Scientists tackling plastic waste to be trained in puppetry

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth are getting hands-on to inspire the next generation of engineers, by learning puppetry.

They will be trained in the performance art as a way to engage young people in bioengineering projects and encourage them to pursue a career in the industry.

Workshops will be carried out in the city and Bognor Regis in partnership with the Portsmouth Young Carers Centre with The Makers Guild, Making Theatre, and local secondary school students.

The aim is to promote the exciting work being done at the University’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), which is researching solutions to the problem of global plastic pollution.

We hope this will help to break down this barrier and prove that science is not an inaccessible job.

Rory Miles, Innovation Fellow at the CEI, said: “What we want to do is use puppetry as a form of science communication, and get the students to realise scientists are normal people.

“We’re conscious we often use inaccessible language, but we hope this will help to break down this barrier and prove that science is not an inaccessible job.”

The idea for the project sprang from a study by University of Portsmouth researchers in 2020, which found an enzyme cocktail digests plastic waste six times faster than one acting alone.

“The team behind the discovery called it a chimera enzyme because it was made up of two similar proteins, but the term is also used in mythology to describe a monster,” added Rory.

“We thought if a chimera is something really visual, then maybe we can create a puppet inspired by it as a way to connect with the public.”

In this project expect lots of very strange puppet monsters who like to eat trash!

Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Performance at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Matt Smith, will be leading the workshops.

He said: “I have made puppet shows with biologists before, looking at subjects like asthma awareness by making a dragon who had lost his puff. This project will employ the same eye-catching and inspiring methods of using puppetry to excite audiences.

“In this project expect lots of very strange puppet monsters who like to eat trash!”

The Puppets as Enzyme Engineers of the Imagination project is one of 23 across the UK to receive an Ingenious award from The Royal Academy of Engineering.

Funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it offers grants of up to £30,000 to support creative public engagement schemes which cover a variety of topics, including climate change, sport, cultural heritage, and increasing diversity and inclusion in the field.

It also provides engineers with the communication and presentation skills to share their stories, passion, and expertise with the public.

Many of this year’s projects focus on heritage sites, sustainability and climate change, including some that coincide with upcoming cultural events.

Ingenious Panel Chair Professor Lucy Rogers FREng said: “The ‘E’ in STEM is often silent – and currently many engineering stories from across the UK are not being told. The Ingenious programme provides engineers with opportunities to further develop their communication skills, enabling them to illustrate their work and inspire the public in new, creative ways.

“Engineering can mean different things to different people. These Ingenious projects can broaden perceptions of engineering to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to engage with the profession and access future-shaping careers.”

A full list of projects granted Ingenious awards in 2022 can be found here.

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