'Fionn'-Putting the 'Wow!' Factor into School Science

My Fish Face!
Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
But it is with schools, particularly through the 'Fionn' Primary School Science Project, that I devoted most of my working life over the last four years. Since January 2002, I have coordinated the award winning Galway 'Fionn' Primary School Science Project on behalf of the Galway Science & Technology Board.
'Fionn' provided 35 Galway primary schools with the equipment and training necessary to produce their own Science film. This government scheme was set up to facilitate the introduction of Science into the country's educational sector. A herculean undertaking to say the least! But necessary as there has been an alarming fall-off in students studying science at third-level colleges which will ultimately undermine the nation's development as a high-tech/R & D-based economy.

'Fionn' had a number of inherent innovative principles that contributed to its outstanding success:
  • Child-centred (narration & the main protagonists)
  • Multi-disciplinary (embraced art, heritage, music, drama…)
  • Fun orientated
  • Locality (look for Science in the classroom, the local field or street...)
The ability to take a boring and oftentimes difficult subject such as science and present it as something exciting, funny and educative can really only be done by children (or someone with a child's perspective on life). Adults can look at the pen in their hand and see exactly that- 'a pen'. Whereas, kids with their playful imagination and creativity (that older people seem to lose) can transform it into a rocket or a submarine or a comet or…
If you ask second-level or third level students to produce a film on 'buoyancy', you will probably get an end-product that will be professional, highly scientific, extremely informative but possibly very uninspiring. Whereas, I have seen one primary school class make a Fionn movie on the same subject that included a hilarious rendition of the Beatles's song 'Yellow Submarine' by the entire school; a practical demonstration of buoyancy using plastic cola bottles, stones & a glass tank; a visit to a museum; a classroom festooned with drawings of submarines and a powerful interview with a local man who served as a submarine commander in World War Two! Working on the same subject, another school took delivery of a 15foot tree trunk that they transformed, with a few months of hard work, into a fully functioning canoe using the tools and techniques of prehistoric man ('cutting and burning').
The range and the scientific themes covered by Fionn schools has been absolutely amazing- bats in the school attic, lobster fishing, lighthouses, a medieval abbey, fox-hunting, a disused mine, lake pollution, a school oyster farm, teeth…

The DERI Outreach Crew
Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
A Wonderful Working Life in 2005

-Photo shows the some of the DERI Outreach crew at the Galway Science & Technology Fair
L-R Stefan Decker ('Top Dog'), yours truly & Ina O'Murchu (a 'one-stop-shop' for sourcing news on the latest Internet trends & gadgets)

I really enjoyed my job over the last year. How many people can honestly say that? To be able to work with young people, community groups and committed activists, visionaries, pioneering technologies, film production, art, drama, the sciences, the environment & wildlife is wonderfully exhilarating. I feel truly honoured.
My main areas of responsibilities revolve around developing and coordinating practical and meaningful programmes designed to facilitate the introduction of new technologies and sciences into the educational and community sectors.
Since the early 1990s, Ireland has been a vibrant economy and the envy of the rest of Europe. The 'Celtic Tiger' has transformed the country socially and culturally as well as economically.
But sadly there are still marginalised peoples that feel alienated and socially excluded from the whirlwind of change that we have experienced and have reaped few of the dividends of our economic boom. These groups include older people, the homeless, refugees, the disabled... As Community/Education Outreach Officer with the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at Galway University (NUIG), I ahve been givern the opporuntunity to organise meaningful courses for this sector and help in the process of bridging the 'technology gap' in society that needs to be rectified if a stable sustainable Ireland is to exist in the future.
More of DERI Outreach anon

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
Birdwatching at Europe's largest Turlough
One of the most enjoyable events that I have attended over the last few years was the bird-watching excursion to Rahasane turlough at Kileeneen(Irish = 'Kileen's little church') in Co. Galway.
Early one Sunday morning, my son Dáire and myself gathered with over 40 enthusiasts to view the enormous range of birdlife that congregate at Rahasane, a lake that is recognised as one of the best examples of a 'turlough' in Europe. A turlough is a feature of limestone landscapes where a freshwater lake can vary enormously in its area from season to season due to the porous natiure of its rock. A heavy rainfall will led to a considerable increase in size; a dry season will inevitably lead to a dramatic reduction.

The nature trip was ably led by Pete Capsey a fellow work colleague from the DERI Institute at the National Universty of Ireland, Galway who personifies the term 'a true English gentleman'.
For the last few years, Pete has,on behalf of Birdwatch Ireland, been voluntarily cataloguing the number and type of avian life that visit Rahasane .
I was shocked to learn from him that some species of birds have declined by 90% since he began his activities. He blames enroachment on the lake by housing development and pollution. There is also the factor of 'Global Warming'.

Life on Earth under Threat
This observation only reinforces my belief that mankind's greed and selfishness is destroying the biodiversity of our planet. If we continue along this path, we will ultimately destroy our own species in the process.
In my little way, I am attempting, by working with other committed individuals though a series of local environmental campaigns, to halt this destructive deathwish. More anon on our eco-initiatives that are based on the 'green' principle of 'Think Global, Act Local'

The Drummers of Halloween

The Drummers of Halloween
Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
As with all parades organised by Macnas street theatre, the drummers are always exceptional. The solid constant rhythm beat of the young drummers keeps all the marches in step.
It is a sight and sound to behold

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
'Trick or Treat'!
My son Dáire (Red Power Ranger) and his friends calling house to house on Halloween night

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
Troupe of Fairy Dancers on the Halloween parade through Ballinfoile.

The Burning of the Ram

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
The Climax of the Halloween Parade as a 20foot Ram is burnt on Ballinfoile Hill in a reinactment of an ancient Celtic mythological story

Witch Queen
Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
Celtic Fairy Queen Slays The Horned Ram
Macnas, the internationally-renowned street theatre company, this year organised spectacular night-time community Halloween parades in socially disadvantaged areas of Galway city.
For weeks in advance, local children were enthusiastically learning to play drums, to make costumes and to rehearse their roles as dancers, actors and musicians.
The parade that I participated was in Ballinfoile and involved hundreds of children marching in unison pass or through four different housing estates. There were bands, dance troupes, fireworks and theatre. It ended in an awesome fireworks extravganza as a 20foot high Ram was burnt on a hilltop in an reactment of a mythological Celtic story.
The smiles and laughter on participants and watchers alike was beautiful to behold.
It was a true 'Reclaim the Streets' campaign and give local people a real sense of empowerment.
The only person that was annoyed about the whole activity was my friend Michael McDonnell who lived on the route of the march. Three of his pet birds died from the shock of the exploding fireworks!

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
Halloween's Pagan Celtic Roots

(Sorry dear readers, I should have posted this article early last month. But a heavy work schedule put paid to that. Anyway, better late than never!!)
Today Halloween is celebrated by children across the Western world. But like many other annual family festivals, it has become so commercialised by 'Americanised' popular culture that its true origins and religious aspects have long being forgotten. I have nothing against many of the entertainment and children elements now so symptomatic of events such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween. After all, if they bring a bit of sparkle into the lives of our youth, that can only be welcomed

The Christianisation of Samhain
Many people though associate the origins of Halloween with the Christian festival of 'All Hallows Eve' or 'All Souls Day' when people remembered their dead family members.
But actually, this event was superimposed onto the ancient pagan Celtic festival of 'Samhain' which marked the beginning of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
Typical of many agricultural societies, the Celts had four major annual festivals based on the cyclical differences experienced in the changing seasons of nature and their corresponding weather patterns. The other three were 'Imbolc' (spring) 'Bealtane' (summer), 'Lugnasa' (harvest).

Samhain was a time when food was hoarded as people prepared for the cold season when nothing grew. As with all Irish festivals, bonfires were lit as people gathered together at warm fires to socialise.

Antecedents to the Pumpkin & 'Trick or Treat'
But it was also a time when creatures from the supernatural world could enter into the world of mortals. Fairies and the spirits of the dead would walk the earth. Many of these beings were benevolent and the spirits of dead ancestors; so families laid out extra food and set aside a table space for their ghostly visitors. Hence the modern Halloween custom of children dressing up as ghouls and witches, calling door-to-door and receiving presents of apples and nuts when they called. (Such fruits were common in Ireland).
But there were spirits that came on the night of Samhain that were malevolent. Candles were placed in skulls at the entrance to dwellings as light was feared by these dark foreboding creatures. This protection against evil became transformed in modern times into the positioning pumpkins with carved out faces and internal candles at windows and doorways

Irish Bring Halloween to USA
The Irish emigrants of the nineteenth century introduced Halloween and its rituals to America. Within a few decades, the festival was transformed into the fun and games event of today

British Military Fortifications, South Armagh 2005

Originally uploaded by Speedie1.
Somethings never change!
Over 750yrs after Castle Roche was built by the British to keep watch on the rebellious natives of South Armagh (see previous posting), there is today a network of British army watchtowers built to monitor the local predominantly republican population along the border with the Irish Republic.
What is fascinating for visitors to this area is to see isolated little villages and towns in this region openly display banners and memorials to the IRA.
No more so than in Crossmaglen, a town dominated by a large British Army watchtower and the constant sounds & sights of military helicopters flying in and out of the heavily fortified police base.
The military presence seems totally alien to the local landscape. There is no connectivity with the population whatsoever and the soldiers and police are treated as outsiders and occupiers.
A few years ago, I brought some friends into Crossmaglen for a days outing. As we went into a bar for a few drinks, everyone in the premises stopped talking and gazed in our direction. You could hear a pin drop. Nothing was said until I placed my order with the bartender. As my Dublin accent permeated the room, the locals then suddenly relaxed and, with a small outbreak of laughter, they then continued with their conversations! Until I spoke, they had suspected that we were a bunch of off-duty British military personnel!!