 kinds of building blocks, protons, neutrons (in the nucleus) and electrons (like clouds surrounding the nucleus). That the difference between chemical elements is the number of protons, one for hydrogen, two for helium, 8 for oxygen….. 79 for gold…. etc. Plasticine or magnetic balls can be used to assemble models of those atoms, by just changing their numbers. At this early level, the child gets a glimpse of the periodic table, to be explored in more detail at KS3 and 4.

A major conclusion is that the wide variety of living and non-living parts of our world are the result of ASSEMBLING together fundamental building blocks along extremely long periods of time. That all living beings are made out of mainly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen assembled by the thousands of millions in a wide variety of huge molecules.

Tree of growing complexity

From KS1 the young minds intuitively develop the idea of sequential processes, realising the need of having the tiniest building blocks first in order to assemble them in larger structures. A major conclusion is that the sequence goes from simplicity to complexity,

A good way of visualising this is by using the metaphor of trees, that grow from a single seed to diverse and complex patterns of branches and leaves. These would be the trees of growing complexity and classification, originally conceived by Charles Darwin to explain the diversity of life, but equally applied to the physical and chemical worlds.

This leads to the study of origins. The origin of life, the origin of the earth and the solar system and ultimately, the origin and development of the entire Universe. The simpler the building blocks the older they are and as they are more alike, they must share a common origin. At the end of KS2, the child would realise that going smaller is like going back in time. Molecules came before life, atoms came before molecules, protons and neutrons came before atoms and finally…. quarks came before protons and neutrons.

These are the ultimate, the very fundamental building blocks that emerged at the very origin of the universe, the big bang. So, in the end, the child realises that everything we can see in the universe, whether a star, a planet, sun, moon, cloud, mountain, tree, man… is all made out of two kinds of building blocks: quarks and electrons. Once again, cross curricular links are very important.

timeline1

A KS2 child fixes a eukaryotic cell along the cosmic timeline during the Your Universe Festival of Astronomy at UCL.

The cosmic time line. Origin and assembly. Universal emergence of physics, chemistry and biology.

The cosmic timeline consolidates building blocks and tree of complexity in the simple origin of what would become the Universe. The cosmic timeline is an interactive illustration of the extremely long time involved in the assembly of the complexity seen all around us today.

There are valuable cross-curricular links to ancient beliefs and creation myths, including the egyptian, aboriginal, apache, christian, hindu and others. This promotes critical thinking and later discussion and debate resulting in a high degree of engagement.

The scientific, fact-based explanation is considered along a cosmic timeline represented by a rope stretched across the classroom. The scale is around one millimetre for every million years (the cosmic timeline becomes 14m long, representing the time from the big bang to the present).

Pupils prepare in advance special drawings representing the fundamental milestones along the cosmic history, like the big bang, formation of fundamental particles, light atoms, dark ages, stars, heavy atoms, galaxies, planets, primitive life, complex life and intelligence, as it happened at least in our solar system. The pupils fix their drawings on the timeline with cloths pegs at their corresponding cosmic time.

The cosmic timeline is a general introduction to all natural sciences, clearly showing the emergence of each one as complexity grows, from particle and nuclear physics at the beginning, to astrophysics, chemistry, geology and finally biology in the last third of the time line. Without chemical processes there would not be biology and without physical processes inside stars there would not be chemistry. Another important concept to teach.

The demonstration is also useful to visualise the degrees of probability for different events, by illustrating the relative lengths of time that precede them. For example at KS3, primitive life (prokaryotes) follows very closely the formation of the solar system, while complex cells (eukaryotes) took thousands of millions of years after that. Consequently, we would expect primitive life to be very abundant in the Universe, unlike complex life, hence the absence of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence. Again, a good topic for cross-curricular debate.

The cosmic line can be separated into sub-modules at KS3 and 4 in order to analyse specific phenomena in detail, like the formation of the first atoms, the first stars, which after a couple of generations synthesised the chemical elements found in nature (formation of the periodic table), required for the formation of solar systems. At this point, the module of life in the universe becomes significant, from around 3 or 4 billion years before the formation of our own solar system. This brings the probability of biological processes emerging elsewhere in the universe well before our own.

Once again the cross curricular links are extremely rich, embracing all natural sciences, mathematics, literacy, poetry, history, philosophy, religion, art, etc. promoting fertile discussion and debate.

According to many secondary school teachers, this approach to the natural world at KS1 and 2 would create a solid base that would facilitate enormously the delivery of more detailed material at KS 3 and 4. Within the context of this proposal, the specific natural sciences: physics, chemistry and biology would not be so explicit as such at KS1. Indeed, the building block approach is common to all natural sciences.


Teacher training would be essential, specially for KS1 and KS2 and this area will require a substantial development.

timeline2

Detail of the Time line of the Universe interpreted by Sam O'Connor (8 yrs old) after visiting Your Universe Festival. Note the correct order of events an the details about the formation of the solar system and the moon, emergence of primitive and complex life on Earth, etc.

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