A workshop surrounded by bones: Inspiring the next generation part 2
By Caroline Francis, on 1 July 2020
This post is the second 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.
“What is a baculum? And which animals have one?” Carolyn Thompson gives the answer and shares her experience of leading the Animal Movement Workshop in her blog.
“Wow!” exclaim a huddle of school students looking around in awe as they bundle into University College London’s (UCL) Grant Museum of Zoology.
The Grant Museum houses more than 68,000 zoological specimens covering every wall. There are bones of the flightless dodo, jars filled with preserved moles, and an intact quagga skeleton (an extinct sub-species of zebra).
The Animal Movement workshop, part of the cross-curricular Bio-robotics project, is delivered by an interdisciplinary team. My name is Carolyn Thompson and I am a PhD student in the School of Life and Medical Science in The Faculty of Life Sciences studying the world’s rarest apes in Asia and I lead the workshop.
As Maisha says in her blog, the students learn the biology and physics behind animal locomotion before building and programming a bio-inspired robot back at their schools. As well as exploring how different animals, such as the Japanese spider crab, a Portuguese man of war and seal move, the workshop enriches the school curriculum, gives a taste of life at university and, most importantly, is fun!
I was in my first year of my PhD when I was saw this inspiring position advertised. Passionate about learning and education, as well as working across departments, I jumped at the opportunity. My main role is delivering the workshop, ensuring everything runs smoothly and the learning goals are met.
I have experience working with young people, so I knew roughly what to expect: energy, excitement and enthusiasm. Luckily, I also harbour all three of these in abundance. I tailor my delivery based on the size, age and knowledge of the group; younger and larger groups require more structure and energy to ensure the 2-hour session flows smoothly and efficiently. Smaller and older groups appear to have more questions requiring detailed answers.
I always love the unexpected questions to keep me on my toes, requiring me to rack the far corners of my brain to dig up material I have not earthed in years.
“What is a baculum? And which animals have one?” A Year 9 student once asked me quizzically.
The baculum, also referred to as the ‘penis bone’, is found in certain mammals. Answering this question was a fun challenge and had all the students giggling by the end.
Other questions such as, “is a chicken a mammal?”, are much easier to answer and gives the group the opportunity to discuss what constitutes a mammal and remind themselves of previous biology lessons.
I am a huge advocate of object-based learning. There are no shortages of objects in the GMZ for the students to feast their eyes upon. The workshop is made up of two discussion sessions, a treasure hunt, and four activity sessions involving real specimens.
Who does not love a treasure hunt? Even the teachers join in! The museum fills with the bustling energy of 20-30 students as they bound around the museum to find all the clues before their time limit is up.
One clue states, “brachiation means arm swinging and is a type of locomotion used by some primates for travelling between trees” and asks the students to find the primate. As a primatologist (a scientist who studies apes and monkeys), I am obviously biased when I say this is my favourite clue.
The students eventually stumble across the correct specimen, a gibbon and the smallest of the apes. I adopted one of the gibbon skeletons in the Grant Museum and called it Buddy, so named as it always assists me with my teaching whether that be for school or university groups. In return, my financial contribution goes towards the maintenance and preservation of the museums specimens.
I love seeing the students’ eyes widen as I tell them that gibbons are the fastest of all the apes, able to build up speeds of 55 km/h (34 mph) and clear distances of 12 m with one swing!
After the workshop, the students are taken on a guided tour of UCL. Overhearing them say, “I want to come to university!” feels like a pat on the back. The whole experience is supposed to present them with options, showing them what can be achieved with hard work, determination and passion.
Whatever path they choose, I hope they will remember the unique experience they had in the Grant Museum delivered by me and my teaching Buddy.
Delivering this workshop to a diverse mix of students has made me a better deliverer, communicator and organiser; skills which I now take on to my next role as Animal Conservation lecturer at a well-known zoological institution.