Kicking the mobile phone habit

I used to charge my phone on my bedside table. First thing in the morning I would reach for my phone, check Twitter, check Instagram, check my emails, read the news headlines, check the weather, see whether anything new had popped into Twitter whilst I’d been doing the other things….

Last thing at night, the same thing was happening. I’d go to bed, but it would sometimes be over an hour before I finally put my phone down to go to sleep. Instead I’d be scrolling, scrolling, through screen after screen of rubbish. Why?

I knew it was a bad habit. I’d read the reports that said you should avoid looking at screens two hours or more before going to bed, because the bright light suppresses the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. And, sure enough, I wasn’t sleeping well. But when I woke up in the night, I’d reach for my phone, kidding myself that it was just to check the time…but as my phone unlocked, I’d see a notification symbol and fall into the trap of “just checking” to see what had happened. And, before I knew it, I’d be back to scrolling in the dark, my face lit up by the eerie glow of the screen. I knew it was unhealthy, but my willpower wasn’t up to resisting the temptation.

I used to read books voraciously. I hadn’t read a proper book at bedtime for ages. I was tired all the time. Something had to change.

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My saviour – a no-frills alarm clock

At the end of the summer holidays, I bought myself a back-to-school present: a no-frills alarm clock. I’d been using my phone alarm for years: “I have to have my phone by the bed, because it wakes me up in the morning!” I’d been kidding myself. It was just an excuse. It had to stop.

Buying the alarm clock was a deliberate attempt to break my bad habits. The one I chose has the following features:

  • Orange display: orange and red lighting has the least impact on suppressing melatonin, so is the best choice for night light
  • Fade-able display: to reduce the brightness in the dark, which again encourages the release of melatonin
  • Battery backup: so I know I’ll get woken up even if there’s a powercut
  • No frills: so it won’t be a distraction

It cost about £15 on Amazon. I plugged it in next to my bed, and unplugged my phone charger, taking it downstairs. From August 31st, I was in a new habit. Before bed, I’d plug my phone in to charge downstairs, and then go up to read. No more pointless last-thing-at-night or first-thing scrolling; no more having my evenings disturbed by emails which can definitely wait until morning; more reading of actual books at bedtime; less screen-time; more sleep.

The change has been miraculous. I still use my phone – I rely on it for so many things! But I have completely kicked the habit of night-time and morning scrolling. I’ve slept better. The school hasn’t collapsed because I haven’t been checking my emails at two in the morning. I haven’t missed out on anything. And I have read so many books!

Our phones are useful tools, and make life easier in so many ways. But the temptation of the notification can be all-consuming, and they can be addictive. How many of us are kidding ourselves that we need our phones with us all the time? Do we really?

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At Churchill we have a simple rule: “my mobile phone will not be seen or heard in the Academy at any time.” One of the reasons for this rule is to encourage good habits in our students. They don’t need to have their phones glued to their hands at all times. They don’t need to reach for it “just to check the time” – the trap of the tempting notification awaits. They can focus on their learning without the distraction of the device. They can and should be interacting with their peers IRL, not through their screens. And although the impact of mobile phones and social media on mental health is controversial, ensuring that there is time away from the newsfeed, the photostream and the snapstreak encourages a healthy balance.

As adults, we need to model the good behaviours we expect in young people, and turn away from the screens and towards the people around us. We just need to take a positive step to break our bad habits, before it’s too late. 

Post script: since September I’ve read these books:

  • Cross Fire by Malorie Blackman
  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood
  • One Day by David Nicholls
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
  • The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
  • The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

They’ve all been brilliant!

Athene Donald’s speech from the opening ceremony

This week saw the opening ceremony of the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology at Churchill. Our guest of honour was Professor Dame Athene Donald herself.

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The opening ceremony began with our Chamber Choir, who gave a fantastic rendition of Blue Skies, arranged by our very own Mr Spencer. Polly and Freya, the Year 8 students who suggested the building be named in her honour, then introduced Professor Donald, who gave an inspiring speech to the assembled guests. Outgoing President of the Sixth Form Council, Libby Scott, gave the vote of thanks, before the guests were shown round the classes currently in session in our wonderful new facilities.

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With her kind permission, I reproduce Professor Donald’s speech here in full, so that all our staff, students and the wider Academy community can benefit from her inspiring and positive message.

It’s wonderful to be here today. And it’s wonderful to see a school able to provide such fantastic facilities for science and with such a strong commitment to encouraging girls and young women to pursue science to A levels and university.

We’ve just heard the Chamber Choir sing Blue Skies. That is a song that I chose for one of my Desert Island Discs, because it has a particular significance for me. When I was in the USA and my research was going very badly, I found the balance in my life by singing Barbershop with three students in my (engineering) department. It helped me get through some otherwise miserable times and helped me to persist. To the students here I would say remember that life does not always go according to plan, but finding ways – and people – to help you through difficult periods is very important. Music was my escape and support.

Let me say straight away how deeply honoured I am to have been chosen to have this building named after me. It is not the sort of honour that I ever expected, not something that would ever have crossed my mind when I myself was a teenager.

Having first class facilities is undoubtedly something that will make a difference to every student – not to mention staff member – who works in the new building. So many schools have to make do with out of date and often depressing surroundings in which to do their science, and that is hardly likely to inspire the next generation that this is an exciting area to pursue.

Science – which I use as shorthand to include engineering and technology of course – has a crucial role to play in our world. Whether or not a child goes on to study science in later years, if they have a feeling of comfort with the subject means that so many of the big issues – be it climate change and the necessary energy transition we all have to make, or interpreting health risks or what AI may mean for our society – will not feel so scary and unapproachable.

Working at their science lessons in a modern block will provide a congenial atmosphere in which to get to grips with these important subjects.

And what about girls and women in science? Why do I care so passionately about this? Firstly there is the moral argument – why should 50% of the population feel that science is not for them, particularly given its role in empowering citizens in our democracy? But secondly there is the fact that we as a society need the best brains contributing to drive innovation and insight and losing these is a loss to society as a whole. We need to make sure that every young adult in this country whatever their gender, race or background – has access to good science teaching and encouragement to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. That some children are told they can’t do one subject or another either explicitly or simply implicitly in the messages our society and media give, is not good enough. We need their brains and their talent.

The L’Oréal tagline, as I learnt when I won the Laureate for Women in Science for Europe ten years ago, is that ‘The World needs science and science needs women’. One does not need to care about cosmetics – and I am a bad poster child for L’Oréal as I am very allergic to most of them – to recognize the truth and importance of that sentence.

When I was a teenager, attending an all girls school, no one told me it was odd to want to pursue physics. No one put me off and we had good facilities and good teaching. When I went to university I found out that I was in a minority and I have been ever since. I was the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge, something I still feel very proud of. I am, indeed, the first woman to be Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, a college that uniquely admits 70% of its students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We have an incredibly diverse intake but, because of its emphasis on these subjects, not as many young women as I would like. We are working on that, but I hope the brightest of your own students would aspire to come to a college like ours.

I am truly humbled that you chose to name your new block after me, not after the usual suspects of Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin. I hope in some small way the knowledge that women like me can thrive in the sciences will inspire future generations. I wish the school all the very best as this new space is up and running.

Congratulations and best wishes.

Professor Dame Athene Donald

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Top 5 Safer Internet Day Tips

Tuesday 5th February was Safer Internet Day 2019. The aim of Safer Internet Day is to inspire a national conversation about using technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively. There are lots of resources available online linked to the day to help with that conversation, including top tips for parents and carers and top tips for 11-18 year olds. Google has also created the Be Internet Awesome resource for young people to help them be safe, confident explorers of the online world.

Here are my top five tips for a safer internet:

1. The internet is written in pen, not pencil

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I can’t remember where I heard this tip. but it’s always stuck with me. When you post something online, it’s there forever. Even on services like Snapchat or Instagram Stories, where posts disappear after their time limit is up, screenshots can be taken and re-shared.

In the future, you could be judged by what you have put online – by prospective employers, business contacts, or even journalists. There have been several high profile cases which highlight this problem: Jack Maynard was forced out of the “I’m a Celebrity” jungle last year in a controversy over old social media posts, and Toby Young was forced to resign his position as part of the university regulator when offensive old tweets resurfaced – even though they had been deleted.

When you put something online, it helps if you have in your mind that you are making a permanent record. Ask yourself: would I be happy for someone to read this ten years from now?

2. Would you say it face to face?

A laptop, phone or tablet screen feels like a shield sometimes: what we put on social media disappears into the ether and we don’t see the impact of the messages we are sending. But just because we don’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It helps to think about communication over social media in the same way as a face-to-face conversation. If it isn’t something you would say to someone’s face, it’s probably not something you should put online. And this isn’t just about young people: there are some terrible adult role models online, who seem to build their reputation on being horrible to and about others.

The most horrific example I have seen of this is the terrible case of Megan Evans; I have spoken about her before in my kindness assembly. 14-year-old Megan was found dead on February 7, 2017. She had been the victim of online bullying, which her mother believes drove her to take her own life. After a long period of bullying by her classmates and peers, one of the other children in her school sent her the message: “why don’t you kill yourself?”

Megan replied saying: “Ok.”

The fact that somebody in Megan’s life chose to express cruelty and unkindness had the most tragic and devastating consequences. Her family and her friends – and the young person who sent that final message – will be living with the consequences of that for the rest of their lives. The heart-rending video below, as Megan’s mother is interviewed on This Morning, shows just how devastating this unkindness can be.

My rule is: if it isn’t right to say, it isn’t right to post.

3. Keep some things back

Sharing personal information online carries risks too. Posting your phone number, your address, date of birth or information about your family publicly on social media opens you up to identity fraud. In the video below, a coffee shop offers a free drink if customers like their Facebook page. The barista asks for the customers name, and a behind-the-scenes team matches the name to the Facebook like and sees what information it can harvest from just these two data points. What could a stranger learn about you from your online posts?

Similarly, be cautious with location sharing on your social media posts. Do you really want strangers to know exactly where you are? Along with your profile photo, this could lead to a risky situation – if a stranger knows where you are, and knows who you are, then it increases your vulnerability.

4. Stay secure

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It’s important to choose strong passwords for your online accounts. Google advises using a mix of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers, r3pl@cing le++ers wit# sYmb0ls & n^mb3rs 1ike Thi$ to create memorable but hard-to-hack passwords. It’s also really important to use different passwords across different accounts. I know it’s tempting to use one memorable password every time but if one account is hacked, every account you have is then compromised.

5. Be kind online

The internet is neither good nor bad; it’s a neutral platform. It’s the people that use it that set the tone in the online space. If people choose to be kind, helpful and supportive online, that will be the tone that is set – but the reverse is also true. We can all make a contribution to helping the online world be a better place by:

  • Sharing and spreading positive messages
  • Stopping the spread of harmful or untrue messages by not sharing them with others
  • Call out unkind or inappropriate behaviour online: block them and report it
  • Offer support to the victims of unkindness or bullying online – be part of the solution, not the problem.

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With thanks to Google’s Be Internet Awesome project for inspiring this week’s blog. If you have been inspired you can take a Be Internet Awesome Pledge here.

Welcome to the Athene Donald Building

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Happy New Year! 2019 has begun with the first lessons taking place in the Athene Donald Building, our brand new facility for science and food & nutrition. On January 7th, the students of Tudor House made their way to their brand new tutor rooms, and the first classes came down throughout the day. What a difference! The new rooms are spacious, well-designed, and purpose-built for modern teaching and learning. Every room is air conditioned. The building is almost completely airtight, making it very efficient to heat and cool, whilst the entire roof is covered with solar panels, further adding to its environmental credentials. It is fully accessible, with ramps, lifts and adjustable lab and food preparation benches for wheelchair users. The corridors and staircases are wide and airy, with aspects overlooking the fields and out over the tennis courts.

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The project has been years in the planning. Funding was finally awarded by the government’s Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) in April 2017. The concrete slab base was laid in December 2017. Construction continued throughout 2018 – you can view a gallery of progress on the Academy website.

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The building’s name was decided following a student research competition in February 2018, with the winning entry championing Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. We are delighted that Professor Donald has agreed to join us at the Academy for the building’s official opening ceremony, which will take place in March.

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Moving in!

The process of moving in has been another challenge. Science and Food do not travel light! Our staff have been amazing in packing and unpacking all the equipment, resources and materials to ensure we were ready-to-go for the first day back, and the process will continue over the coming weeks to get everything properly set up.

It has been amazing to walk up and down the corridors and see the classrooms full of students, working and learning in these wonderful facilities. I know that they appreciate them – so many of them have been to tell us how brilliant it all is! And there is even better to come…Mrs Pattison put together a superb application to the Wolfson Foundation, and was successful in securing a £50,000 grant for brand new equipment. This means that the rooms will continue to be kitted out over the coming months with state-of-the-art equipment to match the surroundings.

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Goodbye to the Tudor Block

The Athene Donald Building replaces Churchill’s original school building. The Tudor Block was built for the 402 pupils of the new Churchill Secondary Modern School in 1956. It has served us well for over sixty years, but its time is now up; contractors have been in this week to strip out furniture, fixtures and fittings in preparation for demolition over the coming months. By the time the new school year begins in September, our site will look very different!

I’d like to thank all of the staff involved in making this project a reality, especially Deputy Headteacher Mr Branch who has overseen the whole thing with unflappable dedication. The building that we now have is ample reward for all that hard work and effort; our students will reap the benefit for many years to come.

Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.

 

Naming the new Science and Technology building

 

 

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Plans for the new building

As regular readers will know, we are mid-way through building a £3.9m Science and Technology facility on our site, to replace the original 1956 building, which is still in current use but no longer fit for purpose. The new building – twelve Science laboratories and two classrooms for food and nutrition – is due for completion in December this year. You can see the progress to date here.

As part of our commitment to promoting gender equality and, in particular, women in STEM, we decided we wanted to name the new building after a prominent female scientist. Our aim is to inspire young women to pursue further study and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. As part of this process, groups of our Year 7 and 8 students were set the task of researching significant women in Science and Engineering, and presenting their research to a panel of staff and governors. The shortlist included Rosalind Franklin, Mary Somerville, Marie Curie, Anne McLaren and Athene Donald.

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Our student researchers

The presentations took place on Monday 19th February. They were excellent: full of detailed research and high-quality presentation skills. After a lengthy discussion, the panel unanimously agreed to name the building…

The Dame Athene Donald Building

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Professor Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge. Aside from the wonderful link between the name of our Academy and her Cambridge college, Professor Donald is a fantastic advocate for Science, and in particular for gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. She is a director of the university’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology initiative to inspire and support women scientists within the university. She chairs the Athena Forum which deals with issues around career progression for women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine subjects in higher education.

Her research applies physics to biology, exploring the structures of polymers, biopolymers and, most recently, cellular biophysics. One of her most significant projects was researching the molecular structure of food (in particular starch molecules). She is also a viola player and a singer, with a keen interest in music. She has won over 20 awards, including a Faraday Medal from the Institute of Physics, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the UKRC Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards in 2011.

Professor Donald’s life and work was researched by Year 7 students Polly Jones (7WPH) and Freya Hatherall (7WSB). They said “Athene Donald is a great inspiration to us all, for her career in science and her support for gender equality. In years to come she could influence children at Churchill Academy to pursue a career a science or engineering.” You can see their presentation below.

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The winning pair!

Professor Donald commented “I am deeply honoured that you would like to name your wonderful new building after me and of course am happy to agree. What a lovely idea to set your students such a project of research, so that more female scientists of note become familiar to them. And what a happy coincidence of the name Churchill too! I wish you all the very best with the building project and, of course, that having new labs inspires a new generation to think about careers in STEM (boys and girls).”

Well done to all the students involved, and thanks to Miss Burrows for coordinating the project.

Click here to see the coverage on the Academy’s website.