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‘Science buskers’ make marine engineering accessible to south coast holidaymakers

Southampton marine engineers are ‘science busking’ this summer to introduce engineering to holidaymakers travelling on the Solent.

This summer, professional marine engineers, ship scientists and naval architects have been enthralling ferry passengers travelling between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight with their ‘science busking’: accessible, hands-on activities which showcase both marine engineering in general, and their own industry or research expertise.

Since the start of July, around 30 PhD students, researchers, academics and professional engineers from organisations including the University of Southampton, Lloyd’s Register and Voith Schneider have been making three return trips on the WightLink flagship ferry - the St Clare- from Portsmouth to Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight.  Divided into teams of three to four, the volunteers have used the 40-minute crossing as an opportunity to demonstrate particular engineering principles and raise awareness of marine engineers’ work to passengers of all ages, from young children to old age pensioners. 

Having received training in science busking from David Price at Science Made Simple [] the ‘buskers’ have been exploring current and future maritime challenges, such as climate change, energy, coastal habitats, trade and transport, turning a routine sea crossing into an exciting engineering journey.  The volunteers used a special science busking kit – given a bespoke marine flavour by Ian Galloway at Copernican Revolutions [ ] – which included Stirling engines, centre-of-mass mini-experiments, rattlebacks to start discussions about loading, pressurised marshmallows as scuba analogies, Cartesian divers and various fluid flow/separation demonstrations.

Dr Steve Dorney, Public Engagement Tutor at the University of Southampton, explained how the engineers have engaged with passengers to offer engineering enlightenment during their journeys: “On each trip we soon got a small crowd intrigued by our science busking kit and wanting to know more – people of all ages were interested but there was always a core younger audience. The engineers used the toolkits, to give three 10-minute ‘busks’ to small groups of passengers by moving around the ship’s open areas and stopping where appropriate. All the activities have been hands-on, in the sense that the engineer can hand the kit over to a passenger to demonstrate to others while the engineer offers a commentary on the principle/effect on display.”

Among the innovative and practical engagement activities have been the use of wave tubes to demonstrate the effect of turbulence on the seabed and open dialogue with surrounding passengers about how to engineer solutions to minimise this impact.  The volunteers even borrowed a simulator from Voith Schneider so that the unique propeller design - four of which are used on the ferry - can be more widely understood. Depending on the conversation, the engineers were able to relate the demonstration to their own work practice or research, and encourage connections to be made between the ferry and global sea transport.

One of the volunteer science buskers was Joanna Mycroft, a Specialist in Marine Structures in Marine Technology and Engineering Services at Lloyd’s Register in Southampton.

With a technical engineering background, Joanna works as a structural engineer, for Lloyd’s Register, undertaking R&D into big container ships and tankers structures.  Motivated by the desire to overcome the usual blank looks on the faces of people when she explains that she is a naval architect, she jumped at the chance to get involved with the science busking initiative, describing it as: “A fantastic idea and a great opportunity.”

She described enthusiastically her experience of busking: “The set of experiments which were developed for use on the ferries were very wide ranging, which meant that each of the volunteers could pick an activity which best suited our speciality.”

“The children loved seeing the marshmallows in bottles which crushed or expanded depending on pressure, to show visually what happens to people when they are deep under water.” 

“Because of my professional interest in structural analysis, I had two favourite activities, both dealing with stability and sinking. “In the first activity, we took a washing up liquid bottle top and added a deck to it and some plasticine, and asked the passengers to try to load the plasticine onto the deck in such a way that it didn’t sink.  The thing was that the task was impossible because the deck was too high up, but it was fascinating to see passengers trying to work out how to get the top to float!”

“In the second activity, we took a yoghurt pot filled with sand and asked the passengers to put it into a bucket of fresh water, then salt water, to see the difference.  It’s a really important lesson: the pot will sink in fresh water but not in salt water, and this has real-life implications if a ship is moving from the sea to a river, because potentially, it could lead to a sinking.”

In the course of her busking, Joanna came across a wide range of passengers of all different ages, all of whom responded differently, yet positively to the activities.  She said: “The youngest children I met just wanted to play, but that was fine, because I could then talk to their parents.  Middle school age children were initially drawn in because of the perceived opportunity to play, but they quickly got involved and were thinking intelligently and carefully about how to solve the problems, and what the key principles were.”

“The older children, at first, were reluctant to take part, but actually when they did, they were very analytical, made a good connection, and were intrigued by the opportunities for a career in marine engineering, which had perhaps never occurred to them previously.”

“The adults were often drawn in by their children, or because they just wanted to know more.  I really loved the responses of old age pensioners I met who had been on a day trip to the Isle of Wight.  Coming from the Portsmouth and Southampton area, they had spent their whole lives living and working in a marine community, and they were very keen to share their fascinating experiences as marine engineers. I was touched by people’s responses to the activities, and how much they connected with them.”

Summing up her experience, she said: “I would definitely do this again in the future.  When I was at university in Australia, I often promoted societies, but I believe that just talking about them doesn’t truly get the message across.  Demonstrating ideas, principles or solutions is the only way to get people to understand what you do and why it’s important.  To be able to get out into the community – particularly around Portsmouth and Southampton – was really important, and a very positive thing to do.  To see people of all ages making that positive connection was just brilliant, and I hope that more people get the chance to connect with marine engineering through these activities in the future.”

The need to have engaged, captivated potential young engineers who are aware of the opportunities of a career in marine engineering on the south coast will continue to be extremely important now and in the future.  The science busking initiative comes under the Marine Engineering Connections which is led by the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute (SMMI) at the University of Southampton, in partnership with Wightlink and Lloyd’s Register. The SMMI, based at the heart of the Solent Maritime Cluster, brings together a wide range of engineering disciplines, including acoustical, biomedical, civil, computational, electro-mechanical, environmental, geotechnical and materials. These operate alongside research into energy technologies, ship science, transportation policy and the behaviour of engineering systems in marine environments.

By 2014, Lloyd’s Register will have moved to be co-located with SMMI on a purpose-built campus site in Southampton. The partnership between the University and Lloyd’s Register is currently the largest academic/industry partnership in the world and is set to maximise marine engineering connections across academia and industry.

Nick Brown, Marine Communications Manager for Lloyd’s Register, said: “We hope this will raise awareness of the importance of engineering. It is the world’s engineers working in partnership with industry and academia who will help forge a future that works. And marine engineers are particularly important. Without ships there is no world trade, so we need the engineers of the future to be excited about the sea and how ships work.”


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