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”.

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