Interview With Professor Hal Sosabowski

We’re happy to welcome to The Chemical Blog Hal Sosabowski, Professor of Public Understanding of Science at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, University of Brighton. Professor Hal has launched a range of educational games based on the popular Top Trumps card games, and we’re going to find out a little more about them.

Interview With Dr Hal

Hal Sosabowski, Professor of Public Understanding of Science at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, University of Brighton.

What is your current role within the University? Also, tell us a bit about other projects that you’re also involved with.
My role is to engage the public (all sections, not just children) and debunk the myths and folklore about science. I got my Chair by doing activities which bring science to the public in an attractive and inviting way.

I do this in several ways. My favourite and the one which elicits the most immediate response are live science shows. I do these in schools (such as this sulphur hexafluoride and helium choir), trade shows (Wembley Stadium); in auditoria and theatres to the public; as well as the Bigger Bang and Imperial College shows.

I also do a lot of television for teachers in the hope that by educating the educators/facilitating the facilitators we can feed a man for life rather than for a day.

I have taken our science show to Europe, Moscow and Abu Dhabi as well as all over the UK. This year we are returning to Moscow and Abu Dhabi and also adding Nigeria and Khazakstan to the itinerary.

In addition, I help with TV a lot and we are currently working on series 2 of Operation Ouch! which is on CBeebies.

Finally, in my day job I teach chemistry to pharmacy, biomedical science and chemistry students.

How come a University Professor turned games’ developer?
I’m not really ‘turned’ games developer. I see it as part of my role of Professor of Public Understanding of Science.

I can remember exactly where I was standing when I thought of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Trumps, although the first iteration was called, rather unimaginatively ‘Periodic Table Trumps’ …

How did you develop the cards?
I can remember exactly where I was standing when I thought of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Trumps, although the first iteration was called, rather unimaginatively ‘Periodic Table Trumps’ clearly without even a passing nod to any brand values.

I made an iteration with a friend of mine called Rob Piatt, who is a graphic artist. He made a design and we submitted it for a University of Brighton Innovation Award and won. I then printed some on my printer (yes my Epson printer) and put them for sale on ebay stating EXACTLY how I made them and they sold for £15 each.

I then put some of my own money into printing a commercial version, although I managed to sell the whole consignment, they were not market- or retail- ready; they had no tuckbox or bar code and the branding still wasn’t right. I applied for and received some funding from Finance South East to develop the product. I used the money to brand the product (the Dr Hal brand) and produce three other titles. I employed a physicist, biologist and a Fellow in Waste Management to research the titles.

This brings us to where we are now – Dr Hal’s Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Recycling trumps.

I remembered playing Top Trumps when I was a boy and even designing my own version: Teacher Top trumps – Mr Corcoran had the highest Fear Factor

Was it a Eureka moment or the fruit of months of ideas and discussions?
The idea was a Eureka moment. It was after a Royal Society of Chemistry Local section meeting during which somehow the words ‘chemistry’ and ‘trumps’ came together in a totally different context. (Someone said ‘chemistry trumps physics’ in terms of graduate employability).

I remembered playing Top Trumps when I was a boy and even designing my own version (Teacher Top trumps – Mr Corcoran had the highest Fear Factor). I did the research for the original iterations. Here are some examples of the original cards in version 2. They look sooo primitive now in retrospect.

Interview With Dr Hal Trumps

An example of the original cards in an early version of Dr Hals Chemistry Tumps

Interview With Dr Hal Chemistry Trumps

Dr Hal’s Chemistry Trumps have come a long way since their first incarnation

With regards to your team of researchers, how did you find the right people? How important was their contribution?
I looked within the University – the physics guy Steve Kilgallon was brilliant. He made a game out of the ungameable and his stroke of genius was finding Energy as the common denominator. In the game you can compare the power output of a horse with a Trident Nuclear Missile with a Mamoet PCT 111 (the largest crane in the world) with an Airbus A380 with the Tunguska Meteor Impact with an Enercon E126 wind turbine. The differences in power output are huge – the lowest, a black hole has output of a one hundred thousand sextillionth of a watt. The highest, the Tunguska meteor impact has output of 4.8 sextillion watts – higher than sun, which has a power output of 386 trillion W. This is because power is energy/time and a meteor strike happens in a very short time.

The Dr Hal’s Recycling Trumps presented a different challenge – how to make fishing through your trash seem exciting and gamesome. Ryan Woodard, a Fellow in the University of Brighton Waste/Energy Management Group did some excellent research for this and devised and researched meaningful trump factors.

Have you received any feedback from kids, teachers or parents? Can you give us some examples?
We’ve received many examples of feedback, including “My boys (8 and 9 years) were arguing for ten minutes about the Danger Factor of fermium….I mean FERMIUM? I hadn’t even heard of fermium and my boys are arguing about it…” and “I noticed that the children were learning some of the cards e.g. they remembered iron with its usefulness factor of 10. Also, I pointed out at the beginning that many of the substances with a higher atomic mass were also were also radioactive, by the end of the game they were telling this to each other”.

I would like to bring out Dr Hal’s Chemistry Trumps II – A Journey to the Darker Reaches of the Periodic Table

Do you have plans to expand with more cards? There’s still quite a few chemicals left…
In terms of academic aspiration I would like to bring out Dr Hal’s Chemistry Trumps II – A Journey to the Darker Reaches of the Periodic Table. But commercially only a small proportion of those that bought the first set will buy the second and a major cost is the fixed cost of a print run (the underlying costs whether you have 10 packs printed or 10,000). So I am looking at new titles. I have a pet wish to do Dr Hal’s Astronomy Trumps, Dr Hal’s Famous Inventions Trumps, Dr Hal’s Medicine Trumps, and I know that there is a demand from schools for Dr Hal’s Drugs of Abuse Trumps.

How much do you think your own work was influential in the development of the game? Possibly your experience with students?
Completely. Although the branding agency did a lot of the graphics and the researchers the research this is what I wanted it to be. I know it sounds lame and hackneyed, but I did have a vision of how I wanted the games to be and I am nearly there. It’s not just about fun and it’s not just about education – its camouflaged learning, where the two come together and 2+2 does indeed equal 5.

It’s the factoids at the bottom of the card that provide a great deal of takeaway learning

Where do you see the game being used more frequently? I know you advertise it as a teacher’s tool in the classroom, but do you think kids would want to play it at home?
I think that the home is as important as school, especially with parents and grandparents. It’s the factoids at the bottom of the card that provide a great deal of takeaway learning and I want the surprises contained therein to be the little bits of knowledge that create the urge to find out more.

To ensure kids don’t just play for the numbers and “forget” the chemicals, what advice would you give parents and teachers to ensure that the cards can be used as a reliable learning tool?
Look at the facts at the bottom of the cards. Download the Teachers notes, as they explain the numbers, where the facts came from and any assumptions made when devising trump factors. Don’t always accept the factors as they are – for example ‘Danger Factor’ is subjective – mild-mannered arguments are part of the gameplay. Then, get the pupils to make their own cards – there are 117-32 elements left, with some real humdingers.

Finally, are you thinking about expanding into other types of games? When should we expect Chemistry Trumps, the computer game or the app?
Other games and other platforms – yes, without doubt – I like the sound of the iPhone app – I’m on it!

We would like to thank Prof. Hal for taking the time to speak to The Chemical Blog. If you want to find out more about Dr. Hal’s Chemistry trumps or any of the other titles, they’re available online at http://www.drhal.co.uk.

Alex Reis
Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biological sciences. She has several years experience in scientific writing and research, with various scientific manuscripts published in high impact factor journals, including Nature Cell Biology, as well as articles promoted in more mainstream publications.
Alex Reis
Alex Reis

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