An open letter to my leaving students

As teachers we don’t usually get to mark ‘final’ exams. We only get to see the results of all those years of study as you do, on results day. This year is again different. I know what grades you are getting. But then so do you. We worked it out together, as a team, me and you.

It was unusual marking these, your final exams. You got so many tricky questions completely correct. I don’t mean just the short answer ones, but the explanation ones and the ones with complex calculations. It’s interesting seeing you do so well because I remember teaching you all that stuff but you soon won’t remember learning any of it. But it’ll all be there, in you, it’s become part of you now, your knowledge, cut off from me. The goal of any teacher is that the student surpasses the master. It’s my job to give you what you need to become more and to go on and do bigger and better things. 

Some of you leaving in year 13 I taught in my first year here in when you were tiny scruffy year 8s. Those of you leaving in year 11 were still in the junior school when I started at Fyling Hall. Does it seem like a long time ago to you, or did it all race by in the blink of an eye?

I’m resigned to the fact that you won’t remember much of my lessons, or indeed any lessons, or any part of school life, as the next years go by and it all fades away as you meet new people and have new experiences. You just won’t have cause to remember how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown, human memory doesn’t work like that. On some level perhaps you’ll remember a feeling. All I can hope for now is that it’s a warm and welcome feeling.

Maybe, many decades from now, you’ll hear some music, or some other trigger, that will call up some long forgotten feeling from the distant past. Perhaps you’ll remember the fun we had and raise a glass to your old teacher, back here in the before time, who did try his best to give you what you needed. And I’ll still be here, long, long ago, raising a glass forward to you and all your dreams and futures and hopes and loves and joys.

To all of you and yours,

You were fantastic.

Wishing you Happy Times and Places,


A. Instone

Interested in Interesting

“The unexamined life is not worth living” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. Self-reflection is important. Knowing who you are and what you like doing is important.

Our broadcast assembly had this theme to start of the new term. All of our six terms have names by the way. This, the 5th term of the year, is actually called Perseverance – a great message for us all, especially those in our exam classes, reminding them to keep going for this final push. (Co-incidentally that’s the same name as the new robot on Mars. Here’s another interesting thing: the first powered flight on another planet was the Ingenuity helicopter that flew for the first time this month on the surface of Mars. Attached to it was a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright brother’s plane at Kitty Hawk, the first powered flight on Earth, from 1903.)

So where were we? Yes, interesting people do interesting things – and it doesn’t matter what they are. Everyone should be interested in something, however obscure or common, obvious or abstract it may be. So I wanted to run a survey to find out what we as a school are in fact interested in.

What do I mean by interests? I described them as the activities you’d engage in if you didn’t have to do anything else. The activities you’d do if you could choose, what you’d do if you just had the time. Part of the purpose of being at school is to do your best so that you can have more options, more choices about the future. 

Sooner or later this will all become vital for our students when they turn up for collage or job interviews. To get an interview means you’ve met the minimum requirements. From that point on it’s not about your qualifications or grades – everyone asked to interview has already proved that they’ve got those. Now they’ll have to prove who they really are: their personality, their perseverance, their ingenuity. Having hobbies and interests does just that – it lifts you up from the average.

I also asked all the teachers to do it too. Role models are important. 

But it’s not about being obscure or unique. It’s just about doing whatever it is to a level of detail, of expertise. So I didn’t want people to just say “football” or “the internet” and think they were done. I created a form that asked for more specifics, to be particular. I’ve attached my own examples so you can see what I meant. It should be that what they put in the last column is pretty obscure to a lay audience, as mine are.

I’m compiling the results now and I’ll let you know later what the findings are. We’re hoping to use any data from the survey to help inform forthcoming ideas for clubs and societies as well. 

My Masters Postgraduate Degree at Oxford: Making the Invisible Visible

I completed my Masters Degree at the University of Oxford in 2016. Part of the submission was to present a large sized poster for an exhibition of Postgraduate work as a summary of research carried out to that point in the process. Below is my poster.

My research was about exploring the use of diagrams in science to aid understanding of abstract concepts and processes. The three research questions I examined were:

In what ways could diagrams have learning advantages over text alone?
How can the use of diagram representations enhance comprehension and retention? 
How can students (and teachers) be better equipped and trained to make best use of visual media?

My ink drawings of Robin Hood’s Bay

I got my first Rotring Rapidograph technical drawing pen when I was 13. It was a revelation. It was also very expensive and a year later I got a second one with a nib size of 0.13mm, even smaller than my first 0.35mm.

The pens allowed for a precision and a super high contrast of stark black and white that was amazing. One of my favourite early drawings with them, as a 15 year old is a cutaway drawing of K9 from Doctor Who (see below).

This winter I got my pens out again. Sadly the thinnest one’s nib had seized up beyond my ability to clean it and I tracked down various other sizes until I had the set. Then, inspired by some of my favourite artists who worked in black ink I began a series of new drawings for various purposes: the graphic comic strips of Frank Bellamy, album covers of Klaus Voorman and the Art Nouveau of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha among others.

Below are my three latest pieces depicting themes around where I live in Robin Hood’s Bay.

View of Ravenscar, 2020
Robin Hood’s Bay, 2021
Robin Hood’s Bay, 2021
Doctor Who’s K9, 1985
My pens from 0.10mm to 2mm

Danger and Safety in the Lab

I remember my own first Physics and Chemistry lessons, aged 11, very clearly indeed. I loved that it was a whole new world of doing things, in a very particular way. With strange new equipment and beakers of weird dangerous liquids that changed colour, fizzed or burst into flames.

The main emotion I felt when I first became a teacher of Year 7 science was the weight of responsibility and honour to recreate that initial introduction for a whole new generation. I want them all, each and every year, to feel that same sense of wonder, anticipation, excitement and feelings of success as I did. 

I still have all my original exercise books of course. You know what? What we teach now is exactly the same. I run, as far as possible, the same introductory experiments, the same introduction to the the scientific method and the same explanation of risks and hazards and instructions on safety. (All except one of my favourite reactions, that of the ignition of ammonium dichromate which we’re not supposed to do anymore).

Some other subject teachers and some parents are surprised that in this age of health and safety where kids are no longer allowed to carry pen knives or use solvent based glues (quite rightly), we far more dangerous stuff in the lab than you think.

A major part of teaching science is about teaching the concept of risk and how to manage it. Rules are not there to spoil our fun as some believe, rules are there to keep us safe so we can do even more. The arrival of the rules around Covid-19 in our science lessons are a massive inconvenience of course. But having life and limb threatening dangers in our labs is not new and although annoying, frustrating and time-consuming, it’s all in a day’s work for us: we just have another set of safety procedures to add to our existing risk assessments and safety protocols.

I did not want the virus protection policies to limit or spoil our pupils’ science education experiences, especially for our Year 7 pupils. We’re implementing all the complex guidelines (from CLEAPSS, the support agency for science in schools, To do so we’re re-jigging our curriculum and lessons running order, equipment usage rotas, cleaning and sterilisation plans, to offer as much practical experimental hands-on work as possible. 

In short, you still have to tie your hair back and tuck your tie in, put on your safety specs and stand up straight, tucking your stool under the bench. You still have to light your bunsen burner and set it to the roaring blue flame of 700 degrees Celsius. Yes, there will be explosions. Yes, there will be high voltage sparks. Yes, there will be fizzing and colour changes, poisonous gasses and corrosive acids. Yes, there will be electron guns and lasers. Yes, there will be radiation, strange smells and odd coloured flames. There will be all these things because we’ve carefully planned and prepared to showcase all these terrifying dangers while keeping all of us safe.

Why didn’t they tell us that at school?

Depending on what era you grew up in, there are plenty of things that you’d claim not to have been taught in school. A lot of us still carry some resentment or frustration that things would be better if we’d only been tough such-and-such instead of chemical catalysts, river deltas or trigonometry. 

The truth is we were taught some of the greatest lessons at school although we didn’t realise it at the time: how to cope with annoying people, how to get out of doing something, how to turn up on time and how to learn. These and other skills were not ‘in the curriculum’ of subjects so we tend to call them ‘extra-curricular’. Some are generic, some are woven throughout school ethos and some are deliberately focused on. 

At Fyling Hall School we have a suite of extra-curricular systems. We have our Tutor Groups, Assemblies, visiting experts, Clubs and Societies and of course the Learning for Life programme which is an extra lesson per week about a range of topics linked to the government’s PSHE, Personal, Social, Health and Economic directive.

This year, a lot of our programme has been and will be disrupted and we’re working on different ways of doing things. That main question remains: ‘what would we wish they’d have taught us at school?’, and ‘what extra skills and knowledge do kids of today need to flourish in their lives?’. These are the driving force behind the plans we put together. 

During lockdown I created a ‘chat show’ to replace some of what we could suddenly no longer do in school. It gave me the opportunity to get guest speakers and interview them on a range of topics of value to our students. None of the topics discussed fit into the curriculum, they were all life skills and knowledge that enrich lives if taken note of. There are links to the shows and their topics below. See what you think.

A lot of what schools do actually teach may at first glance to seem like a waste of time (“when will I ever need to use algebra in real life” is a common one). This is partly that we have become too focused on subjects and topics as collections of facts and information and then, realising that a simple Google search will pull up that information, wonder about the relevance of spending six hours a day in a classroom. “What about the stuff you actually need?” people cry, “like filling in a tax return, how mortgages work, how to book a foreign holiday…”. I like to answer that with two responses. One, those topics would make for very, very dull lessons. Two, those things can be found out by a simple Google search too.

I believe that the answer to this dilemma is to switch this obsessiveness away from topics, information and facts to skills where the information is the conduit for learning the skill. It’s not really about chemical catalysts, river deltas or trigonometry, it’s about what you become by studying these things. It’s about the process of learning itself. It’s about critical and creative thinking. It’s about resilience, perseverance and practice. If you can be the person that can learn, understand, remember, apply and combine ideas on one complex or abstract topic, you can do it for any topic.

That said, the curriculum is nowhere near perfect. I’d love to be able to re-tool it beyond what I can do just in my own school. That’s why I’m working on a manifesto for a new approach, not that anyone with any power will take any notice, but I’m doing it anyway. What would you like to see in it?

Here’s a list of what we covered in The Early Show:

  1. Professional speaker and magician John Hotowka discussed resilience, the skill of keeping strong when things are tricky and you feel like giving up.
  2. Steve Judge continued this to the extreme adding in the idea of having a string vision that drives your perseverance. As a gold medal winning special Olympian, Steve’s story of overcoming dramatic injury to become a winner was inspiring and moving. Steve ran a competition to win a copy of his book for creating a vision board.
  3. David Hyner is one of the countries great speakers on having and achieving goals. His humour and humility made the case to take action immediately. Some of our students did following the talk and got coached by their heroes during lockdown. 
  4. If Frederika Roberts’s presentation on wellbeing and happiness didn’t make you smile, you need to watch it again. She presented us with loads of tips to keep our minds healthy, especially during difficult times.
  5. Science magician Matt Pritchard talked about us re-gaining a sense of wonder about the world around us.
  6. David Thomas, the Guinness Book of Records memory man told us bluntly that memory is something you work on, not something you have or don’t have. 
  7. Our headmaster Steven Allen talked candidly about the nature of school returning to wider opening.
  8. Alex Drew disused the benefits and dangers of the rise of internet use.
  9. Lind Sage, a criminal psychologist, discussed how we each make our own prisons. She works with the most dangerous criminals to help them come to terms with their actions which are li need to their self belief. She should us how we can change positively too.
  10. Jackie Perkins talked to us about self-image and how we present ourselves in our appearance, clothing etc. She told us how dressing for the occasion will get you further in life. 
  11. Graham Frost escaped from a cult as a young child, overcame a number of massive problems and now talks about the power of decisions and how they can positively change your direction.
  12. Silky is a stand up comedian and trainer of comedy and improvisation skills. He discussed with us the meaning of life and how in fact, the meaning is to find the meaning and in doing so, enjoy it.

All of the shows are available on YouTube:

Ep.1 resilience with @JohnHotowka 

Ep.2 vision with @SteveJudge 

Ep.3 goals with @davidhyner 

Ep.4 wellbeing with @Frederika_R

Ep.5 wonder with @ScienceMagician

Ep.6 memory with David Thomas

Ep.7 wider school opening with Steve Allen

Ep.8 internet use with @Alec_Drew

Ep.9 self belief with @meetLindaSage

Ep.10 express yourself with Jackie Perkins

Ep.11 decisions with Graham Frost.

Ep.12 the meaning of life with @paulsilkywhite

Please tell me in the comments below what you’d wished you’d learnt at school or what you did learn that you’re convinced was of no use whatsoever…

Back to the future in (8-bit) Microcomputer Club – part 3

You might ask, if computer programming is so important, shouldn’t a modern school equip its students to succeed in the modern world? So why have I kitted out my club in the Physics lab with computers that were first released in 1980 and discontinued in 1984? 

There is of course an assumption with technology that the very latest thing is the best and the thing from last week is out of date and useless. That’s what corporations want to us think. I prefer to look at what job needs doing and chose the appropriate tool to get it done.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine you wanted your ten year old to play in an orchestra, perhaps the clarinet or cello. With no musical theory knowledge, no experience of scales and no practice in dexterity of finger movement or lips and breath techniques giving them a cello or clarinet and placing them in a live orchestra would not be a successful learning approach. 

So what do we do instead? We give them a simpler tool on which to learn the basics: music notation, scales as so on. Most often the tool is the recorder*. But you could say the recorder is a baby instrument. It only has a few notes. It can’t be used to play a tune that anyone would actually want to listen to. It has no place in the modern orchestra. No-one’s going to give a record deal to a recorder player. It’s just not an instrument that is taken seriously. Yet the recorder does the job it was designed to do. Results are quick and the theory can be learnt before moving on to a more sophisticated instrument. This is how it’s done in musical training, this is how you become a professional musician and yet this is not, as a nation, how we have treated computer science learning over the past few decades. 

It’s no wonder then that people enter the world of work unable to program any computer. We’ve all had access to the full orchestra with no idea how any parts of it work. Give a child a modern, expensive PC, Mac or iPad type device and the last thing they’ll do is want to take it apart to find out how it works. The last thing they have time for is learning how to program it when at the click of a finger amazing games, videos and chats can be had. 

This is where my commodore VIC20s** come in. They are the recorders of the computing orchestra. With them we can learn that the computer is nothing more than a bank of digital switches called transistors miniaturised to fit millions of them on a microchip called the 6502. The arrangement of the circuitry on the 6502 allows codes to be sent (in ones and zeros) which will have certain effects like change a colour or print the letter A on a screen. We can learn a stylised language that’s easier than feeding in those zeros and ones that lets us structure what we want the computer to do. Here we’re talking directing to the computer, in a language very close to its own, without the layers of other people’s code of a mouse cursor, windows and folders. All those graphical metaphors make things easier but are really multiple programs stacked on top taking us further and further away from the science of the computer. 

Just because we can find a clip on YouTube, spend hours on Fortnite or get loads of likes on Instagram doesn’t make us a computer expert, it makes us a user in the same way that we are washing machine or vacuum cleaner users. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but we need to have at least a few of us who still know how things work. That’s my job as a science teacher. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan said, “We live in an advanced technological society in which no-one knows anything about technology.”

It turns out I’m not alone in taking this approach. There are various companies attempting to strip down a modern PC into a more straightforward device that can be used just as a learning tool without the temptation to just go on the internet and check your notifications. There’s a massive retro computer community out there as I found out when I was asked to be interviewed for one channel. You can watch the interview here:

I made a tour of the lab set up that was edited for use in the interview. You can view the whole tour (I even got some tips from the actual guys who designed the VIC20 for commodore, wrote the manuals and games through groups on Facebook!)

I was delighted to see that after a year of running my club and fixing up old machines, the commodore VIC20/64 is back into production last year (from RetroGames for £109). You can actually now go and buy a brand new one, plug into any new monitor and easily save and load your programs (I got one of these the very day they came out).

At Fyling Hall we are teaching computing as part of ICT for all years using introductory languages such as Scratch, Logo and Python***. In my club we’re focusing on computer science using BASIC and assembler language (which is machine code in hexadecimal). It’s the technological equivalent of teaching Latin, which may not be used as a spoken language now but it’s the root of many modern languages and supports the learning of them.

The language of the computer is mathematics. Learning how to program enhances maths skills and gives a deep understanding of logic as well as developing imaginative creative problem solving. In many ways it’s at odds with how we typical use computers today in that the other skill you need most of all is patience: programming is not quick, it’s a slower and more thoughtful process than we give credence to these days in our high speed fast results world.

But most of all, typing your own program, that you’ve written, into a computer that up until that point simply sat there doing nothing, waiting for you with a flashing cursor saying ‘Ready.’ and then to type RUN so the computer begins to execute something you designed yourself, is actually quite rewarding and fun.

My clubs haven’t been able to run for the last year but we’re hoping to start up again very soon.

* The recorder, by the way is the earliest known musical instrument. One has been found dating from 60,000 years ago. It was made from a bear bone and has three notes: Do, Re and Mi. It wasn’t even made by humans like us, but by Neanderthals. See here.

** The commodore VIC20 was the first computer of any kind to sell over a million units and one of the first colour computers. It’s graphics and sound were improved to make the even more popular commodore 64 which went on to sell nearly 20 million units and is still the biggest selling computer in history (although the Raspberry pi is getting close).

*** Python is the modern version of BASIC which we gravitate to when designing Raspberry pi electronics projects.

See part 1 and part 2 on this topic to see how it began.

How do you teach a practical subject online?

Will students back in class I thought I’d reflect on and summarise how I coped from January till now attempting to teach a practical subject online.

Unlike the previous lockdown last March, where we had a special timetable, this time we kept to our normal timetables meaning six hours of live teaching per day. I felt it was my responsibility to make the hours the students spent with me as varied and interesting as possible. After all, they will have been staring at a screen for every other lesson. There must be better ways of doing things while keeping them engaged and learning for the hour. (No cop-out ‘go off and read about such-and-such’ in my lessons…)

As you might know, before I entered teaching I gave lectures, talks and training on creative thinking to businesses, especially scientific and technical or engineering companies. One of the highlights was flying out to Evian near Lake Geneva to keynote for pharmaceutical company Bayer for their global science research teams. So having to do this virtual teaching means I have two put my money where my mouth is and keep being creative in finding better ways to do everything I want to do. 

Here’s a summary of some of the ways I’ve been attempting to get the ideas of Physics over using multiple cameras with students watching on video via Microsoft Teams. As I’m based in the lab all week I can use the tools and equipment I normally have available there to get the most out of what I’m hoping to explain. 

Year 7

The most important thing in my mind for Year 7 is to make sure they’re engaged in the core ideas of science: critical thinking, problem solving and imagination. To that end we’ve been doing simple experiments that can be run safely at home. The main emphasis being their ability to carefully carry out an experimental procedure and report and interpret the results. We started the year looking at electronics, which would be really hands-on if we were all in school. But by teaching circuit diagrams I was able to get the students to design circuits which I would then build on camera for them. Another topic covered in lockdown was organism classification and adaption for which I ran various ‘design an animal’ games to see whose species survived extension as the environment changed. We also did a ‘show and tell’ fossil session while studying Mary Anning. Living on the coast, many of our students are avid fossil collectors.

Year 8

Year 8 have had the benefit of a practical led year last year and now need to examine more abstract concepts. But the relevance to their everyday lives is still there as we look at light: how it reflects, how it refracts, how lenses work, how to make a camera, how images are formed and the use of lasers. I can demonstrate a lot of these phenomenon live using various closeup and wide angle lenses in the lab and some examples of refraction can be set up and seen by them at home.

Year 9

We have begun the GCSE syllabus and some of the practical applications are more advanced and would be class demos in a normal situation. I’ve pre-made many videos on complex set ups on which questions can be based on as well as showing other elements live. We’re studying the Electromagnetic Spectrum – full of excitements and dangers as well as being key to our modern world of communications. They enjoyed me putting dangerous things inside a microwave oven and demonstrating a simple radio broadcasting across the lab.

Year 10

Alas, we would have been spending all term doing experimental design had we been in school. The plan was to investigate the effects of various factors on the distance a ski jumper travels. Instead we’re continuing the curriculum with our two hours a week split into demonstration and explanation of a phenomenon at the start of the week and then at in the second session, skills testing. I tasked them with designing experiments to investigate forces on a spring, balancing turning forces on a see-saw (moments) and acceleration of a car down a ramp.

Year 11

Our exam groups are in that curious limbo of wondering if we have enough evidence to award them the grade they deserve. With formal exams cancelled so early we do have more syllabus content to explain and understand. This gives us plenty of opportunities for grades to be enhanced as well as keeping brains working for those that will want to pursue a science A level next year. One of our groups is studying Forces and Motion, all Isaac Newton’s discoveries that gave us machines and transport. The other group is looking at Thermodynamics: heat energy and thermal properties of materials which we use in efficiency of heaters and insulation. With multiple cameras I can set up experiments to their design and the class can see what works and what needs to be improved. They designed an experiment which I ran as per their directions to find the specific heat capacity of water and the calculate the electrical cost of making a cup of tea.

A Level

With the use the Remarkable tablets (see this) we’re able to visually work through problems and exam questions as well as the setting up of equipment to see the effects or application of what we’re describing. We’re making good use of this time in the second year of A Level by bringing forward the topic that the students choose themselves which we usually do at the end of the year. This means that the student led individually based learning done at this time is an appropriate use of the current situation. This year our students have split into two groups to study Quantum Mechanics and Special Relativity in one group and Astrophysics in the other. 

So there we have it, plenty going on and lots to see and do. That’s why I love teaching physics.

The telescope, the printer, the past and the future…

Our 3D printer has generated a lot of interest in school and around on social media where we’ve shared pictures of the amazing things we’ve made. So what is it, how does it work, and what are we doing with it?

Our story starts a couple of years ago when one of our year 10 students, bought himself a kit to build his own 3D printer. He did it, it worked, but the results were not that impressive. The device sat unloved at the back of the physics lab for a year before he returned to it, customised almost all of it, installed new software and got it going properly. It could print items up to 8cm3 and he made some amazing things which we then painted and marvelled at. But it was terribly slow, taking hours to print the smallest thing. He and fellow 6th former and A Level Physics student, put forward a proposal for the school to buy a new, more advanced machine. Their white paper outlined numerous great ideas on what the device could be used for as both a practical tool and a learning experience. But school budgets have to be spent on what we need to have and sadly not on what we’d like to have…

Now the story takes an interesting twist. 45 years ago, one of the doctors from the local Robin Hood’s Bay surgery retired. Richard Whitehead Rutter was born in Wakefield in 1909, graduating in medicine in 1933 from Leeds University. He set up the surgery at Robin Hoods Bay and in 1961 formed, with a team of colleagues, what is now the Whitby partnership surgeries. He was president of the Fylingdales horticultural society and their bowling club as well as chairman of the Whitby Rural District Council in addition to being a keen golfer. He was also an amateur astronomer. Years earlier he had acquired a Watson Century telescope from a retired sea captain. The brass telescope was made at the turn of the twentieth century, probably just prior to the First World War. It was massive – over two metres long, with a large wooden tripod and was very, very heavy. 

Doctor Rutter’s son had been a student at Fyling Hall and it was perhaps for this reason he donated the telescope to Mrs White, daughter of the founder of the school and then principal, around the time of his retirement in 1975. That retirement was sadly short-lived as he died six months later, aged just 65. Mrs White passed the telescope on to the school and upon his arrival, a new teacher mounted it on its tripod and gazed through it to the stars. It was deemed too unwieldily (the tripod almost collapsed due to a crack in the wood), too heavy and large to set up permanently and after a valuation, proved too valuable to leave lying around. It was put back in its large wooden case and put safely away in the loft space above the labs in the Ramsdale building. That’s where I found it two years ago. We decided once again that it was not something we could use easily. It also was in need of a lot of restoration. Much as I would have loved to go through that process, it would be a costly diversion. So we decided to see who would be interested in buying it. Mike Dawson from the Whitby Astronomical Society came forward and it now resides in his home, undergoing a full restoration, stripping the layers of paint back to the original brass. Mike has said he’ll share the results with us when it’s back to its former glory.

Now we return to my students’ proposal. I was in possession of the proceeds from the sale of the telescope. The school had already had a more modern telescope donated to us recently so I felt it was appropriate to re-invest the money in a different device that would benefit the school in a new way, and I hope, in a way that Doctor Rutter would approve. 

In February this year we took delivery of an Artillery X1 Sidewinder 3D printer: faster, quieter, safer and more powerful than the older kit. It’s capable of making any object up to 30cm3 – that’s big.

If you haven’t seen a 3D printer, think of it as a cross between a sewing machine and a cake icer. It uses a large spool of a plastic thread (called ‘filament’). The printer melts the filament and deposits it as tiny droplets on the glass printer bed where it cools instantly. In this regard, it is almost the same as a traditional inkjet printer except that it can build up layers upon layers of tiny dots, making up complex structures in three dimensions. ‘Plastic!’ I hear you say, we don’t want more of that! The plastic we use, called PMA, is made from plant cellulose, not oil as most plastics are. It’s biodegradable too and non-toxic. It gives off no harmful fumes. It’s not wasteful as we make only what we need, one thing at a time, unlike a production line which produces thousands of items. We can get our filament in a variety of colours too.

To print something we need a three dimensional drawing, usually referred to as a CAD model (Computer Aided Design). There are thousands of these available on the internet for free that people have uploaded, or you can design your own using the appropriate software.

So what are we making with it? So far we’ve done the thing that everyone does when they first get a 3D printer: make toys. You’ll see here pics of Daleks and things from Star Wars. We’ve also made some unusual curiosities like the Impossible Table and the spinning fidget puzzle. One of our goals is to make a fleet of historic space vehicles, probes, robots and rockets. So far we have a model of Voyager and the Space X Falcon rocket. The other use is to design and build items that are actually of use. We have loads of ideas for equipment that will benefit our science experiments, holding equipment in place or casings for circuitry. One of the most simple and yet most useful was a wall cable rack for our electronic leads.

With 3D printers now becoming consumer units, we are now at the place where colour inject printers were about twenty years ago – once the province of print shops and educational establishments, they are now found in almost every home. We predict the same is true of the 3D printers where they’ll be used to print new Lego bricks for your children or replacement parts for your washing machine or car. Perhaps these future machines will have a plastic grinder attached so you simple drop in your plastic milk bottles for the machine to re-use the plastic to turn it into something else right there in your home. In industry, larger machines than ours are already being used to print joints and body parts for surgery. Maybe some of us we will have a new hip or knee joint printed on such machines in the near future. The plastic can be change for metal infused carbon or even concrete. Such large machines are used in disaster hit countries to quickly print refugee housing. In the next decade, similar machines will be shipped as parts to the Moon and Mars, assembled by robots and using the alien soil as their raw material, build strange igloos for human travellers to begin colonies on these other worlds. The future landscape of a human settlement on Mars may not resemble the glass domes of science fiction but a city looking more like giant termite nests that appear to have grown out of the alien soil, printed in exactly the same was as ours in our lab is operating today. 

Thanks to the generous donation from Doctor Rutter all those years ago and the persistence and ingenuity of my students, we now have a modern design and technology workshop installed in the Physics lab which will in time give a massive benefit to our classes and our students offering new skills as well as a valuable glimpse into the future.