VRtefacts Outreach at Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Post by Joseph Hubbard-Bailey (2016 Cohort)

The VRtefVRacts project provides museum and gallery visitors with the opportunity to hold and explore exhibit objects which they would otherwise just look at behind a literal or figurative red rope. Throughout the day, visitors from around the museum were invited to come and put on a VR headset, interact with some 3D-printed VR-augmented models of artefacts, and share their own story or commentary about the objects as they handled them. They then moved into another room for a short interview about the experience, allowing for the next participant to get started with the VR. While previous outreach events I’ve done have felt engaging and productive, none have been as interactive as this VRtefacts trial; others mostly involved having conversations across tables, and the distance and dynamic between researcher and participant felt similar to a campus-based study scenario. Due to the nature of this event, with participants engaging physically and narratively during the session, members of the public seemed much more a part of what was going on, as opposed to passive spectators.

For the visitors who chose to participate in the VRtefacts project, the experience served as both a novel sort of ‘exhibit’ in itself and a novel way to access preexisting materials in the museum’s collection. The latter seemed of particular value in the case of visitors who lived locally and so visited the museum often, offering an unexpected new level of access to familiar objects. The opportunity to contribute or “donate” a story as part of the VRtefacts experience may also have been particularly appealing to those who visit regularly and were keen to ‘give back’ to the museum. Several visitors did fall into this category of ‘regulars’, but there were also plenty of people who were passing through and popped in to pass the time. Visitors across both of these groups commented about how the decision to work with VRtefacts reflected well on Derby Museum, showing its openness to new ideas and resistance to stagnate. For those who were visiting the museum in groups, engaging with the VRtefacts exhibit seemed to provide a great source of interest and conversation, as they emerged and compared experiences. The fact that the corresponding artefacts themselves were available in the museum’s collection also meant that there was a comfortable transition back into the rest of the exhibit, as people could go and find the ‘real thing’ they had just encountered virtually.

Before I left the museum for the day, I sat down on the duct-taped-still chair and had my hairdo sabotaged by the VR headset so that I could have a go at the VRtefacts experience myself. I chose and inspected a small intricate model of a giant jet engine, turning it over and fumbling around the prickly detail of the gaskets while I tried to think of something clever to say for the camera. It reminded me of a frighteningly massive aircraft housed at the RAF Museum in Hendon, where I’d been for relentless school trips as a child due to its proximity to school grounds. I remember cowering through the awful hangar where the scary plane’s wings were so expansive that you had no option but to walk underneath them if you wanted to get out. While this wasn’t a pleasant experience, I think the physicality of being below the Vulcan — which I now know was not just a war plane, but a strategic nuclear bomber — came to mind during VRtefacts because it was a similar example of the power of perspective.

Image credit: Kenneth Griffiths (Ascension Island, 1982)

When an object is in a glass case or on a screen or behind a rope, I think we often instinctively revert to what I can only describe as a ‘flat’ perspective on it. We might press our noses to the glass as children to try and get a closer look, but the glass fogs up and we get told off, so eventually our curiosity wanes and we take a respectful cursory look instead. What this tired perspective gives us is often limited to two-dimensional factual information about the object of interest, without the weight and contour  and color of the object’s life. I’m very glad I decided to have a go with the VRtefacts pilot myself before I left the event, because it made me aware of how cowering under the expanse of the Vulcan’s wings taught me more about the gravity of war than any of my history lessons had. There is a narrative power in an artefact’s physicality which cannot be accessed by simply looking at it — the VRtefacts project has the potential to provide that physicality in a way that protects the original object, which needn’t even be on the same continent as it’s VR counterpart.

Beyond the benefit this technology could offer in enhancing the habitual gallery-goer’s usual experience, there is also potential benefit to those who aren’t so familiar and comfortable with these venues. Having come from a family who didn’t really go to museums or galleries, I still feel quite awkward and out of place in these spaces at times. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to suggest that projects like VRtefacts — which offer more diverse ways of accessing meaning in historical and art objects — have the potential to make galleries and museums not only more engaging for visitors, but more accessible to a diverse range of visitors.

Thanks to Jocelyn Spence and the rest of the VRtefacts team for letting me join in for the day!

VRtefacts is a pilot project developed within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727040, GIFT: Meaningful Personalization of Hybrid Virtual Museum Experiences Through Gifting and Appropriation.

–originally posted on Joe’s blog

STEM activity at Loughborough Grammar School

Post by Melanie Wilson (2018 Cohort)

We visited the Loughborough Schools STEM activity which was taking place at Loughborough Grammar School which included pupils from several Loughborough schools. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and the workshops encourage pupils to design and explore a project based on these criteria. We gave a presentation on the pathway we took when designing, prototyping and manufacturing the Endeavour LED sabre.  We then addressed the need to consider what activities the final product would be used for including any limitations or challenges which might need to be addressed. Finally we talked with the pupils individually and invited them to tell us about their projects and explored options that might be worth thinking about in their design stages and beyond.

More about Mel’s work and activities can be found here.

Teaching Python Programming at Nottingham Girls High School

Post by Jimiama Mafeni Mase (2018 Cohort)

I participated in the outreach activity of teaching python programming language to students of Nottingham Girls High School organised by a social enterprise called Codex. Codex is a social enterprise run by students from the University of Nottingham. Selected candidates had interviews with Codex management team who were interested in the candidates’ python coding skills and their passion in teaching children. Fortunately, Codex selected a small team of computer scientist including myself to teach introduction to python for 5 weeks (i.e. 1 hour every week) from the 1st of March to the 29th of March 2019.

The syllabus for the course consisted of the fundamentals of python programming i.e. inputs, outputs, data types, maths operators, conditional statements, while loops and for loops. Each class was made up of about 15 to 20 students and lectures took place in the school’s computer lab. We taught using power point lecture notes and hands-on programming exercises. These required us to be extremely audible and patient with the students as most of them didn’t have any programming experience or knowledge. We were also required to speak fluently and make sure all the students understand the concepts and complete the exercises.

We successfully completed the course on the 29th of March and provided a link for the students to fill out surveys about their experiences and rate the teachers. I learnt some teaching skills from this outreach activity, as it was my first experience as a teacher. In addition, it enhanced my problem solving skills as we received a lot of challenging questions about certain concepts in the lecture notes and exercises. It was a great experience and opportunity to transfer some of my knowledge as a computer scientist to the younger generation, which we consider “Future leaders”. Lastly, I will love to thank Codex and the University of Nottingham for this opportunity and wish that they create many more outreach activities for children to learn computer science.

 

My Journey to a PhD

Post by Abigail Fowler (2016 Cohort)


STEM “My Journey to a PhD” Talk, February 2019

I joined a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) event at Loughborough Grammar School. I was happy to join in when I heard they were running STEM events for secondary school boys and girls. On a rather wet and windy day, I headed to the event hoping the pupils would enjoy my talk and have some interesting questions.

My talk covered My Journey to a PhD, my research, and a memory game to demonstrate working memory. The game involved seeing an image of items from around the home and kitchen for 10 seconds. Then having 10 seconds to write down as many items as they could remember. I took the items with me as a tactile version in case any blind or partially sighted pupils attended. Somewhat ironically I forgot to boil an egg to take with me to match the image, but improvised with an egg cup for the tactile version.

The talk went really well and the pupils loved the memory test. No one got all 14 items, and they all sighed when I put the image back up so they could see what they’d missed. The second test involved spotting what was missing from an image, and they all answered the moment the slide appeared. It was a simple but effective demonstration of how our ability to remember varies between tasks and this should be considered in design. I am glad I included a practical element as it is always great to get more interaction. The group had been hesitant to ask questions, so it was good to give them permission to get involved at the end of the talk.

My PhD is sponsored by the rail industry. It turned out that Network Rail provide funding for a STEM challenge. Pupils were eager to hear how they could work on projects of interest to Network Rail. I suggested they consider level crossings, and how to influence the behaviour of level crossing users, as this is an area of great interest to the rail industry.

During the day I got to hear some of the current ideas students had for their own STEM projects. These included how to detect when someone is having an allergic reaction to food and designing a water filtration system to provide drinking water. I was really impressed with the range of projects and their innovation.

I talked to the teacher afterwards, and they will be coordinating STEM events in the future across the region to raise awareness with pupils of opportunities and future careers in STEM. I welcome this programme, and the links that can be built between schools and universities to support pupils in their further education of STEM subjects.

—Originally posted at

Summer Scientist

Each year children and parents are invited to visit the University and play lots of free and fun games that help us with research. This past summer, Wendy Olphert (2015 cohort) enjoyed assisting in one of the activities at Summer Scientist 2018:

A bit of brainwave! –Wendy Olphert

I’m researching the role that digital technologies (such as mobile phones and the internet) play in the lives of people with a brain tumour – whether their symptoms create challenges for technology use, and whether using technologies can contribute to improving their quality of life.

At one level, this is quite an easy idea to communicate to people outside of an academic context – we readily understand that if we have a problem with our brain it could affect our ability to think or act – but to appreciate the range of impacts that a brain tumour could have on an individual’s life requires an awareness of what our brains do and how they work.  The brain is such a complex organ that scientists are still researching these questions.  But we already know a lot, and as I recently found out, even for young children it can be fun as well as instructive to learn about how brains work!

Over the summer I had a chance to assist in an event called Summer Scientist 2018.

This is a week-long programme run by the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in the school vacation that has now run for several years.  Families are invited to bring their children (aged 4-11) to spend half a day at the University to play lots of free fun games and optionally to take part in some research activities – that were also designed to be fun and engaging. By taking part, children (and parents) get to learn about how the mind and brain work by experiencing real science first-hand.

University of Nottingham Psychology Science week. Photos by Alex WIlkinson of Alex Wilkinson Photography.

I was given responsibility for an activity on the theme of electroencephalography – how dull does that sound for young kids?!  But the organisers had found a clever and entertaining way to demonstrate the fact that the brain generates electrical impulses, using a special headset with a pair of furry (fake!) cat’s ears attached (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurowear). The headset picks up electrical activity from the brain which in turn moves the ears depending on your state of mind. When you are relaxed, the ears droop; when you are interested, the ears are alert – and when you are ‘in the zone’ the ears wiggle.  The kids had free choice over the activities they chose to take part in, and most were fascinated by the wiggly ‘cats ears’ and keen to try them out for themselves.

The children attending had a free choice over the activities they opted to do, and during the course of the two sessions in the day around 40 children of different ages came to the stand to try out the ears and, by doing so, learned about electrical impulses in the brain.  There was a mirror to look in; once I’d attached their headset, some found out that the more they giggled at their reflection the more the ears wiggled (and the more the ears wiggled, the more they laughed!) Others, especially one little boy of about 6, spent many minutes silently trying out different ‘brain activities’ such as thinking about exciting times such as parties, being calm, or trying to count backwards from 20, and clearly being intrigued to see the effects of his ‘brainwaves’ on the ears’ movement.

For the older children, and in some cases their parents, I explained how scientists can use the electrical impulses in the brain to find out more about how it works and what is happening when the brain is not working as it should – and that in turn gave me a chance to tell some of them about the research that I am doing.

I really enjoyed the day and it was clear that the kids had a great time too, as well as picking up lots of science along the way.  I felt that the whole concept of ‘Summer Scientist’ week really was a bit of a brainwave!