Our deepest thoughts

Conquering fear and loving science

Sep 8, 2016   written by John Lamerand

If you have not seen this TED talk, go there today. It is short and well worth every second.


When I got to the end of the talk one memory from childhood came up and it was a pivotal moment that shaped me as I am.

We were living in Ontario and for some reason dad left his language lab and took his family on a field trip with some colleagues. While I don’t know where we went I can describe it like it was yesterday (or at least how my brain remembers that day, which, of course, may be a little different given that the neurons that made the initial recording have probably been “recycled” but I digress).

The forest was growing over a vast expanse of limestone and this rock had been eroded deeply so that we had to leap over fissures. The thrill of doing this was tremendous, thrilling, dangerous. And when I think about a recent mishap with my young family when my wife stumbled on a limestone wave cut platform and fell while holding our youngest…

Still, the memory from Canada stuck with me. No-one was hurt, but the dopamine that flooded my system was strongly associated with a hundred “whys”. Why was the rock cut so deep in places? Why were we walking on a platform and not over a series of spikes? How did the trees on that platform get enough water? Was there evidence of animals that had stumbled and fallen into the cracks? 

As an aside, the caves along South Australia’s coast offer a tremendous amount of information to anyone game to rappel down because they are well endowed with the bones of fallen animals; perhaps a little gruesome when you stop to think about it but the opportunity that these animals had to rot quietly has meant that their carcasses are reasonably complete.

Would I be game to run a science trip on such a terrain? Perhaps not because with a sufficiently large number of children the chances of having to call an ambulance becomes a near certainty. I mean, I drove a group of university students up the coast of Western Australia and one had to go to town urgently due to something that happened in the field. Coasts can be treacherous.

I have hung from the side of a cliff while scooping fossil echinoderms out of a narrow strata. What I found very sobering was that that particular unit slumped some years later as a child walked under it, with their father. While a geo is trained to see boulders at the bottom of a cliff as a warning of more to come the general public are not primed to appreciate the danger.

But what of exposing children to danger? Are we playing it too safe? 

I’d love to market a bioreactor kit but there are serious safety barriers to acknowledge.

How many schools have fume hoods in their science labs? And how many kids are taught how to work with a naked flame? When I was a child these things were taken for granted, but in touring schools locally I have found that science labs look alien to me, as though the plan now is that children will learn all that they need to via a tablet.


Danger teaches us caution and it provides a wonderful rush of excitement. Surely it is our job to help students to experiment more safely at school than they are likely to experiment at home.

Playing it safe might not only be tempting children to do dangerous things in their “own time” but it might also be losing children from a life in science because “nothing exciting happens in our classroom”.

my unconventional journey towards art

Aug 26, 2016   written by John Lamerand
I had thought that art students were not serious about making a difference in the world. By a strange twist of events I found myself “doing a 180”. I started a career in STEM and found myself in a career in STEAM.

At high school I’d dabbled with tech pens, entered the odd design competition and won a few, but it was nothing serious.

Earning real money from graphic design was so far from my mind that I enrolled in engineering and my first job, in 1987, was to redraw mine designs that were in imperial measurements into a metric format. I’d been toying with CAD for a couple of years by then but in 1985 just designing a printed circuit board was a big deal. Well, it was for a fifteen year old. When the board went into production and the mine maps were pressed into service the thrill of designing something practical set in.

Despite having Fortran shoved down my throat I knew that the way to create exciting graphics was through writing code. I taught myself Lisp on an Indigo and found a lab on campus that had Quark.

It was learning how to use Quark that really started to make a difference. Suddenly I no longer had to work out the maths in order to draw something. So engrossed was I in Quark that I started skipping lectures.

The slide continued as I changed courses so I could spend more time with crystallography. The studies in geology also required a trained imagination to join the dots in the available data. Back in the 80s geos used Derwents, with each Derwent colour having a specific geological meaning.

Before I completed my science studies I insisted that I be allowed to enrol in photography. The Discipline Head resisted but I kept pushing. The pushing was making waves but I did not care. Things were coming to a head. When the Head relented it was as though a floodgate had been breached. I spent night after night developing film, catching, photographing and releasing animals.

Then my photography lecturer told me that my work was “boring”. I met the challenge by going all out – doubling my efforts and really pushing some boundaries. I would not say that I got arrested because no charges were laid, but let’s just say the local police took a keen interest in a perceived threat to local koalas. Sadly the photographs from that session were confiscated as evidence.

But I did not back down. I got hold of a big lizard, chilled it in the fridge, starched some jeans and underwear and did a new shoot with a rather angry animal coming out of the clothing. When the photo was used nationally by a clothing brand the Head of Geology declared in the local rag that I was an example to other students who wanted to pursue their passions and become well-rounded scientists.

That image was the key to a career in commercial photography, illustration and web design.

From time to time I also picked up rocks for money. Sometimes I photographed them, but I was always grateful for the opportunity to “go bush” at someone else’s expense, with a 4WD, a camera, a fridge and a sometimes foolish desire to catch, chill, shoot and release the wild animals around me.

How we learned to stop worrying and love sharing

Aug 24, 2016   written by John Lamerand
The Internet is a free for all. Also it isn’t. Between the two extremes is a special kind of problem that usually revolves around funding our dreams. We spend time to create equipment, lessons, strategies and to curate what others have done. To simply give all of that effort away without any concern shown for how we sustain our lives would spell a quick death for the project. And yet, when we go online we see so much out there that is free. Typically the free stuff has a hidden cost and the companies that can afford to give things away have some very deep pockets. One way to approach the desire to give without expecting anything in return is to limit how much we toss to the wind. Hopefully the seed will land in fertile ground, but there is no real guarantee that this strategy will work. How much do we give away? Should we be like Hollywood, giving away a trailer in the hope that you will pay the cinema ticket to watch the whole movie? Given that trailers run for a minute or so and movies typically run 100 times that length we would be giving 1%. Another approach is to approach the 1% of the population who have deep pockets and appeal to their patronage. We could open source some of what we have done, as littlebits has, knowing, trusting that those who want to take advantage of our work will come to us regardless. We could provide you with teaser content and ask for feedback. For two years now this is essentially what we have been doing in our local area. We have not gained financially from this, but we have grown in our understanding of what works, and where we should direct our attention in the future. Some things will be free for all. Some things won’t. Where we draw that line will be part of our discussion with you, our stakeholders.

Reasons for Resourcefulness

Aug 8, 2016   written by John Lamerand
I could have gone to Ikea. It might have been the easy thing to do. I have nothing against Ikea, per se, but to be honest, doing the easy thing would have been a missed opportunity for finding a creative solution.

To begin with, phrasing the need to have a work bench in terms of a visit to Ikea means that we first budget for the trip to Ikea, kicking the project down the road and perhaps into the oblivion that is “we’ll do it in a month or so”. The other problem with going to Ikea is that it encourages a mindset where if you have a problem it is time to go shopping.

What are the alternatives, then? 


Well, here is what I knew:

There were some small palettes in town that were going begging behind a shop together with a little piece of second-rate plywood. While I don’t make a habit of scouting for scrap I do try to keep my eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary whether I am driving, planning a meal or taking a photo.

The other thing I knew is that there was some paint in the garage steadily becoming unusable. It is the usual story – you have an idea of how many square meters you need to paint, you go buy paint and you’ve overestimated the paint required. There are two problems with discarding leftovers: the first is that it cost you money in the first place, let’s face it, and the second is that liquid paint is an environmental hazard and at that point you are either faced with getting some paint hardening powder (another dreaded purchase) or storing the remnant in the shed, next to the exercise equipment that was part of last year’s new year’s resolution.

Finally, and this is the biggest question for me: by visiting Ikea you miss out on the chance to create a lesson for the children about resourcefulness. Children need to know that there is no shame in re-purposing leftovers and scrap.

Last weekend my eldest expressed the view that he wanted a bench or a desk to do some carpentry on. So one of the key criteria for the solution was that the bench had to be solid.

My wife told me that she did not want whatever we were building to provide too many splinters, especially if we imagined a future use for the table inside the house.

With a sledge hammer I dismantled one palette and pulled the nails out of the boards that did not split in the process. Then within an hour I’d screwed the bench together and started painting the result. The children watched and took part where it was safe for them to do so. While it might not be the prettiest work bench it was part of a very valuable lesson for my children.


They learned that it is worth going the extra mile to save some money, to save wood from going to the town tip and to create something meaningful by up-cycling materials.

We have the added benefit of an empty paint tin which can now be safely put in the trash.

The trick to the whole process was being prepared to think creatively, not costly, and to redesign materials that were available at a low price (and for free).


The bench is still wet, so we cannot show it in action, but we will add some shots of it being used as soon as it stops raining here in Albany and the paint dries completely.

Here is a photo of a cubby-house that I made out of discarded palettes… proof that the results don’t always have to look “rustic”.



  • Resourcefulness is a skill worth teaching by example.
  • Consumer culture is robbing our children the opportunity to express creativity.
  • To achieve a sustainable lifestyle we need to change how we think and act.
  • Shopping can cost more than just money; it might rob you of a chance to share a skill.


In praise of crowdfunding

Aug 1, 2016   written by John Lamerand

We love it and loathe it in equal measure. Crowdfunding, sometimes better known in terms of brands like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is here to stay because it does something that previous methods did not do well

1) You can go straight to the consumer for funding and in so doing avoid having to talk to bankers who have little imagination until is comes time to price perceived risk aggressively.

2) You can have an idea and test the consumer’s reaction to it without having to hire a focus group, a statistician and so on. The sequence might look like this:

have an idea, test it, fail, have another idea, test it, fail, realise that you need to tweak what it is that you are doing, relaunch, succeed.

3) The public who have put their money where their mouth is can comment on what you have created and in the case of Kickstarter, you can pledge and then later remove your pledge if the weight of evidence indicates that the product is a sham, or that it does not offer real value. Note: you have to be careful on Indiegogo because pledging can result in money coming out of your bank account right away.

4) You can get together with like-minded people through a platform like BackerClub and promote worthy products through the club. If you want to know more about BackerClub please feel free to email me at john@lamerand.com.au.

5) You can get product to market faster than it would take through conventional business models. I know, you might say “Kickstarters are notorious for not delivering on time”, and you would be mostly correct because every project will face unforeseen barriers. While you can plan for what seems logical not everything you come up against in launching a business will be obvious when you start out.

For example:
The factory that you have hired to do something does not meet the failure rate,
The packaging design looks great but it is costing a bomb, so you go back to the drawing board. 
There is a breakthrough in how you can build your thing and you realise that the result will be less expensive to make and better for the customer, so you let them know and you trust your judgement that it is better to be a little late than deliver a second-rate product.
(and I have just received a call from my child’s school saying that she fell and hurt her arm, and this was not foreseen, but if I were pushing a deadline it is clear that I would put my child’s interests over the delivery schedule, so I will sign off now and go collect her)

We will be bringing you news of the crowdfunded project that we feel offer real value to teachers. Stay tuned.

Prepared to pivot

Jul 31, 2016   written by John Lamerand

When I first turned to Wayne Savill for help it was not to create Steamkits. I was keen to create a science lending library for the Great Southern. The kernel of the idea was that if it is viable to lend books, and to lend toys then why not establish a resource for lending expensive science equipment to local schools. My plan included a desire for ubiquity; I would get it right here in the Great Southern and then roll the process out cookie cutter style to other parts of the Commonwealth.

It is not that the idea would not work, but that the idea needed work. A more immediate win, Wayne explained, would involve the creation of kits that schools could purchase and the revenue generated could fund more kit development and the eventual creation of a science lending libaray. So we started buying multiples of each piece of kit and adapting them to answer the lesson plan requirements. For me this change represented a pivot; I was not abandoning my intial plans but rather going about it a different way.

The pivot sprang from the realisation that it is very hard to fund a library and every library has to contend with items that are “long overdue” (otherwise known as “lost”). As I write this I confess that I have a few titles from our local book library that are in the LO category. Sorry, people – I borrowed too much, I bit off more than my mind could chew and now I cannot renew, again.

It quickly became apparent that the lending library idea was like my stack of library magazines and books – the idea of reading all that stuff, the idea of creating and buying all of those resources, was great. The reality was a little more of a challenge.

So we had to be more practical, more pragmatic.

And this brings me to you, my reader. Have you ever bought something that you thought that you would use in class. An arduino-based robot, or a set of chemicals. And when it came time to create the lesson plan you were pressed for time, and you realised that it was next year’s students who would benefit. So be it. We cannot do everything that our hearts desire, but hopefully with steamkits you will be able to get started in your classroom not long after you rip the tape off the shipping box. That is our plan, one that we hope you will share with us.

author: John Lamerand




  • We started with the idea of a science library
  • We decided that despite its merits we would pivot our focus
  • Steamkits is designed to save you time in preparing for class


On sparking interest

Jul 31, 2016   written by John Lamerand

On one fine day in 1786 one of Galvani’s students at the University of Bologna was mucking around, as students do. Fortunately the startled student felt comfortable enough talking about his unusual experience. When he had touched a dead frog’s sciatic nerve with his scalpel the leg kicked. Now, perhaps this had happened a thousand times before but those students had either taken no notice or had thought that they should keep quiet because they had done something wrong. Perhaps on this occasion the student had been fooling around for a while because as it happens the implement that he used was holding a static charge.

Because the student owned up to what he’d seen a truly influencial idea came to light – the idea of animal electricity, which may have later been associated with animal magnetism; something that we try not to discuss in science classes. Nonetheless, this one keen observation by a student brought a new field into being, a field that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein – a rather romantic work that contributed to the idea of the Mad Scientist.

What does that have to do with science in our classrooms? I hear you ask. Well, it turns out that bacteria don’t need oxygen and sugars to play with electrons because some can grab these small charges directly from minerals and pass them back out. Some of these bacteria may very well be living in your stomach. It is clear that there is much more to know about our biome, about how little electricity life requires and how the kick of that frog’s leg is still making ripples.

So when we see students mucking about there may well be lessons to be learned, and not just lessons in achieving better class control. When we play with our food, or we play with our equipment we may open the door to discoveries that change the course of science. The key here is play, and recognising that it can be okay to muck around a little, providing you do so safely, of course.

Had it not been for my interest in mucking around I may not have beautiful children today – and not for the reasons that may immediately spring to mind. You see, at 15 I thought it would be fun to spend my holidays in a medical lab at the local university. The uni in question shall remain nameless for the reason I will now describe. I was running some blue gells and had no need to play with the geiger counter – that was the job of the technician who was putting radioactive iodine tags into the goop. But while I was waiting for a gel to run I decided to play with the lab equipment. I turned on the counter and scanned every bench in the department. One of the benches, a bench that I used regularly, was smoking hot. When I told the supervisor what I’d been up to he smiled, as I imagine Galvani might have, and asked “did you find anything interesting?” Soon afterwards that desk was quietly wrapped in plastic and taken to a prescribed waste facility. “It could have been serious”, he told me, “but we’ve run your radiation tag and you should be okay. The proof, he continued, is in the pudding, though, so let’s hope that whatever dose you did receive did not do any significant damage.” Fortunately for my childrens’ sake, my “pudding” turned out just fine, thanks, perhaps, to a desire to explore outside of the prescribed boundaries set out in the instructions.

There may be a lesson in that for all of us.



  • Great discoveries are often sparked by play
  • Play should not always be characterised as naughtiness
  • Some bacteria take electrons directly from minerals