Walking with Robots was a three-year programme of events and activities designed to delight audiences with the potentials of robotics research whilst encouraging them to consider the technical challenges and ethical implications of that research.
The main aims of the network as originally stated in the bid were to:
1. Form a pro-active group consisting of leading intelligent robotics researchers and their labs, some of whom are already highly active in public engagement robotics and recognised science communicators
2. Enhance, extend and network an existing portfolio of public engagement activities and resources.
Summary of activity:
The programme brought together leading researchers in intelligent robotics with experts in engaging audiences with science and engineering. In three years the network grew to include researchers, at all levels, from some fifteen UK universities together with engineers from a wide range of companies engaged in robotics. Working together they provided robotics expertise at over 170 events across the UK, reaching at least 60,000 people. Events covered a broad range of audiences, formats, durations, and topics but all sought to excite and engage public audiences with the engineering challenges and – at some events – the societal and ethical implications, of robotics research.
The programme was divided into six separate themes. Each theme was designed to be broad ranging but to act as a focus for the Walking with Robots programme of events. At the end of each 6 month theme a report of activities was generated:
•Walking with Robots
The evaluation approach had two strands. Firstly, evaluation of activities aimed to assess the impact of the individual activities on the target audience(s); secondly, evaluation of process will explore the impact of the project in facilitating collaboration between robotics research groups and science communication practitioners. A structured mechanism for feeding evaluation findings back to the project steering group was also set up.
An evaluation toolkit comprising existing evaluation resources was compiled to support network members in project evaluation.
What went well:
At a conservative estimate, members of the Walking with Robots network engaged around 60,000 people in robotics-related activities between 2006 and 2009. These conclusions are themed by the three headings set out in the evaluation questions: participation, delivery and impacts.
The parliamentary seminar was instrumental in bringing commercial organisations with an interest in robotics on board, and the flagship Festival of Robotics near the end of the funding period also brought a wave of new network members keen to participate.
Creation of the roadmap near the start of the project was pivotal in capturing and communicating the network’s plans. To a large extent, the roadmap was followed closely over the three years, although towards the end of the funded period there appeared to be less close linkage to the themes.
The Festival of Robotics was an effective and high-profile end to the network that offered the opportunity for many partners to become involved.
The flagship activities were on the whole very successful and the evaluations revealed positive impacts on knowledge and attitudes for those involved.
The network was a star – with UWE at the centre collaborating with each research group, rather than a web where collaborations happened between research groups and between research groups and UWE. The role of UWE and the network coordinator were highly praised – without this coordination it appears unlikely that the groups would have made the activities happen of their own accord.
For the labs visited in the final evaluation exercise, involvement in the network had impacts for the large network events that would not have happened without WWR, but in many cases there was also an impact on the baseline PE activities that groups will continue to deliver. These impacts include greater confidence in PE, greater focus of PE on individuals’/groups’ goals, greater skill in PE and therefore better quality activities.
What was learned:
1. With a network like WWR the notion of membership is a grey area; without conferences and newsletters some were unsure if they were network members or not, even though they had been ‘given a badge’. This vague notion of membership left some feeling uninvited.
2.While participation from roboticists grew, the participation of some of the public engagement specialists that were involved in the network was less strong. Partners with expertise in science centres and media were included in the original proposal with the expectation that their roles would be developed as the network evolved. This did not happen and the opportunity was missed.