Tag Archives: education

Steampunk in the Science Museum

Our summer spectacular, The Energy Show, is staged in a steampunk world which blends the past and the future. Much inspiration for the show was taken from the Science Museum’s collection, especially the machines of The Energy Hall. Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, talks here about some of our ‘steampunk’ objects in the Museum. 

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Inv 1935-513

Beam engine by Benjamin Hick, 1840. Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Modern technology values function over anything else. Things are stripped down and smooth in appearance. Steampunk is a welcome kickback against this minimalist modern world we live in, reasserting the importance of form against function – and we can find this delicate balancing act played out in our collections.

Take this beam engine, for example. It’s a model of a full-size engine built in 1840 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton for a Leeds flax mill. It was an immense building, possibly the largest single room in the world. To animate the machines inside, Hick’s engine was certainly powerful, but in building it he gave full reign to his imagination. The result was  an Egyptian engine: It has columns with papyrus-headed capitals, a mighty entablature inspired by a temple overlooking the River Nile, and the ‘chronometric’ governor to control the engine’s speed takes the form of a scarab beetle.

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Later Victorian design became rather bulbous, even grotesque, in appearance. But Hick’s engine is a sinuous masterpiece of epic design and brute strength. It reminds us not only of our creative debt to bewhiskered, roaring, big-jawed machine-makers like Hick, but also the significance of amazing nineteenth century machines, not just as a means to the end of production, but as symbolising national affluence and virility. In our present situation, it’s a lesson worth remembering: if you mean business, build machines that shout it out to the world.

Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle telegraph, 1851, Inv 1884-95

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

A recurring theme in Steampunk is the application of nineteenth-century design ideas to modern digital technology: laptops, PCs, even memory sticks can be made antique with brass gearwheels, dials and mahogany cases.

Colliding state of the art technology with the Gothic isn’t just a recent thing, though. In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first successful telegraph system. It was mainly used on Britain’s evolving railway system, conveying messages via wires running alongside the tracks. A slightly lesser-known use of this pioneering system was to convey messages and reports across London, from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to clubs in St James’s.

The Electric Telegraph Company was formed in 1846 and this instrument was installed at the Houses of Parliament in 1851. As a ‘black box’ of purely functional appearance, it would have jarred badly against the Gothic Revival style adopted in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. So, the telegraph was fitted with its admirable Gothic casing, complete with pointed arch, finial, and delicately-realised columns. It must surely have lent a feeling of permanence and robustness to the room that it graced, reflecting the standing of Parliament – and also pre-empting one of the major pillars of steampunk.

Model of the side-lever engines of the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’, 1832. Inv 1900-41

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

Photo: Science Museum / SSPL

The problem with modern technology is that so much of it is intangible, digital, virtual, ephemeral. This point of view certainly underpins many Steampunk projects.

It wasn’t always like this, of course: introducing steam power to ships during the nineteenth was the cutting edge of serious heavy metal technology, and was a highly demanding field to design machines for: engines couldn’t be too heavy, they had to have a low centre of gravity, they couldn’t take up too much space.

These prerequisites offered valuable motivation to innovate in engineering design styles. Rather than big, heavy, monolithic construction and great slab-sided machines, engineers evolved lighter cast-iron structures, with lots of space, openings, and details which could be embellished without adding too much weight. Gothic engines? Check.

This model was built in 1832 for the Paddle Ship ‘Dee’ by the London company Maudslay, Sons and Field. Maudslay was a prolific model-maker, trying out new ideas before committing to them full-size, and this model is one of the finest surviving. The delicate cast iron Gothic tracery of its framing would not look out of place in a cathedral – a very tangible record of the creative impulses afforded to engineering, and perhaps inspiration for those Steampunkers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Take a look at our own Steampunk set Science Museum Live: The Energy Show which runs until 31 August. Book tickets and find more information here.

Building Bridges project comes of age

Building Bridges, an exciting new Science Museum Learning project began last year. Here, the team share a few highlights from the project so far.

Building Bridges is a three year project aimed at year seven (11-12 year old) students, helping them to make sense of the science that shapes their lives. 

Students take part in a special Museum trail

Students take part in a special Museum trail

Building Bridges is doing this by focusing on three outcomes: helping students develop new ideas about why science is important to them/society at large; giving students the ability to communicate these and other ideas clearly; and an increased enthusiasm for science. So far, the project has been working with 16 schools, engaging up to 35 students at each school.

Each group takes part in three key activities over the year: an outreach visit into their school, a school visit to the Science Museum and a family event held at the Museum. The outreach visits were lots of fun for everyone: students got involved in the gloriously disgusting It Takes Guts show and took part in the “Science Communication” session. This gave them the opportunity to think about the stories behind the objects, and also learn science demos to present back to their friends.

Lucy presents 'It Takes Guts'

Lucy presents ‘It Takes Guts’

In May, we welcomed students to the museum for a fun filled VIP day where schools were treated to their own exclusive events and a visit to Launchpad. They also met real scientists during a science journalism session, discussing subjects including the painkiller quality of chillies, and resuscitation. Finally, the students explored the Making the Modern World gallery, searching for objects to help a very important guest…

The Queen awaits her subjects

The Queen awaits her subjects

Last weekend, we said goodbye to our first year of students with a fun filled family weekend at the Museum. The students brought their families to the museum and enjoyed an entire gallery of activities especially for them, including meeting with research scientists and the Imperial College Reach out Lab.

Year one of Building Bridges has been amazingly busy and a lot of fun. We can’t wait for year two!

Introducing Enterprising Science

Micol Molinari, Project coordinator for the Talk Science project writes about the launch of Enterprising Science, the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

Today is a big day for us. It is the official launch of Enterprising Science, a five year partnership between the Science Museum, King’s College London and BP, bringing together expertise and research in informal science learning.

This new project builds on our Talk Science programme. Since 2007 we have worked with over 2,600 secondary school teachers across the UK to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) teaching and learning. The main aim of Talk Science was to give young people the confidence to find their own voice and have a say in the way science impacts on and shapes their lives. The core our work was with science teachers, because of their important role and ability to make a difference in young people’s lives.

So what did we do for Talk Science? We delivered a 1 day teacher CPD course, in over 30 cities across the UK. We developed physical & digital resources to support teachers in the classroom; ran student and teacher events, delivered communication skills training for scientists working with young audiences and held seminars for other museum educators on informal science learning.

This year we began working with King’s College London to develop, test and share new tools and techniques to engage more secondary schools students with science. The tools and techniques are all grounded in research from Kings College London’s five year ASPIRES study of children’s science and career aspirations, combined with our experience from five years of the Talk Science project. Our partnership with Kings is really exciting: it makes Enterprising Science the largest science learning programme of its kind in the UK.

As part of Enterprising Science, we will be working closely with small groups of partner teachers, to collaboratively develop and trial new tools and techniques for engaging students with science both inside and outside the classroom. These new resources will be shared through our work with schools across the UK and online.

But it is not just about science in the classroom. In fact, research shows that one of the strongest indicators of whether a young person will choose a career in science is the type of support they get outside of school from their families. We will be working with teachers, young people and their families to help create a supportive learning environment for students. By raising the value that young people place on science, we hope to help students develop a genuine interest in science and understand how it is relevant to their lives.

We are excited to see where this project will take all of us. Here’s to the next 5 years!
Micol & the Enterprising Science team.

Will.i.am explores Google Web Lab at the Science Museum

will.i.am, The Prince’s Trust and Science Museum launch education initiative

Musician and philanthropist will.i.am has launched an initiative to boost the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths for disaffected and underachieving children.

The Black Eyed Peas frontman announced The Prince’s Trust workshops, which will be run in partnership with the Science Museum in schools across the country, at the museum with Ian Blatchford, Director of the Museum, and Martina Milburn, Chief Executive of the Prince’s Trust.

Will.i.am launches new education initiative with Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford (l) and Martina Milburn, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Trust (r)
Will.i.am launches new education initiative with Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford (l) and Martina Milburn, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Trust (r)

“Inspiring young people through science and technology is a powerful tool,” said will.i.am, who has donated £500,000 to the Trust, including his fee as a judge on BBC talent show, The Voice, and funds the i.am.angel foundation in his native Los Angeles.

“These workshops are an amazing way to engage disadvantaged youngsters who don’t have this sort of access to technology and science otherwise.” Speaking to reporters at the launch of the workshops he said: “As well as telling them to play sports, let’s encourage them to do science or mathematics.

“When I say, ‘Hey kids, you guys should want to be scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians…’ I say that because I too am going to school to learn computer science,“ he added. “I’m taking a computer science course, because I’m passionate about where the world’s going, curious about it and I want to contribute.”

Will.i.am explores Google Web Lab at the Science Museum

Will.i.am explores Google Web Lab at the Science Museum

The new partnership will see Science Museum outreach staff visiting Prince’s Trust xl clubs in schools across the country to deliver workshops after normal lessons that are aimed at inspiring and engaging 13-19 year olds who are struggling at school. The overall aim is to help 3,000 to 4,000 young people this year.

The launch of the workshops comes ahead of a Prince’s Trust report to be released today revealing a lack of digital skills among the younger generation. The research, conducted by Ipsos MORI, shows a quarter of unemployed young people (24%) “dread” filling in online job applications and one in ten (11%) admit they avoid using computers.

Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Museum (r) explains how to make music with Google Web Lab

Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Museum (r) explains how to make music with Google Web Lab

The Science Museum is the most popular free school-trip destination in the UK and runs the most popular outreach programme for children in the country, reaching 110,000 children per annum. More children take part in events and activities at the Science Museum than any other in the country.

Toby Parkin, Outreach and Resources Manager, from the Science Museum said: “We know the importance of making science exciting and accessible to everyone. Our initiative with The Prince’s Trust aims to encourage youngsters who may not have considered science and technology as a possible career path. The workshops will span the country across 2013 and see many more young people experimenting with technology and science.”

The Science Museum is the home of human ingenuity in this sector: it has been pioneering interactive science interpretation for over 80 years and was the first in Europe to set up a sleepover programme, the first to tour science and technology exhibitions to shopping centres and is the home of the world’s only science comedy troupe.

Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

Lord Heseltine on Science and Industrial Strategy

Boffins, crazy ideas and blue sky research might not sound like the building blocks of an industrial policy. However, one of the most seasoned figures in modern politics argued this week that science is not just a cultural activity but plays a central role in driving the nation’s economy. Lord Heseltine, the former deputy Prime Minister, delivered this message to a 300-strong audience attending the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture.

Speaking in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre, Lord Heseltine, who described the Museum as “very impressive”, called for science to help drive economic growth in the UK (the full speech can be read here) as well as discussing research, industrial strategy and the ability of technology to inspiring young people.

Lord Heseltine gives the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture. Image credit: John Russell

Drawing on the development of IMAX technology, which has seen decades of advances in technology to improve the public’s cinematic experience, Lord Heseltine noted that if just one student went “to school tomorrow with a renewed enthusiasm for their science lessons, then the pioneers of IMAX technology would surely have done a worthwhile job.”

Lord Heseltine last delivered the CaSE Annual Lecture in 1989, when the organisation was called Save British Science, just a fortnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event, and the political harmony that followed, drove economic collaboration across Europe, helping create today’s global economy.

How to keep up with other nations in the global economy is central to Lord Heseltine’s recently published report: No stone unturned in pursuit of growth. Lord Heseltine called for the government to “place educational improvement, the raising of basic standards and the complete intolerance of sink schools” at the heart of the growth agenda – a key theme of his report.

In his speech, Lord Heseltine was optimistic about the future of science education, noting that “science has never been so accessible or exciting,” and encouraging members of the audience to visit schools and meet students, “Every child remembers the brilliant adult who sparked a flame of ambition in their head, who changed the course of their life forever.”

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineer’s is a vital part of the Museum’s mission. Engaging with 400,000 school children a year, the Museum’s Learning team work with thousands of science teachers across the country to help them develop innovative tools and techniques to deliver outstanding science lessons.

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

The speech concluded with a look at industrial strategy, “It is about government working hand-in-hand with business to help our industrial base get ahead,” before a Q&A discussion with audience members. The Q&A touched on the benefits of blue skies research; with Lord Heseltine commenting that research must not only be done for its own sake, but also for the pursuit of growth.

Lord Heseltine’s comments here at the Museum come in the wake of a recent speech at the Royal Society by the Chancellor, who emphasised the central role of science in driving a modern, dynamic economy.

Hands up!

From students to scientists in just three months

Call me crazy, but getting together a group of students aged 8 to 17 and making them work through the same set of tasks seems like a recipe for disaster. The huge differences in educational background and maturity would derail the process from the start. Right?

I thought so. But over the past 3 months, 20 students from four schools have proven me wrong in our i, Scientist program at the Science Museum. I think it came down to one important point: when you’re asking real, new science questions, no-one knows what the answer will be.

"What have you noticed?"

The program focuses on human perception, which we can all relate to.

It’s the ultimate level playing field. In the program’s final day, a ten year old noticed a key trend in a data set that a PhD-educated scientist four times his age had missed. More importantly, he immediately put his hand up and explained what he’d spotted to the whole group, including Lottolab staff, teachers and his peers.

Hands up!

Some hands are up, some heads are down...

The i, Scientist program is much more than an exercise in getting students to do an experiment. It focuses on breaking down the idea that you need to ‘know a lot’ about something to ask a good, genuine question. In the words of a 12 year old, “I realised that science isn’t just facts in a classroom. But that it’s everywhere and there are so many things to be asked.”

These new questions led to real experiments, designed by the students. I worked with the oldest school group, who used members of the public as their experimental subjects. “Nerve-wracking”, was the one-word response from one of the group when they were asked how it felt to lay out their science to public scrutiny.

In the half hour before they brought in their first participants, the group were asking critical questions about every part of the experiment, cutting out all unnecessary bits. They were trying to find out if different people preferred either ‘familiar’ or ‘new’ routes when they were navigating. With results and demographics from 40 subjects, they had the meat and bones of a genuine science study – the last update I heard was that there were clear differences in preference, but the demographic analysis was still underway.

Decisionmaking

A young participant, navigating by sound, approaches the first 'decision point' in one of the experiments.

i, Scientist can be seen as an experiment itself: can people, of any age, engage with a scientific approach and collectively come up with new, answerable questions about the world? Do we really need years of training to be scientists?

It’s a challenging journey both for the students and the facilitators, because it’s not clear where it will lead. In science, results can be negative. But the development of the group, and individuals within it, was really noticeable. In the words of one 13 year old, “My learning in every subject has changed. I don’t see the obvious, I look at all the possibilities.”

David Robertson manages public programmes at Lottolab, and helped with the organisation of the latest i, Scientist program. Lottolab are looking to expand the program, with more schools participating in 2012. If you would like to know more, please email david@lottolab.org for updates on the wider development of the program.