Realising that engineering was my passion and coming up with the bizarre, crazy idea for a robot orchestra – Danielle George, Professor of Microwave Communication Engineering at the University of Manchester

Professor Danielle George - Robot Orchestra

Danielle George is a professor of microwave communication engineering and is the Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Manchester. Danielle completed her B.Sc. in Astrophysics and M.Sc. in Radio Astronomy at The Victoria University of Manchester, based at Jodrell Bank Observatory. During her M.Sc. studies, Danielle realised her passion for practical based experiments and started to work at Jodrell Bank as a radio frequency engineer directly after her M.Sc. studies.

Professor Danielle George - Robot Orchestra

Professor Danielle George

“…There is so much creativity in robotics and a child’s imagination can lead them anywhere… There are no stigmas attached to liking technology or being good at programming etc. when you are a young child, before social stigmas and hormones kick in…”

The lightbulb came on: Engineering was my passion!

Lovell Telescope - Jodrell BankI was always interested in the practical application of science but didn’t really know that was engineering until much later in my career. I studied astrophysics as an undergraduate then radio astronomy as a post grad at Jodrell Bank Observatory, where I wanted my dissertation to be a practical project.

This posed a problem at the time for the astronomers working there so we managed to get one of the senior engineers to supervise me on a day-to-day basis. This is when the lightbulb came on for me that engineering was my passion! I applied for a junior engineer position at Jodrell Bank. My Ph.D. at UMIST was essentially my research work when I was a junior engineer.

In my role today no two days are ever the same, which is actually what I love most about my job! It challenges me in so many ways. My role has several parts to it. I am a researcher, I teach undergraduates, and I am the Vice Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty. I also devote some time to outreach and public engagement activities.

Coming up with the bizarre, crazy idea for a robot orchestra

Have you ever been in that situation where you are completely deprived of sleep and it’s like you’ve taken mind bending drugs, and you think of a great idea and in this mind-altered state that’s the best idea you’ve ever had? And then you talk to others and they agree it’s the best idea. Then you finally have more sleep and you’re in a meeting where everyone is talking about this bizarre, crazy project and you think – blimey who on earth thought THAT was a good idea?! That’s what happened to me in 2015.

I was on maternity leave with a 3-month-old so I was sleep deprived, but I’d been asked to attend a meeting to discuss what we could do as part of Manchester becoming the first UK city to be European City of Science (ECoS). So, I wanted to do two things: 1. Get engineering on the map more as part of ECoS and 2. Get the public involved more, to have science in the city.

In the same meeting was a lady called Dr. Erinma Ochu, who is a citizen scientist and so we talked about a citizen engineering project and what we could do that would capture the imagination and the creativity of the people of Manchester. So, like a good student I googled what captures young people’s imagination in science and technology and I got: 1. space and universe, 2. pyramids and ancient civilisations, 3. dinosaurs and 4. robots.

I did think about a project on a time travelling robot dinosaur but even in my sleep deprived state I decided against it and we thought about what would bring the creativity of people who didn’t see themselves as scientists or engineers – the arts, music. And so we decided on a robot orchestra. But I didn’t want to do just another robot orchestra – there’s lots out there that are very high tech and professional.

So, I thought, let’s do a project where everyone involved is out of their comfort zone. I decided this was an important point as I am a firm believer that’s where we innovate.

The reaction

Professor Danielle George - Robot OrchestraThe reaction to the project has been amazing and has gone far beyond my expectations and continues to grow to this day. It seemed to capture the imagination of more people than I ever imagined and we had lots of varied industries and societies who wanted to be involved … from the sponsors EPSRC, Siemens, the Granada Foundation to the Women’s Institute and the Manchester Transport Network – the list is so big now!

The National Trust donated some cotton looms, which fulfilled my wish to include the story of Manchester from the Industrial Revolution to graphene. But it’s the creativity of the instruments from school children and teachers that gave the project its heart.

Why robotics is so fascinating to girls as well as boys

I think areas of robotics are so interesting for children as they tend to view technology as something fundamentally human (rather than separate from humanness, as many adults perceive it).

There is so much creativity in robotics and a child’s imagination can lead them anywhere. I think that robots also help to highlight what children value in social scenarios. There are no stigmas attached to liking technology or being good at programming etc. when you are a young child, before social stigmas and hormones kick in.

Girls tend to enjoy the creative subjects. If we can get across how creative engineering is using robots then it’s a good job well done!

If children get involved and engage in STEM subjects I hope they will see how enjoyable and fun it can be. If we managed to keep their enthusiasm by ensuring it stays fun as they progress through their schooling then we can help then realise they are now just steps away from solving the global challenges we all face… THEY CAN change the world!

Manchester Robot OrchestraThis year for International Women in Engineering Day I will be in my home town of Newcastle giving a talk to 300 school children about how they can change the world by simply having fun.

Meeting out of the world people (and robots)

I have some new research for the next generation of space telescope I am looking into so that will take up some of my time in the next few months.

I’ve had an exciting year so far. I’ve been filming for three BBC programmes: one for BBC Two with Stephen Hawking about finding a new Earth, a BBC One programme about a Nation of Inventors and a BBC Four programme about the Rise of Robots. They’ve all been extremely exciting and the people (and robots) I have met are truly amazing – some out of this world…literally! So, I’m looking forward to seeing what the public thinks them of. They are very accessible for children too – especially the robots!

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