Last weekend, on Saturday 21st March I was given the awesome opportunity to be a part of the Royal Institution’s Family Fun Day on the theme of Sparks Will Fly. I was asked to write a talk that would appeal to 8-12 year olds and would hopefully contain a demo that I would present in the famous Faraday Lecture Theatre. I was thrilled to be asked, and started to work out what I could talk about that would fit the theme.
I chose to talk about my PhD research. This was something of a challenging topic as firstly “number entry” is boring to most adults, let alone children and secondly it didn’t necessarily match the theme of day, which focussed on hacking and making. However, I did have an idea to combine them both.
The title of the talk in the end was “The problematic and playful ways we interact with computers”. The aim of the talk was to highlight to the audience how important good design is in all areas, particularly when designing number entry systems in the medical domain. Ordinarily the approach I take to this is to point out just how terrible the consequences of bad design can be, but naturally I wanted to steer clear of this topic when talking to children!
I decided to use a more child friendly angle, and pointed out just how badly doors can be designed. This meant I got to show a clip of Justin Bieber walking into a glass wall, which went down well with everyone involved.
Now for the number entry, I used a demo that was based on an activity we have designed on the CHI+MED project: getting kids to jump on buttons on the floor to update a numeric display. Using this technique we were able to run an experiment during the lecture to see which of two interface set-ups was best. Using a stop watch (that’s how you know it’s real science) we tested the two and came up with the best one.
I have to say that my favourite bit about running this demo was the excitement and eagerness of all the children in the audience the minute they could tell I was about to ask for a volunteer. It made a big difference from the normal apathy that my questions are greeted with in lectures to university students.
The last bit of the lecture combined my two true passions: number entry and making. I showed my RFID music box. The point here being that using Oyster cards is just a clever bit of number entry really, and well designed number entry at that. To prove it was number entry, I mapped numbers to song choices. Any odd numbers that were entered would play Ed Sheeran (I had been reliably informed this was the “cool” option) and any even numbers would map to Frozen (the “ironic” and “uncool” but “actually wanted by Sarah” option). Asking volunteers from the audience to come down with their Oyster cards showed that some were odd, whilst some, unfortunately for everyone, were even. And thus the Faraday Lecture Theatre air was filled with the glorious sound of Let It Go.
I gave the lecture three times throughout the day. The first time I was incredibly nervous! But I really needn’t have been. By the end I was loving it. The children really engaged brilliantly with what I was saying, I got some deep questions each time I ended. From one girl asking me why I was using an arduino in my RFID music box (answer: too scared of frying the RaspPi) to a boy suggesting that there could have been more conditions in the experiment we ran (there totally could have been) and that a different set-up could be more efficient but might confuse doctors (he was pretty much writing my PhD at the age of 11). I did also enjoy having to sign a few autographs too…
Overall it was a truly fantastic experience, I am so glad the Ri asked me to take part. And hopefully I’ll get to speak there again. Thanks to everyone who came along and engaged and said nice things. I hope a few people have been inspired to make an RFID music box for themselves. I have been inspired to start wearing head mics more.