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A workshop surrounded by bones: Inspiring the next generation

ucwecfr1 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.

Bio-Inspired Robotics Workshop at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, London, 28th, June. 2018.

“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.

Bio-Inspired Robotics Workshop at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, London, 28th, June. 2018.

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.

Bio-Inspired Robotics Workshop at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, London.

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.

Skeleton of a gibbon, UCL Grant Museum.

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.

“If they haven’t all died out, why can’t I meet one?”

Briony Fleming28 November 2018

 This blog has been written by Josie Mills: a student engager currently undertaking a PhD in Archaeology.


What is a Student Engager? There are 17 of us in total, who you might meet and chat to in any of the three museums around campus: UCL Art Museum, the Grant Museum or the Petrie Museum. We are PhD students at UCL and work as Engagers to communicate aspects of our research – and information about the museum collections – to visitors.

I’m an archaeologist studying stone tools made by Neanderthals, using different scientific techniques to work out where the rock came from. The information from these lithics (stone tools) can be used to explore aspects of prehistoric life, particularly movement and subsistence in changing landscapes. Student Engagers work in all three UCL museums, making connections between our PhD research and the collections. We also chat about what we do and objects from the museums on the Research Engager Blog.

When I first started working I adapted well to the Petrie Museum, whose oldest artefacts are stone tools, and the Grant Museum where several hominin casts are on display. UCL Art Museum on the other hand was a bit of a challenge. However, part of working as a Student Engager is adapting themes of our research to different situations. Last year UCL Art Museum held an exhibition of work by Slade School of Art students, including art by Cyrus Hung, who collected debris from the Slade studios and collated it in sketchbooks. These discarded items, including food wrappers and doodles, provided an insight into the human process of creating art, without showing the outcome. The work resonated with me because archaeology is very similar: we use items that have been left behind and removed from their systemic context, to reconstruct past behaviour.

Paleolithic Artefacts in the Petrie Museum

These are the oldest artefacts in the Petrie Museum they were made around half a million years ago.

As PhD students we specialise to an unusual degree, spending a lot of time alone in a lab or writing at a desk. Working as a Student Engager is very different, it throws our research – and us – open to a wide and diverse audience. We are asked, why is our niche subject relevant? Why is it interesting? In relation to the museums, we’re asked, why can’t we read hieroglyphs? Why don’t we know the Latin name of this bivalve?

It took time for all of us to realise which parts of our work are interesting to others and will support a meaningful discussion. A lot of what I do is tied up in our human prehistory, particularly discussing Neanderthals and their behaviour. I am a staunch defender of Homo neanderthalensis and love to tell visitors that most of them are 2-4% Neanderthal. One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, ‘How did the Neanderthals become extinct?’ A traditional academic answer to this would be, there are many contributing factors like climatic fluctuation, low genetic diversity, and potential competition with humans. But as we have inherited Neanderthal DNA, maybe ‘extinct’ is not the right word and ‘assimilated’ is a better term. This answer is not always well-received. Someone once said to me, ‘If they haven’t all died out, why can’t I meet one?’ and that’s a valid question. Even though I might not use the term ‘extinct’, a representation of the archetypal Neanderthal doesn’t walk among us today.

Skull of Neanderthal Man

La Chapelle-Aux-Saints Neanderthal cast held at the Grant Museum – notice the pronounced brow ridge over the eye sockets.

On a lighter note, everyone (yes, even adults) is a little obsessed with toilet humour. In archaeology we talk a lot about preservation; the ability of artefacts to preserve is key to us finding them. This is particularly difficult in deeper prehistory as lots of factors, such as water and microbes, lead to decomposition. Preservation is fantastic in Egypt because the climate is arid and even organic material endures. This is something I like to talk about with visitors and I often begin with the bias that results from poor organic preservation then segue into a conversation about stone tools. Recently I was asked, ‘Well, what did the Egyptians do about the toilet, then?’ Initially stumped, I realised this visitor envisioned a catastrophic situation where all Ancient Egyptian poo was preserved, creating mountains of desiccated effluence for archaeologists to discover. When I talk about preservation I think of artefacts, but this person worried instead about a very basic human aspect of preservation.

This is what has influenced my PhD work most: the importance of human-ness and relatability, using imagery and bringing to life initially mundane things. I am continually surprised by how much people want to know about evolution, and this has forced me to keep up to date with paleoanthropological work, making me a better researcher. New findings and insights can change the narrative of our evolution in the blink of an eye. These key aspects of archaeological and anthropological research interest people and mustn’t be lost in a swathe of rocks, pollen, dirt and bone. Talking to visitors influences how we present our PhD projects whilst at the same time enriching their museum experience, providing expert knowledge disseminated in an accessible way. The idea of focused research presented in a framework of its wider relevance is crucial to the Student Engager role and it’s what we do every week across UCL’s museums.