A workshop surrounded by bones: Inspiring the next generation part 1
By Caroline Francis, on 26 June 2020
This post is the first in a series on the Bio-robotics and Animal Movement Project, which is part of an outreach programme for secondary schools and colleges in east London.
Hi everyone, my name is Maisha and I am currently a final year student at UCL, studying BASc Arts and Sciences. I have been a part of the Bio-Robotics project for nearly 3 years now and I have really enjoyed being involved, particularly as I have got to be part of the evolution of the project and also because I have seen the real benefit the project has been to school children across London.
The Bio-Robotics project is a collaborative widening participation project between UCL Culture and the UCL Computer Science department. Its main aim is to inspire school children to transform their understanding of what Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects look like at university level. The project has two parts. First, the students attend a workshop at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology and second, they are provided with kits to build a robotic caterpillar at school. Putting both parts together, school children should come away from the project having an interdisciplinary understanding of what can be done when we merge different STEM subjects together such as computer science and biology.
The workshop at the Grant Museum is my favourite part of the project as it is what I help run and teach. Around 30 children come to the Grant Museum in each session and as soon as they enter, they are amazed and intrigued by all the wonderful specimens on display all around the museum. The museum was founded by Robert Grant in 1829 and is home to 68,000 specimens, preserved and exhibited in the museum. The workshop we lead allows children to think about how different animals move and how these movements might be useful to consider when building their own bio-inspired robots. We also challenge their conventional ideas of what a robot is, and also who can be a scientist.
One of the first activities is a museum trail in which the children are given clues and have to locate specimens all around the museum, such as a jar of moles, a Japanese spider crab and a gibbon. The next activities in the museum are designed to help children understand how different aspects of biology and anatomy help individuals move, such as bone strength, skeleton anatomy, pentadactyl limbs and vertebrae. I have found that most students are really engaged with the discussions and inspired by the quirky and intriguing nature of the museum. All the activities are very practical and there is limited time spent just listening to a presentation, which I find is the reason for high levels of engagement. The students are really interested and involved with the activities because they are the right balance of fun and stimulating. Our most common questions about the specimens are “Are they real?” and they definitely are!
My interests for being involved in this project are primarily because of my degree, Arts and Sciences, which is all about the intersection of academic disciplines to create solutions to global issues and this project uses multiple disciplines to explore robots and animals. I love that the students get to see this unconventional side of university and how a lot of research is based on the culmination of different subjects coming together. I also really enjoy working with school-aged children and promoting university to students who may have the wrong image of what university is actually like. I love that the project has allowed me to develop my skills and step out of my comfort zone, as I initially started as someone who was supporting the workshop and then developed the confidence to co-teach the workshop. The experience has made me consider a career in public engagement in museums. Last summer, I was also given the chance to co-organise a Science Festival at Petchey Academy, a school that took part in the project and wanted to do more to promote STEM at their school in collaboration with our project. This was an amazing and valuable experience to be given the responsibility to organise and it was great for my own personal development.
In my opinion, it is incredibly important to create projects that challenge students’ conventional ideas about what studying science looks like, especially within a museum and university setting. It is important to promote university as a potential future option for all, especially children from disadvantaged areas that may not have the confidence or support networks to consider attending university in the future. It is important for a child to interact with a university student like myself, a female and a person of colour, and understand that university is accessible for all and an enriching experience. This is the most valuable part of the project for me and I am very proud and pleased to be a part of such a wonderful project.
The Bio-Robotics Project is part of the UCL East School’s programme run by UCL Culture and supported by the Access and Widening Participation programme.