Hello and welcome to our latest chat write-up. This week we thought we’d try something slightly different and chose to have Laura Hobbs as our live chat expert. Most of you will know her as one of the hardworking Nappy Science Gang coordinators and as the moderator of most of our live chats, but she also holds a PhD in volcanology and runs family science sessions for under 5s. Given her varied background and interests, the write-up is divided in two sections, one all about science for under 5 year olds, and the second all about volcanoes, ash and glaciers!
Q: But first of all, let’s allow Laura to introduce herself.
Laura: I’m a volcanologist, which means that I do research on volcanoes. More specifically, explosive eruptions – the ones that throw loads of ash up into the air – and even more specifically, what happens when the material that gets erupted (I’ll call it ash for now as that’s the word most people are familiar with, but ash is actually a name for just one part of what gets erupted) falls onto glacier surfaces. I also run family science activities, something that came about because I realised there was nothing science-related to do with my (at the time) one year old son, so I decided to make something! So now I run science sessions for families with under 5s, which is mainly about playing and getting messy, but also asking questions and helping babies/toddlers to learn at the same time.
Q: What sort of science can you do with kids so little? I’d like to do more with my nearly 2 year old.
Laura: It’s mainly about helping them to explore, and for a lot of people that means changing the way they think about ‘science’. For example, the last UK Public Attitudes to Science report says that a relatively low proportion of people saw science as ideas or a way of thinking. Far more people associate it with things like ‘chemistry’ and ‘physics’. But science doesn’t have to mean complicated laboratory experiments done by someone highly trained! In young children it’s just about learning and understanding the world around them. So sensory experiences are good – especially giving them opportunities to experience things they haven’t before. Things like play dough and sensory bottles are great because they’re safe and they can stimulate the imagination a lot. Bowls of water with different things in – some that float, some that sink, some that absorb water, some that don’t, and so on, also work very well. So kids can explore them, and see how they behave differently.
Q: Oh I’ve done some of that kid stuff. I’ll definitely try the absorbing water vs not and sinking vs floating.
Laura: Try snow dough. Just mix a bit of vegetable oil with some cornflour (and a bit of glitter if it’s not going to go straight in mouths) and you’ve got something you can build with like snow. It’s brilliant, you can sprinkle it, make footprints in it, use it to show how camouflage works, even chill it to make it cold. Just don’t tread it into the carpets! It is messy but kids love it.
I’m going to buy some cornflour tomorrow.
Laura: Definitely buy cornflour. And mix it with some water as well as doing the snow dough. Non-Newtonian fluid – goes solid when you put pressure on it (pick it up), and liquid when you let go. Hours of fun.
Q: I think children are naturally pretty scientific, especially infants: they test everything. Do you think we knock that out of them when we start declaring things to them as fact?
Laura: I think it’s really important to encourage children to develop their natural tendencies to explore the world and to present things with questions rather than as facts. Science is all about what we don’t know, and finding that out. If we just say ‘this is how it is’, how do children learn to question things, and experiment, and find out new things? And from watching them play, they often use resources and adapt activities in unexpected ways, if they’re given the space to play creatively. And that leads to new discoveries.
Q: In the early years in schools we are trying to get back to letting children discover things by themselves instead of declaring things as facts, as researchers have found that children begin to respond differently once we formally teach like that. They try to give the answer the teacher wants and I think that is the point where it’s obvious that we have stopped them doing science.
Laura: That’s good to hear, it really is all about tapping into their natural curiosity and giving them opportunities to explore and all that is taken away once facts are ‘declared’. It can sometimes be hard to get schools and preschools on board though, because there seems to be a difficulty in linking ‘science’ (or what people think science is) with young children. But when you look at it from the angle of babies being natural scientists and constantly testing out the world, it makes much more sense and lots of parents are really keen on the idea! If you think of scientific thinking as being about exploring, questioning, experimenting, and so on, it suddenly feels quite restrictive to just declare things as fact (even if you know they are!). So it’s as simple as, when you’re with a child who’s playing, instead of telling them what something does, ask *them* what it does. And then (hopefully!) they’ll try to find out.
Wow that’s some really interesting stuff. I’d not thought about presenting things as facts as stifling scientific creativity.
And now, for the second part of the chat: on volcanoes, glaciers and ash.
Q: How can you do experiments with volcanoes? It’s not like you can make one go off to test things.
Laura: No, you can’t make one go off, but you can try and replicate one in a lab (certain conditions anyway, not a whole volcano unfortunately). You can also go out to them and run field experiments and get samples to test. So for my PhD specifically, I went to a volcano in Chile that has a glacier on the top of it, and because I was interested in what happens when ‘ash’ lands on the glacier, I did a field experiment where I put the ash on the glacier surface myself, then measured and observed what happened. But obviously those are hugely variable and largely uncontrollable conditions, so I also did lab experiments using a freezer, so I could control and monitor the conditions much more closely.
Q: And what did you discover?
Laura: Essentially, when ash lands on a glacier, it can do several different things. First, it’s important to remember that it’s not hot – it’s usually cooled completely by the time it’s been up in the air and come back down again. When ash lands on a glacier it makes the glacier surface darker, so it absorbs more heat (it melts more quickly) but it also insulates the glacier surface (it melts more slowly). So the overall effect is a balance between the two, and there is also a certain thickness at which the ash makes no difference because those two effects (increased and decreased melting) cancel each other out. I look at what affects that balance, and what the wider consequences of the changed melting rates are.
Q: So what is the point of finding out what volcanic ash does when it lands on a glacier?
Laura: It’s important because it affects melting rates, and that has implications for lots of things that depend on glaciers, e.g. climate change monitoring, drinking water, tourism and associated economies.
Q: Would you be learning about it with a view to interceding in some way then? To an outsider it seems academic – volcano’s gonna blow whenever it likes.
Laura: Yes, of course volcanoes will erupt whatever, but if you understand what’s going to happen, there are things you can do – kind of like damage limitation – to reduce the risks associated with that.
Q: So if you find that volcanoes are terrible for glaciers, is there anything that can be done?
Laura: There hasn’t been much work done on mitigation – so my research up until this point has mainly been about working out what the effects are, what controls them and what the potential consequences are. Managing those consequences is the next step, but you need to know all the other stuff first. There are lots of glaciers and snow fields that get some kind of ‘dirt’ (not always volcanic) on them, and there are things that can be done, like closing ski-fields or covering them up if they’re likely to get ash on them, which can make them unsafe. But that has knock on effects like loss of income for people who work there, so everything needs to be carefully considered.
Q: You said you went to study a particular volcano in Chile, and also did lab based experiments. How do you know what you saw with this particular volcano can be applied to any other volcano?
Laura: That’s the point of doing the lab experiments – they explore the fundamental physical processes and how changing conditions affect results, but we also need data from real environments too, because that gives us insights into what’s going on. We know that the fundamental physical processes underlying the variations that we see will be the same everywhere, but conditions change in natural environments and that affects what happens. So if we collect data at one place (or more!) and work out what’s going on there, that helps us to work out what will happen somewhere else, even if the conditions are different because we understand what’s going on and can take those changes into account.
Q: Who pays for the research to be done?
Laura: Research is paid for by various organisations. In the UK it’s often the research councils and in my case it came through my university, the British Geological Survey and IAVCEI, which is the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior.
Q: Those seem like trustworthy sources of money – organisations who pay for science for the sake of science, so does that give extra credence to your work than say, if you were being paid by the ski area owners?
Laura: There’s not really a vested interest for anybody like that with my area of research – we already know that ash has an effect, so we need to understand how it has those effects to be able to do something about it, but yes I guess from the public’s point of view results will seem more trustworthy if the work has been funded by sources that can be seen to be unbiased.
Q: I see, I just wondered how scientists tackle the whole problem of vested interests. For example, if good scientists did good science and it showed that tobacco makes you immortal, but that research was funded by Benson and Hedges, could those findings be valuable still? How do you prove your work is good?
Laura: I can’t really comment on how other people deal with vested interests, especially as it’s something I’ve never had to do, but in terms of showing that research is good, to get it published it needs to go through peer review. That means that other specialists go through your work, often anonymously, and comment on it. Without their approval, it won’t get published. And the people doing it have to be unconnected with and unaffected by your work, so that should remove any vested interest they might have in it. It’s at least two people doing that, plus an editor, and it can go through several rounds of reviews. The system is pretty rigorous (although obviously mistakes can slip through, as everybody is human, but papers are usually read whilst thinking critically in order to pick up on things like that, and corrections can be issued) and you have to declare conflicts of interest and funding sources too. But when it comes down to it, with the tobacco example, if the work was done rigorously and the results were reliable, then the funding *should* be irrelevant. However, it’s easy to see how people not involved in the research might be sceptical.
Q: That makes perfect sense. Presumably if a scientist says it’s good and others say it isn’t then they place their own reputation at risk. Will the Nappy Science Gang science be peer reviewed?
Laura: We’ve got our external evaluators (like Rob, the epidemiologist) looking at what we’re doing, so that’s kind of like peer-review. I’m leaving the rest of that to Sophia though, she’s got the master plans all up in her head.
Sophia then stepped in to clarify this point:
Yes, the thinking is that the reviewers are the equivalent of that oversight, only it’s before we do the experiments, not after. Because we aren’t going to try to publish them in a scientific journal, so they don’t need to go through the normal peer review process. But we could also get the reviewers to comment on the whole thing, after we’ve done our experiments!
Q: It is pretty cool just to think of a professional science bod considering NSG as a serious piece of work!
Laura: It is a serious piece of work! And on a serious note, there’s a huge amount of value in what we’re doing, because regardless of the results we’re engaging a wide range of people with science, including people who’ve never been involved with it before, and showing how anyone can do it and how science is relevant to everyday life. But that’s a whole other chat!
And while we wait for that chat to happen, let’s thank Laura for volunteering to step on the “other side” and be our expert for today, it’s been really fun to jump back and forth from science with under 5s to volcanoes and glaciers (via a discussion on science funding and vested interests!)
Laura: Thanks for all your questions, I’ve really enjoyed it!