A Day (or five) in the Museum

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 25 May 2015 | 11:38

explaining the hardware of a supercomputerDid you visit a museum over the Easter break? What did you find? Did you see dinosaurs or supercomputers? Did you solve the puzzle of the Towers of Hanoi? If you were at the National Museum of Scotland, you may have done all of these things in one place.

After a previous good experience, EPCC returned to the National Museum of Scotland for a second year as part of the University of Edinburgh Families event in the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Building upon our experiences from the last year of outreach, we have tweaked, enhanced and added to the range of activities and concepts we tried to explain to the curious people who venture into the museum while we were there.

Our exhibit 'Who Needs Supercomputers?' appeals to all ages and we met visitors varying from the very young (a couple of very small toddlers completed our ball sorting activity) to the more mature (who in turn tried not to get shown up by the youngsters on the ball sorting). The diverse questions we were asked ranged from 'Will computers soon tell us what to do?' to 'How do you design toys using a computer?' and 'Did dinosaurs sneeze?', and the answers in most cases were just as diverse.

A new puzzle

Our newest activity introduces algorithms for solving problems and puzzles. Familiar to any programmer or software developer from their early training, the Towers of Hanoi proved to be a popular activity which challenged people to think about how to tackle the problem and then actually do it.

For those unfamiliar with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle (shown on the left), the challenge is to move the discs from one peg to another - but with the restrictions that you can only move one disc at a time and discs cannot be put on discs smaller than themselves. The problem can be taken from an easy 4-disc scenario up to the much longer and intensive 8 discs. We did have one person do the eight-disc problem (this takes a minimum of 255 moves if you don't make a mistake).

a group effort

The Towers of Hanoi appealed to both the mildly curious ,due to its accessibility, and the obsessive completists, who had to work out how it was done and do it for ever-increasing numbers of discs. Often groups of individuals would work together (or more likely compete to see who did it with the fewest mistakes).

Return of the racing dinosaurs

watching dinosaur racesAfter a year away from the museum, the racing dinosaurs returned and instead of just one dinosaur came three - the dinosaur racing simulator has been tweaked and updated. The huge Argentinosaurus quadruped has now been joined by the short-armed king of the lizards Tyrannosaurus Rex and its speedy prey Edmontosaurus for a range of options in the races with different leg and body sizes. The races this year were more exciting and the number of falls by the dinosaurs increased as well. For those who have not seen this exhibit, you customise certain proportions of the dinosaurs which, if you are not careful, can result in the dinosaur falling over before you get to the finish line.

The updated racer proved very popular, with large groups forming around the computer and screen to create strange and confusing race results. In one race the lumbering Argentinosaurus was the only one to finish with two Edmontosaurus and a T-Rex falling over before they reached the end.

What's the point?

While our activities are intended to be fun and engaging they must have educational value as well. This can be measured in many ways, such as does it fit into the school curriculum? Does it enhance knowledge of computing? Each of our activities is designed to show how computers can either be used to solve a problem or support good science research, how they have affected our daily lives (eg the rise of ubiquitous computing) and how we think things through.

While the dinosaur racing is a bit of fun, it also demonstrates how we can simulate things that otherwise would not be possible. Young children were able to explain to me why we couldn't really race dinosaurs and then went on to say what else we might simulate. If five year olds can explain this now, imagine what they could do in the future if we can hold their interest in science.

Nothing without people

The exhibits and activities we have wouldn't be even half as good without the staff and students who help out at these events. From the students, Justs Zarins joined us for a second time, which was very welcome, and some new students helped out as well: Tim Beattie, Alasdair King and Athina Frantzana. All were adept at dealing with their audience, and they enthused and helped a lot of people.

I think it went well and it was great fun to help out - everyone seemed to enjoy it. Alasdair King (student helper)

From EPCC staff, Mario Antonioletti, Nick Brown, Toni Collis and Fiona Reid were present at various points in the five days and all did really well in keeping things going and dealing with the public. The professionalism shown by them and the students was commented upon as was their level of knowledge and ability to impart this to different ability levels.

Summing up 

I think this year was an improvement than our first visit to the EISF, as we had a better idea of what to do and although it was very busy, we were able to adapt and keep people happy. The activities went down well - but not wanting to rest on our current level we have identified some areas for improvement and are working towards this. I am hopeful that we will return next year to the EISF as part of the University programme. There will always be more questions and we will continue to try to answer them.