Robot Thought

Project aims:

'Robot Thought' is a fully-interactive dialogue event, designed to challenge and stimulate public thinking about the latest developments in robotics.


• Raise awareness of robotics related issues amongst the target audience.

• Build a network of contacts between robotics experts and centres of science communication (science centres and festivals) across the UK.

• Further develop the popular 'Robot Thought' event format to best suit performance at each of the partner venues, thereby encouraging long term inclusion of the event format and/or content in their programmes.

• Extend and enhance public engagement expertise within the robotics research community.

• Promote the successes of the event format to the wider science communication and robotics research communities.

Summary of activity:

Four robotics laboratories were involved in the rollout: the Intelligent Robotics Group at Aberystwyth University; the Robotics Outreach Group at the Open University; the Cricket Lab a the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh; the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE, Bristol.

The partner venues for the programme were: At-Bristol (Bristol); Centre for Life (Newcastle); Techniquest (Cardiff); Techniquest@NEWI (Wrexham); Thinktank Science Museum (Birmingham); Science Museum (London); whowhatwherewhenwhy W5 (Belfast); Edinburgh International Science Festival (Edinburgh).

Each of the four research groups were partnered with two science centres (or, in the case of the University of Edinburgh, one science centre and Edinburgh International Science Festival. Each ‘leg’ of the project took place over a different time frame but all had similar elements which were organised and facilitated by the management team at UWE: Lab visit(s); Script writing; Presenter training; Shows; Wraparound activities

Firstly a lab visit was organised where science centre staff responsible for developing and delivering the show would visit the robotics lab. Ideas for the show were discussed and it was an opportunity to gain background information on some of the science and engineering that would comprise the show. Following the lab visit(s), UWE supported the science centre in script writing by providing consultancy paid for by the project. The script from the pilot project was used as a starting point, then adapted to incorporate the specific research interests of the partner group and other ideas that the partner venues wished to include. After the script was developed, UWE provided presenter training for 2-8 members of science centre staff. In the case of the science festival, presenters were recruited separately. Based on the experience of the pilot project, specific training was deemed necessary due to the nature of the activity: rather than a straightforward demonstration show, Robot Thought included a number of discursive elements that required a different approach.
The Robot Thought shows were then delivered at each of the partner venues. In addition, all of the venues involved chose to develop wraparound activities such as ‘make-and-take’ workshops or ‘meet the roboticist’ informal discussion opportunities. Some science centres also instigated a centre-wide robotics theme during the project delivery period at their venue.

Evaluation approach:

An external evaluator visited seven of the eight legs of the project; the first leg (At-Bristol) was excluded as the show had already been evaluated as part of the pilot. In addition, the venues were responsible for distributing questionnaires throughout their delivery periods. Two simple questionnaires (one targeted at children and one at adults) were used to capture audience opinions of the shows. Partner venues had the option to add their own evaluation questions to these, which many did. Evaluating the workshops was less straightforward as they differed widely in type and number between venues. Observation and informal interviews with visitors were used to gauge their success. Following each leg, telephone interviews with project partners were conducted to identify the successes and challenges with each leg of the project. These data were written up into a pair of brief reports for each leg of the project. One report summarised the audience questionnaire data, the other highlighted the successes and challenges of the leg from the perspectives of the project partners and made recommendations for the remainder of the project. This allowed learning to be incorporated into future legs of the project.

What went well:

•Robot Thought' was delivered at seven separate science centres (including the original host, At-Bristol) as well as an extended showing at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. In addition it has been performed in a variety of international locations including the Museum of Science in Boston.

•The target audience size (7,000) was exceeded by at least a factor of three: over 26,000 people directly witnessed a 'Robot Thought' show, with almost 20,000 participating in an accompanying workshop or 'Meet the Roboticist' activity. In addition, wide media coverage achieved a further indirect audience.

•33 presenters were trained in total, with numbers per venue ranging from 2 to 8. In addition, multiple venues are continuing to deliver in-house training in order for newly recruited staff to deliver the show after the official end of the project.

•Four separate public communications training events were run for different robotics laboratories; in total 38 researchers participated in the training, with numbers per venue ranging from 7 to 13. Multiple researchers were involved at every venue, ranging from senior professors to current doctoral students.

•Media coverage was extensive, most commonly on a regional basis in both print and radio. In particular, as a result of this project one researcher was involved in a full half-hour interview on BBC Radio Wales.

In summary, all the specified success criteria for the project were exceeded, and in the case of audience numbers the final total was almost four times the original target. We are very pleased with the success of this project and plan to further develop this innovative model for public engagement in the future.

What was learned:

• Some of the centres had not worked with researchers before. All of the collaborations were reported as being beneficial.

• Allowing the presenters to visit the robotics labs boosted their confidence in the science and engineering, and inspired them with the project.

• Shows that involved lots of ‘real’ robots (i.e. research robots) were particularly well received by audiences.

• Another success factor for the show was using a strong definition of a robot throughout. This gave the audience a framework in which to think about the issues raised.

• The collaborations worked best when the different partners played to their strengths. For example, roboticists are not used to presenting to family audiences and do not have the time to rehearse shows, so including them in the show itself did not work well. However, the roboticists’ knowledge was incredibly valuable in workshops and “Meet the Roboticist” events, where they could answer questions and start discussions with visitors. Science Centre staff didn’t have the depth of knowledge to feel comfortable in this role, so the result was that both scientists and presenters could add to the visitors’ experiences of the project in different ways.

• The role of UWE in brokering the partnerships and providing support throughout was seen as valuable by all. Indeed, several science centre staff and roboticists commented during interviews that there was no way they would have found each other or worked together had this facilitation not taken place.

• The show provided an overview of the key issues and current thinking in robotics. This allowed visitors to engage in informed dialogue with roboticists in subsequent sessions.

• All of the centres extended the programme beyond their initial commitment. This allowed the project messages to reach a large audience.

• Several centres adopted a “robots” theme throughout their venue during the show’s run, in addition to developing wraparound workshops that ranged from mask making to storytelling.

• Several centres have committed to using the show as part of their standard programme, so its impact will extend beyond the lifetime of the funding.

• Several science centre / research group partnerships are keen to collaborate again in future.

• Many of the researchers involved in the project have built their skills and experience in public engagement and are keen to do more in future.

• For one research group, the demonstrations developed for Robot Thought are now in use as part of their departmental outreach offering, again extending the project’s impact.

Top tips and advice for others


• Staff turnover meant that more preparation would have been desirable at some science centres.

• The discursive approach within the show was new to many of the presenters. This needed to be carefully balanced with a good pace and lots of demonstrations to ensure the show succeeded.

• Linked to the above point, the show was quite different to what some audiences expected from a science centre show, so managing audience expectations was crucial.

• While including research robots in the shows was a success factor, these robots were considerably less reliable than the usual demonstrations the presenters used. The possibility that they could not work on stage was especially difficult for some of the teams.

• Where the science centres and robotics researchers were far apart geographically there were problems with shipping equipment and organising rehearsal time.

• As ever with public engagement, the scientists’ time was a challenge. The days when roboticists were present at the centres to participate in shows or wraparound activities were necessarily limited. The central support from UWE helped address this to some extent; by taking on much of the organisation, the roboticists’ could spend the maximum proportion of the time they had dedicated to the project actually engaging with the public.

• Audience sizes and even venues varied widely between shows at the same centre, so ensuring the show was flexible enough to work every time was a challenge. It was especially tricky to run the discursive parts of the show (that require lots of audience involvement) with very small audiences.

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