Wyn Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Product Design & Engineering at Middlesex University, and Co-Director of SMASHfestUK which won the NCCPE Engage Award 2016 in the STEM category.
Wyn Griffiths might be one of the creative forces behind an inspiring, ground-breaking public research project which aims to get kids and families interested in science, engineering and the arts, but he doesn’t consider himself to be a typical researcher.
Not a typical researcher?
“I’m this weird … hybrid … who works in academia but isn’t a traditional academic and so my approach to academic research isn’t what you might describe as conventional,” he says. “I’m a designer at heart and so I come at research from that perspective.”
When pushed to elaborate on what that perspective might be, he offers a simple answer: “I like to break things, see how they work and then put them back together. And in all sorts of ways, that’s how I see engaged research: exploring something in depth, understanding what’s broken and finding out how to make it work again.”
His own love of learning as a child has helped to shape his approach to inspiring the students who end up on his academic radar, particularly when it comes to instilling in them a hunger for discovery, and a passion for participation, empowerment and transformation. And nowhere is that in greater evidence than in the SMASHfestUK project which won Wyn and his research team an Engage Award last year.
SMASHfestUK is a unique festival of STEM and the Arts organised as a partnership between the Middlesex University, where Wyn works, the Refinery, a science and engineering media company, and the University of Greenwich and takes place in London, and across the UK, each year. The event is themed around a theoretical natural catastrophe – a massive solar storm, a meteor strike, in 2017 the eruption of a subterranean volcano in Lewisham, and in 2018 a massive FLOOD! Even the themes, it transpires, celebrate destruction, and the optimism to overcome, save the world and make things better, in some form.
But whilst the research at the heart of the festival is about the aftermath of an Earth-changing natural event, Wyn and his fellow researchers would say it’s also about rebuilding something else that seems to have been eroded in modern education: people’s engagement with science and creativity and the education system’s engagement with ALL of society.
His journey to academia began in a South Wales mining village nestled against the Brecon Beacons where he grew up in a family, the son of two primary school teachers, whose communities depended on the mines and the wider coal industry. His immediate environment proved to be a hothouse for the social conscience and creative improvisation, which has run through his work since.
“I lived against the backdrop of slag heaps, coal heaps and rubbish dumps, of half-built and partially-built homes. The whole of my environment was human-formed and yet just beyond that world was this incredible natural beauty and it inspired in me this need to take the world apart and make it better.”
He describes part of his upbringing as ‘all a bit Lord of the flies’. “Most of the kids on my estate were boys and it was a hazardous environment. We were all a bit feral…but also curious and creative, exploring and testing the world.”
He believes he was lucky with his education in the sense that he enjoyed learning – something instilled from an early age by his miner grandparents who knew the value of education and social equity, and lived by the tenet ‘I go down the mines so you don’t have to’, followed by his Mam and Dad, who became inspirational teachers and community activists, carrying on that fierce commitment to social justice and the power of education for all.
Design, technology and rugby
His basic secondary education was sound, if not stellar and after leaving school Wyn found jobs in the building trade before a talent for design and technology saw him eventually stumble into 3D design and a place at Gwent College of Higher Education, in Newport. Yet even then, he had no great career plan.
“I wasn’t big on plans,” he admits. “I was interested in art, computing and physics. I went to talk to a teacher at Neath College, and he introduced me to Design and Technology, and I did a one year O Level and a one year A Level. I ended up studying 3D design because it made the most sense conceptually.”
This led him into the area of prototyping, problem-solving and innovation before he wandered out of education for two years working in a pub, on building sites and playing rugby. Eventually he signed up to learn to teach Technology on a PGCE at Swansea University and in doing so rediscovered and reconnected with design making a difference and the practical skills of making stuff himself.
He then went on to study an MSc in Product Design at Swansea Institute of Higher Education, before working in various product design and engineering roles including technical model-making for maxilla-facial surgery, design consultancy and as an industrial designer and designer engineer for a consumer electronics company in South East England.
Problem-solving through research
It wasn’t long after that Wyn spotted an advert for an academic tutor/researcher at Bournemouth University. He applied on a whim, never thinking for a moment that he would get the job – “It was by the sea and I thought it would be an interesting process to go through.” – and, when he was offered it he suddenly found himself in academia.
“Suddenly that’s what I was,” he says. “An academic. On paper, it’s what people see. But in fact, I’m just someone who explores opportunities to understand things, look at problems and try to solve them.”
His most high-profile achievements, prior to SMASHfestUK, have had a similar drive to connect with new audiences and participants, and create positive social change. From working with informal economy artisans in the slums of Nairobi, developing sustainable intermediate technology and businesses, to flipping the Royal Observatory for 9 months to become a fictional version of itself with Longitude Punk’d. The various projects embodied his hands-on, exploratory prototyping approach to research and practice, and laid the foundation for the creation of SMASHfestUK.
“Making the world of ideas relevant – that’s what’s been brilliant about SMASHfestUK,” he says. “And the way we’ve done it, by getting people at a really grass roots level involved in creative dialogue with researchers and practitioners from multiple universities and organisations, so they help to shape the event and what it achieves, is the key.”