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.
Hackathons are endurance events that bring a host of parties involved in software development together with subject-matter experts in a field to work together to develop products usually in an extremely short period of time, typically a day or two. A long-time staple of the software community, hackathons are increasingly popping up in other industries as they have been shown to be very effective in producing innovative solutions to problems.
I recently had the opportunity to take part in HackTrain 5.0, a rail transport focused hackathon organised by Hack Partners over the weekend of the 9th to 11th of November and it was an amazing experience. It was a hackathon with a twist, as being rail-focused, it involved hours of coding interspersed with train trips to different cities in different countries. It also had massive support from the industry, with sponsors from a range of industry stakeholders including the Department for Transport, Network Rail, Transport for London, Great Western Railway, South Western Railway, Eurostar and Fujitsu among others.
The weekend began with a launch event that saw over 100 participants from all walks of life in the same room with rail industry staff and experts. After a brief introduction to the programme of activities for the next 48 hours by the organising committee, it was the turn of partners and sponsors to present an overview of their various challenges and datasets that they hoped participants could come up with innovative solutions to. These challenges were centred around 4 main themes: customer experience, operational efficiency, rolling stock enhancement and intelligent infrastructure. The presentations were followed by a dinner break where participants could mingle and get to know each other better as well as prod the sponsors and mentors for more information on the challenges. After dinner, participants were divided into two groups: one group would be travelling through two European cities (Paris and Frankfurt) while the other, of which I was part, would visit the UK cities of Milton Keynes and Cambridge. While the European team proceeded to take their leave, the UK team began the process of team formation.
Participants were allowed a minute to present any ideas they had around the challenges and rail travel in general as well as any skills they would want in potential team members. The top 10 ideas were voted for by all, and teams were formed around them. I took over an idea from another participant who pitched two and recruited 2 others to join me. Our idea was an online marketplace for trains where passengers could buy and sell items among themselves while on a trip, in response to the customer experience challenge.
After the teams were formed, the group headed to the station to catch our train to Milton Keynes. It was an exciting trip with our large group making our way through crowded stations decked in our HackTrain paraphernalia, which included an infinity gauntlet! We had to share carriages with other passengers and after explaining what we were doing sometimes got some feedback on ways our solutions could be enhanced.
Our first stop in Milton Keynes was a hotel, where the hacking officially begun. My team began with refining our initial idea by doing some research into its technical feasibility and business viability. Even though the idea was novel and innovative, we decided there were too many issues with it to progress it. After hours of deliberation, we settled on a new idea that took advantage of one of the technologies provided us to solve a long-standing problem with rail travel: accessible travel for disabled passengers.
Using the local train Wi-Fi network, augmented with an innovative “Edge Computing“ platform, we proposed an web application that would allow disabled passengers to book travel, require assistance, order food and plan their onward journeys form the train. Our aim was to empower these passengers to make more spontaneous journeys, as the current methods hampered their ability to do this and usually resulted in bad journey experiences and ultimately fewer trips overall. We called our solution Platform C 3/4 to reflect the how our service would serve as a portal to a magical train experience for disabled customers (C). With our idea and plans finally decided, we proceeded to work on building a prototype and prepare our final pitch. Even though we only went to bed quite late into the night, we were satisfied with what we had been able to achieve.
The next morning, we headed back down to London, to the next hacking space. This trip was much better, as most teams managed to get table seats so they could work on the train. We spent the afternoon at the ORM offices and continued working till evening, when we set off for the final hacking space in Cambridge, the St John’s Innovation Centre. We nearly lost some members in the chaos of the Saturday crowds and were delayed for a while due to this. However, we finally made it to Cambridge safe and sound in the evening, quickly set up and got to coding our prototypes. Each team had a mock ‘dragons den’-style presentation where we pitched our solutions to the HackTrain team and mentors, who acted as the dragons. This session proved very useful and provided very constructive feedback on our pitches in terms of delivery, content and challenge focus. We spent the entire night incorporating this feedback as well as working on our prototype. It wasn’t all work and no play though, as the teams took turns to take part in a Mario kart competition, which turned out to be as competitive as the hackathon itself.
Our final trip came the next morning, where we joined up with participants from the European train back at the Fujitsu offices in London, which was to host the finale of the hackathon. Despite most people staying up the whole night, the energy was amazing, even as teams rushed to make last minute fixes to their codebase and submit their work to beat the submission deadlines. At about two o’clock, the final pitches began. Teams were given four minutes to present their work and the grilled with questions from the judging panel. A lot of innovative solutions were presented and every team had a working demo to show. At the end of the day, even though my team did not place in the top 3 overall, we were able to nab the top spot for the best solution around South Western Railway’s customer experience challenge and came away with cool prizes. Not bad for a weekend of work J .
All in all, it was a great experience that gave me a lot of insight into the issues, priorities and future direction of the rail industry. It was also a good opportunity to sharpen my skills in idea generation and prototype development through its agile design sprint-like process. Finally, I made lots of new friends and industry contacts that would be valuables resources in my future projects.
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.
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!
Roza Vasileva (2016 cohort) has recently returned the Oman National Open Data Symposium where she spoke about Open Data. After her presentation she took questions on smart cities, the focus of her PhD.
Tatiana Styliari (2014 Cohort) has started a new Medium blog. She is currently in the thesis write-up stage (almost there!) and wants to share her experiences and offer tips & hacks to survive a PhD. She has also started an Instagram account where she will be sharing updates, so give her a follow!
“Is this a good subject to start my Medium account? Who knows! What this article aims to do is firstly, to actually help me organise my thoughts and get whatever is on my mind out there and secondly to inform fellow PhD sufferers on their way of planning their thesis submission!”
PhD researcher Christian Tamakloe (2016 Cohort) is currently recruiting participants to take part in an interview-based study.
What is it for?
The study forms part of a PhD project to explore how data from digital self-tracking technologies (such as smartphones and wearables e.g. Fitbits) can be used to better understand how and why business rail passengers use and value their time while travelling, as well as how this influences their travel behavior. Insights from the project will be used to power novel tools/ apps and services that will enable passengers to plan their rail trips around their preferred time use, improving their overall journey experience.
Who can take part?
This study is open to individuals who undertake work-related journeys via train fairly often. This could be at least two short/medium-distance (1.5 – 3 hours , cross-regional/national ) trips a month, during business hours for work purposes (e.g. attending conferences/trade fairs, internal/external meetings, visiting clients/suppliers/partners, etc.) or long-distance commutes (typically around 2 hours).
What does it involve?
Interview questions will revolve around preparations for journeys, activities engage d in at different stages and places of the journey, devices used and any strategies /hacks relied on to make the most of the time spent travelling.
The interview itself will last no longer than an hour and participants will be compensated for their time with £15 Amazon vouchers.
The study has been approved by the University of Nottingham Faculty of Engineering Ethics committee and all data will be recorded anonymously and used strictly for research purposes only. Participants are free to withdraw at any time during the interview .
Your involvement will help discover how to improve the rail journey experience. If you are interested in taking part in the study or would just like to know more about the research please leave your contact details at http://bit.ly/InterviewMe2 and/or send an email to Christian via Christian.Tamakloe@nottingham.ac.uk