Yesterday I arranged a tour of Aberystwyth University for a group of local schoolteachers, as part of the GOWS (Get On With Science) project. I’m a “Science Champion” (Champion, I tell you) on this project, which involves working with a cluster of schools looking at science, women in science, and transition from primary to secondary. The schools I’m working with are Ysgol Bro Ddyfi, the secondary school in Machynlleth, and that school’s feeder primaries; yesterday’s visit had Tomi from Ysgol Bro Ddyfi, Alwyn from Ysgol Gynradd Machynlleth, Llinos from Ysgol Gynradd Glantwymyn, and Sarah from Ysgol Llanbrynmair.
First off, we met Jordi Freixenet from the University of Girona in Spain, who’s going to be visiting Aberystwyth for four or five months, and who’s really interested in how we can get kids excited about the creative side of computing. Jordi was in the UK just for a few days sorting out details for his longer visit so it was really lucky we overlapped – hopefully we can sort out more detailed interaction when he gets back. A surprising connection is that coming from Catalonia, Jordi is used to the idea of bilingual education.
Next up we met with Reyer Zwiggelaar, who spoke about the contribution that computer science is making to medical imaging, with particular reference to cancer research. Reyer described work in breast cancer imaging, both in the detection of problems, and in risk assessment – working out if there’s a bigger future chance of problems, before people show signs of cancer. He also described work in prostate imaging, and brain imaging.
We then moved to Aberystwyth Computer Science’s “ISL” or Intelligent Systems Laboratory; there was an undergraduate practical going on where students were learning how to get robots to build a map of their environment. Lots of students, lots of little robots. The robots are Pioneers, which are little wheeled robots about the size of a dog, with sonar sensors.
Also in the ISL we met up with Patricia Shaw who’s working with the iCub. The iCub is a super cute humanoid robot (which cost more than my house did!). Patricia’s research involves getting the robot to learn through play – by moving objects and working out how its actions affect its senses, the idea is that iCub learns in the same way that human children do.
Next we drove to the Gogerddan campus to meet some colleagues from IBERS – Aberystywth’s biology department. This involved a new game called “How many schoolteachers can you fit in my Yaris?”, the answer to which is “4, but Alwyn wants to go in the front”.
At Gogerddan we first met with John Doonan and Fiona Corke who showed us the UK’s National Plant Phenomics Centre – this is a brand new (so brand new it is not quite finished working yet) automated glasshouse. The phenomics centre is the first of its kind in the UK and a really major scientific resource – it lets biological scientists control and measure pretty much every aspect of a plant. There are conveyer belts which move plants around, each plant has a unique identifier, watering and nutrients are totally controlled, and there’s measurement facilities for pretty much everything you can see about a plant. When it’s completely finished there will be 800 plants moving around in this massive robotic greenhouse – right now there are a few test plants but you can see the imaging and the watering and the movement of the plants, and get a real feel for the sheer scale of the science that’s about to happen.
Next up was Jane Powell from organic centre Wales, who looked at the ideas of food security, food miles, biodiversity and people’s perception of resource use. Jane set up a map of the local area in the foyer of the IBERS new building, and we all gathered round to work out where we lived, shopped, worked, and more interestingly consumed from. Jane described going into schools, and getting the kids working out questionnaires about food sources to give to the school cook, and their parents, and to local farmers. I really like idea of working with farmers – sometimes getting them into schools – and looking at what was produced how far away, and getting kids to think about where things come from.
Elaine Jensen was next up; Elaine works with Miscanthus. We had a bit of a hiccup at the start of this as we were keen to pop out and actually see the miscanthus fields; miscanthus started in the UK as an ornamental plant, but is now being researched as a fast growing biofuel, and the field visit would have been great. But my car was too small and we failed to find the pool car in the carpark so we visited a bunch of glasshouses instead.
And having visited the glasshouse we moved on to the BEACON lab, where Elaine explained that environmentally speaking, Welsh businesses could really benefit from working with the BEACON project – we were shown plastic cups made from plant fibres, as well as polymers and alcohols.
Next up, it was time for lunch. Writing up the day I realise that we got through quite a lot by lunch! But before we actually sat down to eat we met up with Pippa Moore who talked to us about the planned Aberystwyth Campus Bioblitz; this is a 24 hour period where every possible type of biodiversity on campus is recorded. It’ll be on 11th May, and all are welcome – starting with bat watching at 00:01am.
After lunch we headed down to IMAPS (Institute of Maths and Physics) to meet with Huw Morgan, who spoke about Solar physics and the IMAPS Welsh Language program; I couldn’t really follow much of this as Huw spoke in Welsh; the teachers seemed to follow it fine though.
Daniel Burgarth was up next talking about Quantum computation and the future of quantum computing; he showed us his 9 Qubit chip, which works only when cooled down to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (so it wasn’t doing anything in the coffee room of IMAPS!). It’s quite amazing to see something so rare.
Over to the Llanbadarn campus next, to see the big robots, one teacher down (Sarah had a rugby match to attend, in Edinburgh). Robot boats were introduced to us by Paul Miller, a naval architect at the US Naval Academy who’s visiting Aberystwyth; Paul was busy varnishing a boat though so didn’t have a huge amount of time to chat…
So Mark Neal took over, describing work using robot boats in Greenland to do ice mapping. He also talked for a while about the importance of power management with robot sailing boats – you need to determine how much energy you have left, and then work out if you can afford to move the rudder or set the sail.
Fred Labrosse was next, who works with Idris, one of our larger robots. Idris is a 400 kilogram robot, about the size of a mini, that can do about 10kmph. So it’s a fairly major piece of kit. Quite often it’s used as a mule, getting equipment from place to place and providing a test platform for other science; for example it’s been used by Mars projects, but you’d never send something the size of Idris to Mars.
The last robot of the day was the Argo, Mike Clarke‘s PhD platform. Mike’s PhD involves using this skid-steer amphibious tank to do science, but we have a long and illustrious history of making it fail spectacularly during demos. Last time I brought a visitor down to see the Argo, it drove into a hedge. This time, it sped across the field, failed to pass the GPS points it was supposed to, and then stopped dead. But hey, it moved and didn’t hit anything. Nice work!
All in all a hectic, fun, science packed day with loads of lovely Aberystwyth people helping out and talking about their work.