Education vs Qualification? Wave power and the Science of Surfing.

So how could you teach renewable energy and harnessing wave energy ?

You could tell the students stuff like they do  here, or here, If we do that we have very set clear aims, ideal for if you simply want students to jump through hoops and to pass exams.

But what if you want them to be challenged to understand? What if you want them to create things and surprise you, to be confused and deal with their confusion.

What if you want them to be inspired?   To be educated, rather than just qualified?

What if you believe in Complex Adaptive Systems and @kevbartle ‘s Trojan Mice ? here

Do you follow the philosophy of  Gove or Feynman or Einstein?


What if you were to take your students surfing and use the surfing as a vehicle to teach concepts?

Here’s how you might change the paradigm based on two lessons in the classroom and an afternoon surfing at a school in Cornwall using the Adventure Experience Paradigm and the philosophy of the Adventure Learning Schools here


Lesson Planning

The starting point was to fill in a Five minute lesson plan for science here  – adapted from the wonderful original five minute lesson plan from @teachertoolkit

5 minute lesson plan science surfing – My version

The lesson objectives were simple

  • To create a design to harness wave power using their understanding of waves and electromagnetic induction. (start with inverted Bloom’s Taxonomy and an active )
  • To be inspired by the sea and surf
  • To realise that physics is everywhere and can be used to make sense of your world.

How do we measure the last two objectives?

To quote Dylan Wiliam – full article here and taking account of the the Macanamara Fallacy

“We start out with the aim of making the important measurable, and end up making only the measurable important.” 

As a teacher with an emotional attachment to my students I can tell you how inspired they are . I cannot prove this to anyone else, nor do I feel the need to do so. This does not invalidate it’s importance because some dusty inspector who was born to inspect wants to see it measured.

Should we level the emotion on these students? or should we just know they are in a happy place?

2 P1010016 fall off 4 3

What do they know?

As I dont teach my students anything until I know what they know I need a way of finding their ideas. Technology has provided some outstanding ways of doing this examples being Socrative and Padlet , but the school was in a poor area, weak 3G and no reliable devices to use , so it was the post-it notes – What do you know about waves?  You have one minute to write everything you know , then put it on a suitable window to show your confidence level.

Using some of the ideas in the excellent Dan Meyer here about using student intuition we can have conversations about the science without using technical language and then when it becomes a clear advantage to use terms with very specific meaning, then those are added.

I try to create a story – If you know how the story ends it’s not an interesting story and most stories we tell the students, they  know how they end .

How does the Queen wave?

The students sit back to back . One can see the video of waves here and has to describe all the waves to the other using only words.  Try describing how the Queen waves in a way that everyone else can understand . Its a pain saying  “She waves her hand backwards and forwards repeatedly and quickly at the same rate without making it go very far from the central position”  compared to the precise  “She has a high frequency, but low amplitude wave” (poshness is not a scientific term)

Next was a demo of a slinky to show transverse and longitudinal waves and how there is no mass transfer of molecules, simply energy transfer.

Having had the terms described using Pose/Pause /Pounce / Bounce to gather their ideas they were then given 2 minutes to perform waves of high/low frequency, large/small amplitude and long/short wavelengths. Some interesting ideas were demonstrated with students also whistling high and low frequencies. I know I am teaching well when my students surprise me.

Then they were given a length of duct tape, barbeque skewers and jelly babies to make the jelly baby wave machine. seen here

Their teacher (who is awesome) had previously done the magical howling Jelly baby experiment here and had built it up by making it personal. He had a problem with Jelly Babies and needed to hear them howl. I told them that they needed to impale their Jelly Babies because I had a problem with Jelly babies. Much consternation from the class – another science teacher with Jelly baby issues? – I pointed out Einstein had massive problems with Jelly babies too. A bit later one of them said they had googled it and couldn’t find anything about Einstein and his problem with Jelly babies – Google doesn’t tell you everything kid!

Electromagnetic Induction – for year 8s

The next stage is to look at how you can produce an electric current using a magnet and a coil.

We start with a bit of cognitive conflict . Why does this happen?

comic strip

I often tell outrageous lies as these are much more interesting than the truth and there is evidence conflict leads to learning. See the excellent article by Derek Muller (responsible for the fabulous Veritasium channel on youtube)  here  or his TED talk here I was looking for them to disprove my lies with considered scientific thought. I have many beliefs that are incompatible with science and will never be dragged into a science vs religious beliefs debate. I was waiting for a “you can’t do that!” to have a go at them about beliefs.

I don’t tell them why it happens as  I have aroused their curiosity, so I wait for them to ask. It is the Zeigarnik effect in action and I am simply planting seeds.

We then looked at moving a magnet through a coil in order to generate an electrical current. This can be also bedone with a 50 metre extension lead cable and a large micro ammeter to use the Earths magnetic field to generate a current . Another avenue to explore is the underated genius that is Nicolai Tesla here and to get the students interest the Tesla vs Edison here

Students then had to design a way of moving the magnet past a coil using wave power. Some of their designs are shown below.  Why get them to design it before they see a commercial one? To stimulate their creativity and allow them to create their own stories.

photo-2 photo-1 photo



Interesting split between the ones who like being left in suspense and the ones who don’t .

My favourite though is below


To the surf!

So the surfing is just entertainment?

Answer these questions

  1. Why do waves come in sets?
  2. Does velocity = frequency x wavelength for waves approaching the shore? (How would you find out?)
  3. Why can you only surf a wave that is breaking? (This has massive implications for harnessing wave energy)
  4. Why do you need to paddle to catch a wave and what has this got to do with a tablecloth pull?
  5. Where is your centre of mass? (How can you find it?)
  6. Where is the centre of mass of the board?
  7. What is the most stable position for riding a board?
  8. What is the most stable standing position? (Students explore this by sumo wrestling)
  9. As you ‘pop up’ to a standing position , what happens to the dynamics of the board if your centre of mass has moved forwards and what might this do to  you (Think about trying to jump up on a doormat that is accelerating)  what happens if your weight is too far back?
  10. Why do surfboards have fins?

Want to know the answers to these questions – You need to do a science of surfing day – though dont expect to be provided with the answers – here

Students then revised their ideas for the wave power generators on the basis of what they had learned.

Some of their feedback is here 

“I think it was really good and useful for our education. I liked the way he showed us everything and he didn’t just talk the whole time. However he kept leaving us in suspense and never really told us the answers which made us think more.”

“Good. Educational. Lots of group practical work…….Poor jelly babies!!!!!”

“I thought it was EPIC. We learnt a lot and were given lots of freedom.”

“I thought that it was fun. I loved the demonstrations he did. He explained things really well. I loved the surfing. You should do it next year.”

If you want to level how happy I was you can see the suffering below for the sake of the students.


Thanks to the awesome guys at GB Surf  School for a fabulous session ,  contact them here

gb surf

Post Script:

The single most important lesson to learn is what rip currents are and what to do if you are caught in them. What could be more important than a lesson that could save your life here

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