Footprints of Faith

Walks for schools through culture, history and belief in Cambridge

Science Walk (KS2) – Stop 1: St John’s College

At each stop on the walk there will be a story and an activity. Resources for these can be picked up at the Round Church at the start of the walk. These will include a teacher’s booklet (containing a set of maps, useful phone numbers and contact details, information about loos and picnic/snack points); instructions for the stories and activities; a set of resource cards displaying relevant images; a set of artefacts. However, copies of worksheets for children to use during the walk need to be downloaded and printed off at school and brought with you.

Stop 1 | Stop 2 | Stop 3 | Stop 4 | Stop 5 


Story One:
William Gilbert (1540–1603)­

­• Look at the memorial to William Gilbert on the outside wall of St John’s College in Bridge Street (just past the bus stop)

I wonder if anyone knows what this is?
This is a memorial to remember a man called William Gilbert. He was born over 450 years ago, and lived in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

­• Go into St John’s College through the main entrance. Pause half way across the court and point out the statues on the outside of the chapel. The statue of William Gilbert is third from the right.

• Show the portrait of Gilbert – Resource Card A

This is a portrait of him.
Can anyone see what he is wearing in the statue and the portrait that would be a bit unusual today?
In those days even men wore special lacy collars called ruffs.

• Hold up the ruff – Artefact 1

Who would like to try one on?

• Make your way to the chapel. Gather in the ante-chapel and stand by the memorial plaque describing Gilbert’s career (on the wall to the right of the entrance to the main chapel).

There was a smaller chapel here when William Gilbert was a student at St John’s college, and he would have gone to worship God in services there. He loved hard work – he studied for 3 different degrees! The last one qualified him to be a doctor. He went to work in London, and eventually became President of the College of Physicians and personal doctor to Queen Elizabeth I – he was the most important doctor in the country.

But that wasn’t all. As well as working as a doctor, he spent his spare time doing scientific research just for fun! He was really interested in magnetism and static electricity, which he called the ‘amber effect’. The ancient Greeks had noticed that something strange happened to the gemstone amber (fossilised tree resin) when it was rubbed with silk or wool (like rubbing your hair with a balloon). We now know that the friction of the rubbing causes the amber to become electrically charged, but for over a thousand years people thought that there was something mysterious and magical about it. William Gilbert thought that there must be a way of understanding what was happening. The Greek word for amber was “electron”. When he was explaining his ideas, William used a Latin word “electricus” (meaning like amber), and created the name for the scientific study of electricity.

William Gilbert was also really interested in magnets. People had known since the 6th century BC that a special kind of stone was magnetic. In William Gilbert’s time they called it lodestone, but we know it as the mineral magnetite. People could see the powerful effects of magnetism, and thought that it was a kind of magic.

• Show a magnet and demonstrate the magnetic effect on a metal strip – Artefact 2

Maybe William sat in this chapel when he was a student, thinking about how God had made the world, and how it worked. Then he did something totally new – he started to test every idea that anyone had ever had about magnets and static electricity, to check whether they were correct. In the past people often just believed everything that was written down in books was true. Ideas were passed on for hundreds and even thousands of years, even if they were totally wrong!

• Show a modern magnetic compass –Artefact 3

This has got a magnet in.

I wonder what we might use it for?

In Tudor times sailors used magnetic compasses to help them on long voyages – they looked a bit like this:

• Show the Tudor magnetic compass – Resource Card B

The word ‘lodestone’ meant ‘leading stone’ because it was used in a compass to lead or guide the way. But in those days no sailor was allowed to eat garlic anywhere near the ship’s compass, because someone had once written that garlic would stop a compass working.

William Gilbert thought that this sounded a bit silly. He checked out every idea any one had ever had about magnets by doing experiments. He tested them all, and recorded his results in a big book which was called ‘De Magnete’ or ‘On Magnets’

• Show the picture of Gilbert’s book – Resource Card C

He proved that garlic had no effect on compasses. That must have been a big relief to the sailors! William’s book about magnetism was read all over Europe, and it changed the way people did science forever. It made people realise that you had to do experiments to check that your ideas and theories were correct. You couldn’t just guess anymore, or believe everything you read. The famous scientist Galileo used William Gilbert’s book when he was working out how to explain the important discovery that the Earth moved around the Sun.

William Gilbert was a very famous and influential man when he died – all his hard work had paid off. He had got people thinking about how the world really worked, and how amazing it was. Science had taken a huge step forward. From now on people started to test their ideas, to see if they were correct.

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Activity One:
Testing superstitions

William Gilbert tested lots of different ideas and theories to see which were correct.

I wonder if anyone can think of any myths or superstitions we still use today?

You are going to be split into small groups and given a card with some modern superstitions written on it. Choose one of the superstitions. Like William Gilbert, you are going to design an experiment to prove whether the statement is true, or just a myth that people have passed on without thinking about.

You will have about five minutes to discuss what you are going to do, and then ten minutes to write or draw a plan of your experiment on the activity sheet you have on your clipboard.

How can you make sure that your experiment is fair?

How many times will you have to do the experiment to prove or disprove the statement?
How many different people will you need to do the experiment on?

Background information for teachers


Stop 1 | Stop 2 | Stop 3 | Stop 4 | Stop 5 

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