A lesson in Epic Failure

Epic Fail is an Ingenious-funded project exploring failure, using the lens of engineering and art as a captivating starting point it introduces young people to engineering and address the fear of failure. Taking up residencies in three Bristol Primary Schools, Kid Carpet and engineer Rachel Kirkwood have been taking over spaces in the schools and re-imagining them as places of exploration with young people. Here, they can create, play and test ideas with the aim of getting young people to change their approach to failure.

We asked Epic Fail’s Lead Artist Ed Patrick - AKA Kid Carpet - to update us on how his project has gone so far.

Hello, I’m Kid Carpet (real name Ed Patrick – do the math!), an artist, musician and maker from Bristol who creates theatre for families. My latest project; Epic Fail, is a performance lecture about failure and wellbeing, using engineering and art to show young people that failure is not to be feared but is instead an important part of the process in innovation. 

Together with my producer, a few engineers and the staff and students of May Park Primary School, we have just completed our first Artist in Residence period of research. Over the two-week residency we’ve conducted five workshops for three year five classes and collected words and images to do with success and failure for two Word Walls. Both art and engineering use failure as a learning process and the workshops have been designed around this.. The workshops include Bridge Making, becoming Little Inventors, Song-Writing, being in a rock band, a wellbeing workshop and creating “Chindogu” inventions. We have also been running sessions at lunchtimes for the whole school to participate in where we have been dreaming up and making advertisements for imaginary inventions.

We now have hours of audio and video as well as 150 Fantastic “Chindogu” or Unuseless Invention designs to evaluate. From this material we will be writing, forming and shaping a show that we will perform at the participating schools and at a public venue in Bristol in May 2020.

We set out to inspire the participating engineers and show them how to engage young people with complex concepts around engineering such as product design, as well as address young people’s anxieties around failure.

Research shows that there is a link between attitude to failure and the wellbeing of young people. We feel that this work is important and urgent as young people face many stresses, are scared to fail and can be discouraged from taking risks. This project is about the engineers and I, alongside the young people involved, creating a language around failure that demystifies it and leads to better understanding and knowledge of any particular area. The idea behind Epic Fail is not just to teach young people about failure as a process, but to show the participating engineers that engineering and STEM engagement can also encompass the arts as well as well-being, helping young people become more resilient to failure, while simultaneously introducing the common problems engineers have to solve on a daily basis.

Tips for running Art-Science engagement collaborations

  1. The first tip is not to see “art” and the “sciences” as separate to each other, but rather to have a joined-up approach. Our lead Engineer, Rachel, as well as running specific engineering workshops, worked with us on the music workshops. Our enquiry in each workshop is very similar and Rachel will be collaborating with me to make the final performance so the arts and engineering are collaborating throughout.
  2. Don’t try and do too much! We’ve found that within the limited time frame of a single lesson it’s easy to get distracted from the task, especially if you’ve got a box full of shiny feathers and a special den with a special machine inside to talk to. We also discovered that in programming a nearly full timetable of lesson/workshops as well as lunchtime activities gave us no time for a break and was exhausting. Smaller groups seemed to get better outcomes in lunchtime activities. If children are having fun in what they’re doing, then they become more ambitious and generous with their imagination and engage much more fully.
  3. Allow plenty of time to reflect on ideas and work but try to do it in an interesting way. Some children can be reluctant to talk in front of a class about their work, but they may be much more inclined to do so in a one-to-one situation or a small peer group discussion.
  4. Always be encouraging. It’s great with a project exploring failure because we put the idea of getting it wrong in the bin at the very beginning of our residency. If somebody is struggling or feels that their work is poorer than others there’s always something valuable to take from their ideas. It’s all good.

Lessons learned. . . so far!

  1. When working in a school it is important to adapt constantly, class to class, break to lunchtime. People behave differently at different parts of the day, around different groups of people.
  2. Children very readily adapt to the concept of failure as a learning opportunity, or at least they are very willing to explain the theory. Whether that’s apparent to them when playing hide and seek or sitting their SATs is unknown but we hope we are enabling them to have the tools to deal with all manner of failures that life throws at them.

Epic Fail Methodology . . .  and the Un-useless Chindogu

We are encouraging young people away from framing failure in terms of success. That's why we are using Chindogu philosophy a lot in our residencies. Chindogu are inventions that defy concise explanation. They aren't useful. But they aren't completely useless either. Their creator, an aeronautical engineer and inventor Kenji Kawakami describes them as "un-useless." Whether we can just enjoy failure for failure's sake, that failure is a virtue in itself.....we haven't answered that yet but we think a person’s approach to failure and their well-being is linked that's why we have also being working with Off The Record, a mental health social movement for young people.

The Final Epic Show: Planning so far

Lots of ideas for the eventual performance are bubbling up and it looks as if we will explore making something within the show with help from the audience. Whether that’s a prototype of an invention or a song or something else entirely remains to be seen. Possibly some role reversal to take us out of our comfort zones, so our engineer gets to sing a song or I get to design some town planning systems. Finding the best way to incorporate audio and video of participants from the residencies will be key, whatever we do.

School children have very clear ideas of what success and failure are and their connotations within schooling, sports and play but I’d like to try and push the discussion and our show devising stage into social interaction, politics and the environment. We’ll have to see how that transpires.

A new resource for Scottish schools to inspire the next generation of Scottish biomedical engineers

A new teaching tool has been incorporated into 30 Scottish secondary schools that provides teachers with a creative and innovative way to teach students about biomedical engineering.

The resource enhances the current Scottish curriculum by providing new insights into the applications of biomedical engineering research for hundreds of Scottish school students, including diagnostic technologies for lung disease and infectious diseases such as malaria.

The teaching resource was co-created by Scottish teachers, engineers and the Scottish Schools Education Resource Centre (SSERC) as part of the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious-funded Circuits! project. Using the teaching tool in classrooms provides teachers with a broader understanding of the role of electrical engineering in biomedical applications and supports them in teaching this more effectively.

Teachers from Liberton High School, Edinburgh and Margaret Mary High School Glasgow and engineers from Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow came together for the 2017-2018 academic year to design and develop the tool in order to inspire students with how bioengineering shapes their daily lives and how they could go on to become the engineers of the future.

The project team has published a paper in the scientific journal Sensors on how Circuits! engineers used public engagement with research to make significant breakthroughs in evolving and enhancing the current Scottish curriculum. 

“Circuits! has worked with Scottish school teachers and engineers to provide important educational resources that have already started to change the Scottish school curriculum, giving it a new biomedical engineering component. Publishing our work in the journal
Sensorsshows the real scope of the work and the wider impact it may have.”

Dr Helen Szoor-McElhinney

Engineer the story

Engineer the Story is an intensive creative media camp that trains engineers to tell their stories digitally, using photographs, film or graphics to tell the stories of their professions and to look at all the ways engineering plays a role in society. The Ingenious-funded project in East London brings engineers together with young people who have limited science capital or exposure to the work of engineers. This serves both to inspire the young people and get the engineers used to talking to young people in language they understand.

We caught up with Clive Booth, a photographer and filmmaker working on Engineer the Story, and got his take on their most recent storytelling workshop.   


Vincent’s Brain

When the Ideas Foundation brought together 20 engineers from Kings College London at Facebook's London HQ for a storytelling workshop funded by the Ingenious Royal Academy of Engineering, I was expecting them to use their brains but I wasn’t expecting their brains to be stuck onto a window with blue-tac! 

I should explain. My name is Clive Booth, and I guess you can describe me as a creative  photographer, filmmaker and graphic designer and I’m a tutor for Ideas Foundation. I help people to communicate their ideas, stories, and achievements through the use of photography, moving images, copywriting and layout. When sprinkled with creative thinking and an interesting topic, these ingredients can create magic.

We’re here for an ‘engineering the story’ workshop, but why is storytelling so important?

Something surprising happens when information comes from a story rather than just simple facts: our brains light up. When we hear a story, the neural activity in our brains increases fivefold. It seems the brain prefers information in narrative form. Add to this the growing array of ways to share our stories, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and TikTok, and we have everything we need to reach an audience at any time or anywhere. The average person scrolls through the height of Big Ben every day on their smartphone and we have just 1.7 seconds of “Dwell time” to stop their thumbs. A good idea, well-executed with a strong narrative, will shine a light through the daily fog that fills social media channels and bring our endless scrolling to a halt, immediately stealing the attention, and the likes!

We were fortunate to have Facebook Creative Sammy King in attendance, providing fascinating insights and advice including current social media trends, tips, and tools. And lastly, we discussed the importance of an idea and how through interaction our audience is more likely to stop and think about our story and most of all remember it.

The Engineer the Story workshops have experimented with getting engineers to work alongside creatives - especially young media students. To bring the ideas to life, we worked with Canon cameras, iPads and Adobe Spark, simple free online software introduced to us by Greg Hodgson of Edge Gain. Spark helped the students assemble their ideas, words, and pictures quickly and professionally, ready to share on social channels. The workshop was coordinated by Heather MacRae, Chief Executive Ideas Foundation, a creative charity, to improve the communication and storytelling skills of engineers.

Even though all the groups exceeded our wildest expectations on the day, for the purpose of this story I’m going to focus on the challenges faced and achievements made by one group.

I immediately warmed to Vincent Giampietro, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience Education at Kings College London. Vincent explained how he carried around a plastic skull and brain (as you do) - he takes it into schools and carefully removes this most precious and delicate of cranial cargo in front of wide-eyed children - as he hands it to them he deliberately drops it! This mischief-maker was doing something that his young audience would never forget. We challenged Vincent and his group of PhD neuroscientists to think of and create an image that could help change the face of engineering.

In the group challenges, there is an atmosphere of excitement, chaos, frenetic activity and anticipation. It’s our job to keep the groups focused and to make sure they ‘engineer their stories’ and meet the very real deadline of just one hour. 

Vincent’s brain (the plastic one) is just one of the many props the students had brought along to help tell their stories including Lego MRI scanners, fake blood samples, hip replacement hardware, and CAT scans. Looking out through the huge picture windows from the fourth floor at Facebook, Vincent and his group spotted the sea of scaffolding and cranes which appear to shroud every building as far as the eye can see. This immediately became one half of their approach, using this conventional engineering as a visual metaphor for the background and a whiteboard with equations presented as ideas in the foreground. 

One of the hardest lessons to learn when teaching is knowing when to stay back and when to intervene. As the deadline loomed, I politely suggested their idea was OK but potentially confusing and lacked a strong direction. I knew they could do better, and I also knew they were the kind of people who responded to a challenge. 

I think most of us know the brain is made up of two halves but what I didn’t know was that Vincent’s plastic brain was too. As I turned to look there it was, one half floating in mid-air somehow magically adhered to Facebook's picture window and in the background was the industrial heartland of our capital city. In my two-minute absence, the group had had a eureka moment and created a new approach with half a plastic brain and some blue-tac. Excitement building, I dashed over to see this intriguing concept knowing they were onto something but there was only five minutes to go! 

When seen through the camera the brain appeared to float in front of the London city building site of scaffolding and cranes. Surely this was enough to ‘engineer the story’. And then something magical happened, Charlie, aged just 15, casually suggested a different camera angle and the stars aligned to put Vincent’s plastic brain at the end of the cable attached to a huge crane high above the cityscape. This directly connected the two ideas as well as creating the effect of a giant brain hanging from a huge crane. 

We all knew this was a great idea and it was wonderful to witness this amalgam of young creatives and engineers putting all the pieces together and we all cheered in sheer admiration and joy for this moment of genius. 

The engineers involved in the project found it to be transformative.

“Right from the start, there was an incredible buzz in the room and it was clear that all of us, from the guests to the facilitators, were passionate about engineering and education. All of us putting our heads together, with the knowledge from our varied disciplines, culminated in a tangible image that really captures the essence of engineering and can be used to raise awareness of and interest in engineering in all its forms.”

Dr Vincent Giampietro

“Engineer the Story is a very exciting project that has changed the perceptions of young people. By opening the minds of young people and creating programmes such as "Letting of STEAMM", we have broken barriers and helped others to understand bioengineering research through real world experiences. Working with The Ideas Foundation has created new insights into the way the creative industries work together and then… Boom! The worlds of engineering and digital technology collide.”

Dr Tina Chowdhury

To find out more about storytelling and to see some of the resources that we used during the day contact ideas@ideasfoundation.org.uk

This is Engineering Day - the results

On 6 November, the Academy coordinated the first This is Engineering Day as part of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. The day was created to challenge narrow and outdated stereotypes of what engineers do and look like and celebrate the role that they play in society today.

Engineers, companies, big brands and celebrities came together both online and offline to showcase what engineering really looks like. Google ran a special digital skills workshop, Amazon hosted a tour of a fulfilment centre for children and published an engineering themed book list, the Science Museum Group hosted an engineering takeover on social media, and the campaign’s corporate partners shared stories online and through STEM engagement events. The day even saw the voice-controlled Amazon assistant reprogrammed to answer questions about engineers and engineering, giving the initiative lasting impact.  

The Day achieved significant reach through traditional and social media. #ThisisEngineering trended on Twitter for most of the day and high-profile support from Lewis Hamilton, Tim Peake, Andrew Smyth and Konnie Huq gave the campaign a reach of 12m on social media. A new This is Engineering Instagram channel (@ThisisEngineering) attracted more than 500 followers by the end of the day. Widespread media coverage was also secured with an estimated reach of 14m people, including interviews across ITV News and the BBC and features in Cosmopolitan, The Metro and The Sun. Donated advertising space meant that This is Engineering Day content was also promoted on 60 screens in 15 train stations across the country, as well as on Virgin trains, the Transport for London website and in the Evening Standard.

This is Engineering Day also marked the launch of a free-to-access public image library on Flickr (www.flickr.com/thisisengineering) of varied images of engineers and engineering, with a call to action to media, advertisers, recruiters and other image promoters to use more representative images of the profession. The library has been populated with over 750 images from 40 organisations, and more than 130 organisations signed a pledge to improve the visibility of more representative images of engineers and engineering, including the BBC.

The Academy will continue to grow this image library and image donations are welcome. Donations to the image library are still welcome. Please contact photos@raeng.org.uk if you would like to contribute.

Thanks to everyone that took part in the campaign. We aim to keep up the momentum to represent engineering more widely and accurately, so please look out for news onThis is Engineering Day 2020 coming soon.