More Search
We help universities engage with the public

Magnets, Ducks and Superconductors

< Back to all case studies


Who: Year 9 pupils in secondary schools

What: Challenging conceptions of scientists and engineers and the role they play in society

Why: To inspire careers in science and engineering, to inform with examples of the impact of science and engineering in society, to enquire into motivations and rewards for people in science and engineering

Where: West Midlands

When: July 2010 – May 2012

Project description

The project was funded from the Partnerships for Public Engagement scheme by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It was a partnership between the School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Birmingham, Gazebo Theatre in Education and Matt Turner, a free-lance theatre director and tutor in Dramatic Studies.

Facilitators were recruited and rehearsed at Gazebo Theatre Education, a community theatre company that also provided contacts in schools and logistical advice and support. The script was developed from a pilot study conducted in the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of Birmingham. The engineering issue at the heart of the play was ensuring reliable supply of electricity. The underlying science concerned materials and electromagnetism. The characters included Maggie, a mother and a scientist, her daughter Jess and her friends, and two PhD students.

Authenticity and accuracy were important to the project. The characters were set in situations familiar to the children. The facilitators were trained to be familiar with the science and engineering side of the story.

The project delivered

  • Approximately 80 performances in 38 schools to 1200 Year 9 children
  • Continuing partnerships leading to further activities
  • Teacher’s resources for classroom and project use.

The two-year programme was linked to contemporary issues – renewable energy, electricity generation, the impact of science on society – through the personal lives of the characters. It reached out to all pupils within Schools irrespective of ability or inclination, without any recruitment or marketing agenda.

Evaluation of short term impact data was enabled through free text post-it notes handed out after the performance. The objective was to see what thoughts the participants had, what had surprised them, what they had enjoyed. There was also a questionnaire for teachers.

In order to provide a platform for long term evaluation, we wrote lesson plans with cross-curricular applications based for English, PSHE, Geography, Science and Mathematics based on the script.


To explore the impact of science and engineering on our daily lives, on society and on us as individuals.

To explore factors that motivate people to become scientists and engineers, showing science and engineering as creative activities that reward the dedication people put into them with pleasure and satisfaction.

To provide a creative learning space in which participants “feel” like scientists and engineers in order to challenge their perceptions of who such people are.

Results and outcomes

  • Engagement – teachers reported surprise at how well whole class groups took part in the performances. These included sessions debating the characters’ motivations and next actions as well as the importance of science and engineering. There was an extended workshop session in which the children imagined and presented inventions that would make their lives better.
  • Partnership - working with experienced creators and deliverers of theatre in education ensured that the project was stimulating as a standalone drama piece and was delivered to a standard expected by Schools.
  • Inclusivity – comparison of the statistics for the GCSE results of the Schools visited with regional statistics showed matching distributions, indicating reach to the community as a whole.
  • Change - the post-it note evaluation proved illuminating for the comments received. Participants reported being surprised at enjoying a science lesson, at having enjoyed the creative sessions and at having heard for the first time about possible careers as scientists and engineers.

What didn't work well

Consent for filming and photography. We wanted film and photographic records for evaluation, publicity and archiving. The outcome of ethical review was that we had to gain consent from each pupil and their parent/carer before the performances in order to do this, even in the case of a School’s blanket consent process. This proved impossible, perhaps because the teachers collecting the consent forms had little leverage or incentive, so we ended up filming with limited views and angles.

Evaluation and teachers’ resource packs weren’t used. We heard this was partly because the non-science teachers didn’t see the performances. This means we have little long-term evaluation of the impact of the project other than anecdotal evidence. Time for follow-up enquiries needs to be built into the project and budget.

We set up a questions board on the website to allow pupils (via their teachers) to explore the scientific issues further. This was hardly used. A “one-off” activity doesn’t stimulate long term engagement.

Resources required

Professional actors and facilitators, stage manager, van, set construction, storage and rehearsal space – in short a touring theatre company.

Project secretary (2 days per week) and office accommodation to manage advertising, bookings and the tour schedule.

Close collaboration between the dramatic and scientific project leaders to provide challenging content.

Resources to offer the project free to Schools – some of those you want to reach may not want to contribute towards its cost.

Top tips

The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on or becoming involved with similar activity

  • Think about your team. In the School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Ed Tarte provided back-up and additional scientific know input. Michael O’Hara at Gazebo led the delivery of the show. Our secretary Sandra Glenn had experience of working with Schools which greatly improved the administration of the project (see tips below). The funding council appointed a mentor, Paul McCrory from Learn Differently who helped with design and evaluation of the performances.
  • The time of year and the time of day are important to Schools. Science teachers need to be able to persuade their colleagues to release pupils from non-science lessons. Provide any help you can such as cross-curricula resources, interconnection to other subjects, interconnection to other agendas e.g. Every Child Counts, Creative Learning.
  • Develop stages of detail in the booking process – initial contact by letter and email, follow up email, getting information about the school day, making requirements for the performance space unambiguous, suggesting times and confirming times. Have the stage manager check the week before that the performance is still on the books. Remember cancellation by Schools may be more likely without such attention when you offer the project as free. Check travel times are reasonable, parking arrangements and access arrangements – your travelling company will quickly get tired.
  • Build participation into key parts of the performance and don’t be afraid to challenge responses in depth – the children will go a long way once they get going.
  • Drama and science both explore models of the world in order to provide knowledge. The children are more used to discussing drama than they are science and are more used to analysing personal motivations than societal motivations. Putting the two together, initially in conflict, enabled exploration.
  • Visit as many rehearsals and performances as you can, talk to the teachers to review and tweak the performances and the processes. Talk to your stage manager all the time to iron out problems. Have back-up to repair stage gear. Perform safety tests on all equipment. 
  • Learn from the actors – their ability to stimulate responses from the participants might be useful in your own teaching.

Top quotes


"More lessons should be like this."

“I thought that the play was really good and when we were put into groups that was good because we got to work together.”

“It was fun and I learnt a lot. Some of the things I didn't understand but when I came here I did.”


"It switched two Year 9 uninterested groups into enthusiastic scientists."

"We are always looking for alternative learning opportunities for the students which enhances and encourages interest in science and how it is relevant to us. The 'brief' provided upon enquiry offered this and more."

“I think that it was great, especially when they were split into groups to think of an invention. This really got them thinking about current technology and working on new technology for the future.”


Name: Dr Tim Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Name of organisation: University of Birmingham


Telephone: 0121 414 7506