Yesterday I attended the Welcome Week Distinguished Lecture on “Engineered in your Imagination” by Danielle George, Professor in Radio Frequency Engineering and Dean of Teaching and Learning.
Kicking off with a floppy disc drive chorus playing the Batman theme tune, Professor George talked us through some of her previous projects and how our technology is considered both disposable and a closed box. She challenged us, a lecture hall mainly filled by engineering students, to start considering what we can do with our old technology rather than throwing it away.
She talked about how she ended up doing her first degree in Astrophysics but had since realised that the two subjects she loved, Maths + Physics = Engineering and moreover that How + Why = Engineering. She talked to us about light and wireless technology and about pushing the limits with basic technology. For example, pushing the boundaries with potatoes and apples or her own experience calling the International Space Station using her smartphone as part of the 2014 Royal Institution‘s Christmas Lectures.
Most of this talk focused on challenges: the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering, the challenges she has worked on, the challenges she has given to her students- which included the floppy drive re-purposing- and the challenges she gave to us as an audience. She suggested that we try to use an old phone or LEDs to experiment with, demonstrating how a 36 x 36 grid of LEDs could be rigged up to perform quite complex displays, even displaying the feed from a web camera.
Although (unlike the majority of the audience) I am not an engineer, I did start thinking through all the old pieces of broken electronic equipment I have hoarded because I didn’t want to just throw it away because it was ineligible for, or difficult to, recycle. What could I build out of the various old phones, laptop, Game Boy or cassette player I haven’t got organised to take for disposal? Or could I manage to build a member of the robotic orchestra that she invited us to help build as part of Manchester being the city of Euroscience 2016. As she said the only limit on the question “what can I do?” is the questioner’s imagination.
I do think that there is a reluctance amongst people to try to fix or alter products that have been presented to them as finished. Whether it is because we are afraid after years of being told that taking the lid off is invalidating the guarantee, or just that we have become accustomed to alteration being something that someone else does, we don’t do it. While I am happy altering most physical items I tend not to try with electronics- partly because I don’t know where to start and partly because with two bad electric shocks under my belt this is an area I feel it might not be wise for me to dabble in. But maybe it’s time I started finding out more about how to safely re-purpose my obsolete technology. With the number of maker spaces and blogs about how other people have re-purposed things out there there is plenty of support for anyone looking to learn more.
This was an absolutely brilliant lecture that really fired the imagination. I’m really glad that they opened it to staff as well as students and that a colleague drew my attention to it. Professor George’s lecture was a great way to start the new term with a fresh enthusiasm for trying and you can follow her her on Twitter @engineerDG.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a potato and some LEDs.