Orchestral manoeuvres with engineering

Photo-Electric Light Orchestra is an Ingenious-funded project working with local school children in Bangor, North Wales, using coding and photonics to engineer musical instruments. The photonics elements will harness the unique properties of light, using either an LED or a laser, with electronic circuits then converting the light source into sound.

We interviewed project lead Dr Daniel Roberts about the vision behind this project and the unique approach taken at Photonics Academy of Wales Bangor.

The Inspiration

What is the Photo-Electric Light Orchestra?

The Photo-Electric Light Orchestra did not begin as a public engagement project – it evolved into one. The inspiration stemmed from Ray Davies, the Director of the Photonics Academy of Wales at Bangor (PAWB), who develops photonics-based projects with young people. As a lecturer in Ray’s department, I was familiar with his work, and inspired by his approach both to innovation and inspiring the next generation. In his time at PAWB, the department has completed over 435 photonics projects all based around light.

Having seen the various uses that young people found when allowed to experiment with a simple laser, Ray had always wanted to develop a ‘performance’ to demonstrate these photonics projects. This, combined with the idea of developing musical instruments, led to the concept of the ‘Photo-Electric Light Orchestra’ (PELO) being born.

The project will involve 136 pupils, aged 9 to 13, from eight schools local to Bangor (including two special needs schools), who will develop their instruments and come together for a performance Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre demonstrating their achievements to the public in and around Bangor. 


What are your aims and objectives?

The aims of the project are to challenge and change the misperceptions surrounding ‘engineering’ and ‘engineers’, and that engineering is not just about fixing things and ‘getting your hands dirty’ but can be artistic and creative too. A secondary aim is to increase the number of girls pursuing a career in engineering. If we can persuade children, particularly girls, that engineering is gender neutral, that would be a great achievement! We want to show them that engineering is more than just one field – this project alone will be looking at four different types of engineering: electronics, computing, photonics and music.


Start with the solution... a new method to learning. What is the methodology?

The methodology behind this project has come directly from Ray Davies and PAWB, indeed without them, we would not have a project in the first place. In the words of Ray, “PAWB exists purely to provide opportunities for students to utilise light in ways that most people never imagine is possible.”

Ray’s teaching and delivery isn’t like anything the participating children or recruited engineers have experienced before, and it’s his unique techniques that we want to pass on to our recruited engineers to inspire these young children for years to come. He has a unique approach to learning and encourages creative design by starting with the solution. This method allows young people to grasp new knowledge of photonics and design skills.

It is essential, from an educational viewpoint, that the students become aware of the reality that, in science and engineering, there are always more advanced approaches in store. An educational programme should always point the way towards better, more advanced techniques to be acquired in the future. The key is to always leave a learning student wanting more challenges of ever increasing complexity!

What are your top tips for working with children from under-priviledged backgrounds and special needs schools?

  • Have high expectations – we want the children to do their best and to succeed in our workshops, and setting high expectations allows them to work towards reachable goals that can fill them with motivation; we want them to leave our workshops having inspired them to work hard towards their goals, and believing they can achieve anything they want to.
  • Create a positive classroom culture – Ensure that the classroom community is full of positivity, and make sure children are respectful towards one another. A positive attitude is also an exceptionally important quality for anyone working with children with special needs.
  • Maintain an organised classroom and limit distractions – For children with special needs, it is important to maintain a good balance of structured and unstructured processes.
  • Break down instructions into smaller, manageable tasks – Children with special needs can find long-winded instructions challenging, so it is important to break these down into more manageable and understandable pieces for them.
  • Address the children personally, using their name – Some children, especially children with special needs, may not realise that ‘everyone’ includes them.


Any top tips for creating an engaging workshop?

Ensure that the mentors:

  • Know what their responsibilities are and what instructions they should give the students
  • Have all completed the activities they will be delivering to the students
  • Have been inspired themselves by the project aims
  • Have personal, infectious enthusiasm
  • Have been provided with the correct equipment