Have yourself a geeky little Christmas!

I often use typical attitudes towards Christmas as a way of explaining why I enjoy my tutoring work so much. Many people find that when they are children they love Christmas and find it a magical and exciting holiday. As they grow older this excitement fades to ambivalence and ennui, until perhaps they have children of their own(or nephews/nieces, much younger siblings etc.) Then the disillusioned adults are able to reconnect with the the joy they once had at Christmas because they get to experience it again with someone who still counts down to December 25th and still stays up late on Christmas eve to listen for sleigh bells.



When I was young I found learning about science fascinating - I was spellbound when I started learning about astronomy and discovered how tiny the Earth is compared to the Sun and that the Sun is only one of billions of stars in our galaxy. Similarly, a holiday to Lyme Regis to look for fossils was a thrill, one of my favourite days of the year would be a trip to either the Natural History of Science Museum in London and I still had considerable hope that sometime in the twenty first century everyday life would resemble something from Star Trek, complete with teleportation devices.


But as I continued studying science through A levels and then pursued physics for a degree and then a PhD the wonder of it all faded. Maybe it was because I came to associate the subject with exams and deadlines and worries about coursework grades and test results? Maybe it was because as you learn more about a subject you inevitably become more aware of its limitations and of just how limited your own expertise is compared to the entirety of your chosen field? Whatever the cause, by my late twenties I was very uncertain I would continue to work in an STEM career. 


While I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do I began tutoring as a way of making ends meet. I never anticipated how much I would love teaching and that I would tutor as a full time job. When I tried to explain to people why I loved my work I kept describing how wonderful it was to spend time with people who are still amazing by things that I had previously taken for granted - that pi is a number that continues on forever with no discernible pattern, the field lines around a magnet displayed using iron filings or just the simple joy of someone understanding long multiplication/electromagnetic induction/integration by parts for the very first time. I found working with people who still had enthusiasm and excitement around science and maths helped me reconnect with my own love of these subjects.


So, in case anyone else is in need of some geeky festive cheer, or a way of making science and maths relevant to the holiday season, here are a few ideas for STEM related Christmas activities…



Star Wars snowflakes - these beautiful templates feature several of the best known characters from the Star Wars universe. Designer Anthony Herrera has been producing these patterns for several years and a new set has been published for The Force Awakens (for all those who are counting down to Dec 18th as well as Dec 25th). I have found snowflakes like these to be a wonderful way of explaining reflective and rotational symmetry in maths.



Christmas cards made using conductive paint. Bare conductive released this innovative electrically conductive paint a few years ago. The paint can be used to draw circuits on cards and other pieces of artwork to allow the inclusion of LEDs and other electronic components. The company also have several templates for Christmas cards on their website, so if anyone wants to give Rudolf a really bright (flashing) red nose this year, this is the place to go. 




Fractal snowflakes using the Scratch programming language.  Scratch was developed by MIT as a way of introducing children to programming and coding. The intuitive way students can click together blocks of codes makes the language incredibly easy to learn and allows for endless projects that teachers and students can customise and refine. One favourite topic of mine is to use the program to draw a Koch snowflake - a fractal design in which simple triangles are repeated at smaller and smaller intervals. 



Merry Christmas!



p.s. I know that for some people the festive season can be much bleaker than a loss of enthusiasm in their subject and I didn’t want to forget those who might be alone and at risk over the holidays, so this year I will also be including Crisis at Christmas and Age UK on my Christmas list.