Friday, 9 September 2011

From Cells to Cellphones

Last week saw the return of the Techfest
Highland Schools Tour.Dot.rural’s Hien Nguyen and Gina Maffey were joined by Sean McMahon to give secondary school pupils a taste of what science has to offer. With a mix of backgrounds in Computing Science (Hien), Ecology (Gina) and Geology (Sean) it seemed natural to explore the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective in science.

As an icebreaker, we asked three volunteers to imagine that they worked in one of our respective roles. We then gave them nine objects that they had to divide among themselves according to whom they thought used the object in their line of work. On offer were a computer, a deer antler, a compass, a fossil, a pair of binoculars, an iPhone, a book on bumblebees, a copy of Microbiology Today and a blood glucose meter. Can you determine who owns which items? Answers at the end of the blogpost!

Having broken the ice and highlighted the importance of looking to different disciplines for creativity in research projects, we aimed to get students thinking about the interaction between humans, nature and technology.

Hien kicked things off with a look at biomimicry and how we can borrow from nature’s design when considering our own technological development. Buildings based on termite mounds, trains based on kingfishers and cars based on yellow boxfish started to get the creative juices flowing. Although, it was ‘rex’ a six-legged robot from University of Michigan and University of California, Berkely, developed from studies of insect movement that captured most people’s attention. Hien rounded off his part with a look at evolution, but not quite as Darwin saw it. He showed how genetic programming can allow a programme to adapt in order to solve a problem, although still within a strict set of rules.

Having established the link between nature and technology it was up to Sean to point out how useful technology can be when trying to understand us. Using the parts of a computer to show how the complex modules of the brain operate, Sean was able to take an intriguing look at the similarities we share. Despite our comparable capacity for memory, problem solving and information movement, many of the students still (thankfully) refused to accept that we are merely computers. This section culminated in an exploration of why we are not just machines, with an all too brief philosophical consideration of human creativity and emotion.

Gina concluded each session by adding the final link to our topic triangle and looking at how technology can impact on our understanding of nature in the future. Before looking to the future students were asked to consider the past with… a toilet roll. 200 sheets of toilet roll were used to present a scale of the 4.55 billion years since the Earth’s creation, with the last 0.5mm representing the 100,000 years that Homo sapiens have been around. Students were asked to consider all the things that we have created or discovered in that relatively short space of time and the subsequent impact that this has had on our planet. To conclude serious consideration was made as to the challenges that scientists face in the future with an inspirational recording about the importance of our ‘pale blue dot’ from Carl Sagan .

The tour visited five schools beginning in the village of Kinlochbervie, before moving to Ullapool, Gairloch, Portree and finishing in Plockton. Without exception each school was welcoming and enthusiastic about the material presented, and we received positive feedback throughout. As presenters there were some intriguing patterns in behaviour with each age group and much to our surprise some of the toughest questions and most thoughtful answers came from the youngest students. We hope that the talk was able to get some individuals thinking about how nature, technology and humans can interact to address some of the problems society will face in the future. We challenge you to let your imagination run wild and think about what technology you would invent to help preserve our planet?

Answers to the icebreaker:

Hien – Computer, glucose meter and a book on bumblebees

Sean – Fossil, compass and a copy of ‘Microbiology Today’

Gina – Deer antler, Binoculars and an iPhone

No comments:

Post a Comment