Weird science

Rocket launchers and gas explosions galore are all part of Sue McGrath’s Science2Life lessons. Joanna England goes back to the classroom with hair-raising results


‘In London in 1666, there was a very big fire – and it burned every home, every hall, every shop and every religious building in the city. And Norbert is going to show us all how the fire of London started. Can you all say hello to Norbert?’

Sue McGrath, science teacher and performer extraordinaire, holds up a large, green dragon puppet with a funnel stuck in its mouth and 200 young UAE national students shout an enthusiastic, ‘Hello!’

Then, silent excited tension fills Nad Al Hammar School’s sports hall as Sue continues her tale. ‘Now, the fire started in a bakery. And what do we find in a bakery? Flour – and lots of it. There’s also heat from the ovens and oxygen. So, we have a dangerous situation...’

Using a large spoon, she begins to scoop flour into the funnel in Norbert’s mouth. And, once that’s done, she reaches for a blow torch. ‘At the count of five, I’m going to blow on this tube – and all the flour will come out of Norbert’s mouth. You’ll see the result of particles, heat energy and oxygen when they come together.’

There’s a loud countdown and a unanimous ‘Whoah!’ as the large cloud of flour ignites in a bright explosion of sparks above our heads. It’s an impressive display and the dragon has added an unforgettable touch. But really, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Sue, who started her mission to reform the way science is taught in the classroom back in 2006.

A science teacher with a background in drama, the vast majority of her ‘show lessons’ are rather like something from a St Trinian’s movie. Home-made rocket launchers made from Masafi bottles and old gas pipes shoot across the room with increasing velocity as she demonstrates theories of air pressure and fuel volume. Then there’s the experiment with ethanol, which entails pouring the liquid into a water dispenser bottle and lighting the fumes with more hair-singeing results.

Ten minutes into her repertoire – and the sentence, ‘I’m going to do something so dangerous that I need a volunteer,’ elicits a sea of hands and lots of excited giggles.

Step up Ameena, who bravely stands under a water-filled balloon while Sue heats it with a blow torch. There’s a delighted hush as the flame gets closer – and lots of laughs when Sue finally relents and gives Ameena a Bob the Builder umbrella. She then explains that the presence of water in the balloon makes it 10 times more resistant to heat. And, of course, to avoid disappointment, she bursts it anyway.

The kids are learning while also having a, er, blast, but it wasn’t always fun and games for Sue. ‘I helped to set up a science centre in Belfast,’ she explains. ‘I became a senior manager there and got stuck behind a desk doing grant applications and business planning etc. Then I started my own business, Science2Life, because I wanted to get back in the classroom. I think the way science is taught in most schools today is really in need of reform.’

Sue, who also runs teacher training sessions, believes the shortage of dedicated science teachers in the fields of physics and chemistry, has led to the subjects being taught by teachers without a science background. ‘They don’t have confidence in the subject. They stick to teaching kids the words they’ll need to know to get them through the exams – it’s boring and uninspiring.

‘Children need to be taught in a dynamic manner because they’ve been multi-tasking with technology since the cradle. They listen to their iPods, chat and text on their mobiles, watch television and answer emails – mostly all at the same time.

‘To stick them in a classroom and try to teach them from the pages on a text book just doesn’t capture their attention. They don’t understand the processes when experimentation is left out of the equation.’

Student Ramzea Fathal, 13, couldn’t agree more. ‘I’ve never been interested in science before – I’ve always found it quite boring. But after today, I can see that it’s lots of fun – and I can understand it.’ Her classmate and budding scientist, 14-year-old Maytha Al Suwaidi, agrees. ‘I’m really into physics and chemistry but I’ve never had that much fun in a lesson before. For me, the most interesting part was when we learned about generating gases from vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Chemistry classes can be really boring, but that was great!’
Science2Life visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi last month at the request of the UAE Ministry of Education. For more information, visit or email

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