Rubbish Science

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What is Rubbish science? 

Rubbish Science is based on a very simple premise, the world has too much rubbish  and too many people lack the scientific literacy to make balanced and informed decisions.  See the Senator and the Snowball for an example. So why not teach and learn science by using rubbish as a resource and kill two birds with one stone?

The aims are to

  • Allow all students , including those who haven’t had access to resources to do science experiments where we don’t know the outcome.
  • Give people the skills to improve their lives by thinking scientifically – To be able to make better informed decisions.
  • Take rubbish out of the environment and increase the understanding of why it is important to do so
  • Produce something that is actually useful to a local population and/or the environment

It is actually brilliant science, but using locally available rubbish.  Taking plastic bottles and bags, for example, out of the environment and turning them into something useful like fly traps or a hydroponics system.  More importantly it is about developing creative thinking scientists.  It doesn’t matter if you are in the least developed country on earth or the most advanced, these challenges provide a level playing field in terms of equipment needed. Science in school is focussed on doing experiments where we already know the answer, but that isnt what scientists do!  For most of the activities no one knows the ‘best’ solution and access to the internet will not help you much. There is still a long way to go to reach the laudable UNICEF aims to improve the lives of  poorest children through education, but these activities will support that.   For the poorest communities, it allows them to shape their own environment, to not be mentally limited by a lack of equipment.  Rubbish Science is not about competition, it is about collaboration.  Let us make the world a slightly better place and develop a do-it-yourself Liter of Light , accessible,   learning system that is appropriate to local communities needs. Rubbish science  is gender neutral and totally inclusive, all are welcome to contribute and everyones’ contribution is of equal validity. We do not know where the activities  will go, there are no limits, which is what education should be!

Rubbish science is not just about science, it is about thinking and solving problems with multiple variables. The vast majority of science taught in schools focus on a single variable with a known outcome. Research has shown without careful thought Practical activities often lead to little learning and many activities don’t challenge. How does the resistance of a wire vary with length? How does the action of an enzyme depend on its concentration?  How does the rate of a reaction depend on the temperature?  For these experiments the students dutifully follow a recipe, getting mostly the results they and we expect. Of course the foundation of good science is creating ‘fair’ tests that enable us to understand how single  factors affect the outcome. `But all too often these activities  are simple  and algorithmic  with obvious outcomes. Many can be solved by google or apps such as Wolfram Alpha. If these are the only problems our students can solve they will become redundant, replaced by Artificial Intelligence.   Almost every problem in the ‘real’ world is complicated and deals with many interrelated variables and a combination of algorithmic and heuristic processes are needed to solve them. If we do not challenge our students to go further than the single variables, then we risk limiting their ability as scientists, or thinkers in the future.  Climate change, growing crops in drought conditions, viral infections, treating cancer are all complex problems and no one truly knows the ‘best’ solutions. Referendums, elections, sales strategies, buying a car/house/anything all require us to consider multiple variables. Politicians, salespeople and newspapers often try to convince us that the choice is simple. We have a duty to our young people to equip them to challenge these assumptions. If you think it is simple then you probably don’t know enough about it – beware the people who are very confident!

Rubbish science builds on the concept of fair tests, it provides simple real problems, but the results or ‘best solution’ are not known.  The activities are built on the premise of Low Threshold, High Ceiling taken from NRICH Maths   (LTHC) . Everyone can do the tasks, but there is no limit to how high a level they can go. The same task with the same equipment can be given to a young child or experienced researcher with a doctorate. Both can complete the task, but we would expect the researcher to produce something more sophisticated. This however is a simplistic assumption, the child may well produce something far more creative as the researcher may suffer fixation – the curse of knowledge.

There are many brilliant ‘intuitive’ scientists around and we need to engage them in science and develop the systematic scientist.  Writing a project on Physics in football  for the Institute of Physics made me realise that these footballers had an incredible understanding of physics. They knew how the ball moved through the air and could control it skillfully . All they lacked was the ability to explain in a standardised, scientific  way what they were doing. Rubbish Science aims to extend this paradigm shift of valuing what people already know and building on it. We should never ignore indigenous knowledge and science and also should understand local populations reluctance to believe research if it does not fit into their beliefs.

Gender balance will also be a feature of Rubbish Science. It  is a concern that many people think scientists are slightly crazed, clever old white men in white coats doing weird stuff that may save or destroy the world. If we take science as the ability to evaluate evidence and make rational decisions based on that  evidence. Then we are all scientists and the world can be a better place if we develop these skills. People with a vested interest will be less likely to be able to sell us their belief systems without evidence.

Rubbish Science  projects on their own are not likely to make a huge difference, they are more about marginal gains lots of tiny changes that create large ones


An example – Make a Mosquito Trap out of Rubbish

Plastic bottles are a good place to start – Why do these need to be removed from the environment?

Plastic bottles and bags are one of the scourges of our planet causing huge problems in ecosystems. The physical unsightly nature of plastic bottles and bags washing up on beaches is just the start. There are many areas of the oceans where wind and currents cause greater concentrations to build up for example the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The effects of plastic and microplastics  are still being documented, but there are no positives. The findings so far are worrying. Many studies suggest suggest hormone disruptive chemicals such as PCBs are absorbed by microplastics increasing their concentration.  These contaminated microplastics are then eaten by zooplankton and enter the food chain. 

There are some initiatives that students may wish to get involved with

Adventure Science is Mapping data of microplastic concentrations in different parts of the world

global plastics

Their Gallatin River project is here 

OceanCleanup is actively removing plastics from the sea  using some very innovative ideas. Could this be done on a small scale using recyclable materials?

Plasticbank  – Aims to remove plastics and enable people to make money  doing so in an innovative way  poverty and plastics 

There are many different levels we can approach this from depending on the level of sophistication of our students (adults or children) We need to get across the idea of how to get valid data and to analyse it.

Making the Mosquito Trap

Simplest Activity: Without guidance this task may be far too open and we may want to start with a possible route through

Students are given  a model trap that is known to work with the instructions on how to make it and what bait to use. The simplest example is of a plastic bottle cut in half and the top half pushed into the base like a funnel

Diagram to follow

Possible Instructions

Firstly find out what the best place to put the trap is. Note: That whatever bait you use , such as fermenting material, will attract mosquitos. So may actually increase the risk of being bitten. Caution shuld be taken to wash hands thoroughly and take care to prevent infections

Take regular readings in each place keeping all other conditions the same. For example counting how many mosquitos have been caught in each area in a 24 hour period. Repeat these readings until a best spot can be determined.

When the best spot has been determined,  start changing the other variables, one at a time, for example :

  • The bait used – Fermenting material or a source of carbon dioxide
  • The style of trap
  • The colour of the trap
  • The temperature of the trap
  • Size of hole in the lid
  • Add an LED bulb?

Sharing of results will help everyone to come up with guidance of the most effective traps in that local area. What works well in one area may not in others but extended trials with shared results will allow models to be honed.

Extending the project

There are huge possibilities to extend the ideas

Research into Mosquitos

If you want to trap something it helps to know your prey so understanding what attracts mosquitos and what is supposed to repel them . I havent checked the information here , but this suggests 10 ways of how to get bitten – including smelly feet – that has been shown to have an impact! This site gives a lot of information on traps and behaviour– Do natural remedies like  citronella work? How might you find out?

Students could look at the lifecycle of mosquitos and the fact that they fill a niche and are useful as pollinators and food for other creatures. Removing any part of a food chain impacts on other parts, total eradication is likely to have a large ecological impact. Also not all species of mosquitoes bite and for those that do it is only the females.

Mosquitos as vectors of diseases such as Zika, Malaria, Dengue Fever and Nile Virus can be explored as well as the effects of these diseases and treatment. Understanding the need to prevent an infected person being bitten again and hence the disease passed on is also of great importance. A high Tech solution to aid this  is a laser system

Other ways of reducing the mosquito population can be explored. A particularly promising example is an ovillanta using old car tyres as a breeding point that can be drained. They have also uploaded a video showing how to make one yourself

Research and test high technology mosquito repelling Apps? They do not look hopeful

How about commercial traps – can any of the principles be replicated with only recycled materials?


What is the point of making these traps?

Note: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fin order to reduce diseases transmitted by flies four strategies should be implemented:

reducing or eliminating breeding sites for flies,

reducing sources that attract flies from other areas,

preventing contact between flies and disease-causing agents,

protecting food, eating utensils and people from making contact with flies.

These preventive measures should be the first priority. and educating populations about how to implement them. The fly traps are secondary to these and are useful in reducing fly populations in the immediate vicinity.


Equipment Needed for Mosquito traps:

  • Plastic bottle
  • Scissors/knife
  • Paper
  • Bait For attracting mosquitoes a source of carbon dioxide – either yeast and sugar or sodium bicarbonate and vinegar.

Links to Curriculum:


Life cycles

Useful Links:


Care should be taken when cutting the bottles.

The best bait may be rotting food and care must be taken not to cause infection from the bait and trapped flies

Flies may actually be attracted to the traps and that will increase the populations in the immediate vicinity


Other ideas are Currently being eveloped – These will be on