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"Objects of Invention" inspire engineers, schoolchildren, parents and teachers

Over the last twelve months, students from the Department of Engineering Science have participated in "Objects of Invention", a new initiative at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science.

"Objects of Invention," funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering under their Ingenious programme for public engagement, was the brainchild of Chris Parkin, Lead Education Officer at the Museum. Chris said: "I wanted to find a way of capitalising on the Museum’s remarkable collection of inventive artefacts whilst enabling young engineers to gain experience in public engagement bringing their knowledge and enthusiasm to the Museum’s diverse audiences".

A total of 18 engineers from the Department, mainly graduate students, were involved in this initiative including a strong contingent of biomedical engineers. After a series of training sessions in methods of public engagement and museum object handling, which were supported by the Joint Museums’ Volunteers Service, the Department’s students devised activities for a family day in March. This coincided with National Science and Engineering Week 2013, an event which attracted a near record single day audience of over 2,000 visitors. This was quickly followed by a schools’ event and two further days for schools in June which together attracted over 160 secondary students from local schools. Activities ranged from experimenting with gyroscopes and Stirling engines, to steam pumps and mobile medical devices.

Objects of Invention 1
Engineering student demonstrating the Newcomen steam pump
Objects of Invention 2
Engineering student demonstrating a hand-held Stirling engine

Objects of Invention 3
A group of students investigating mobile medical devices
Objects of Invention 4
School students in the moving image workshop

Teachers accompanying the school groups were very enthusiastic and one commented on the positive effect on their students: "It was good to have people working in the field to share their knowledge with students from our school, which encouraged their view on engineering".

Although the emphasis was on current engineering applications, the students were able to relate their ideas about engineering to historical ancestors in the collection which include the earliest radio devices invented by Marconi and pieces of Charles Babbage’s extraordinary mechanical computer from the Victorian era.

The Department’s students reported that they all benefited from the training and opportunities to gain experience in public engagement. One Engineering Science student said: "I have gained a lot of public speaking experience and talked to a wide range of audiences about something that relates to my work. Educating children also made me feel confident in what I do". Another commenting on the family day said: "the organisation of the event (family day) was superb and the level of support by museum staff in preparing activities was amazing and pushed us to engage visitors in a creative way".

The Museum’s education department, which is maintained by a grant from Arts Council England under the Oxford Aspire partnership, hopes to maintain its relationship with the Department of Engineering Science and would like to be able to offer similar opportunities to students in the future.

For more information about the Museum and its education programme see