#solo13lego: Research Roles Through Lego

Ah, it’s been a busy week. Already several days have passed since the end of SpotOn 2013, so it’s about time I blogged my session from the Saturday, #solo13lego. I’m not able to deliver the kind of prolific blogging which some of my fellow attendees at the #solo13blogs session are capable of.

My workshop did admittedly have its own title, “Making Research Useful: The Consequences of (Bad) Communication“, but that didn’t prove as catchy as referring to it as “The One With Lego“, which was perhaps a better indicator of the main aspect of its appeal. Peter Murray Rust has already blogged about his experience of the session, so you can also head over there to hear an attendee’s perspective.

We were also highly fortunate in that SpotOn keynote, Salvatore Mela, inadvertently kicked off the Lego vibe on Day One of the conference when he showed us pictures of a gloriously Lego-fied particle collider. Couldn’t have asked for a better theme-setting ahead of our workshop!

The Main Premise

Participants deep in thought and Lego at Solo13. Photo by Neil Chue Hong, CC-BY

Participants deep in thought and Lego at Solo13. Photo by Neil Chue Hong (@npch). Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

There’s been a lot said about reproducibility of late (indeed, the result of much work and discussion in the scientific community over many years – see discussion here), whether that’s to do with working culture, tools, infrastructure or incentives – all highly relevant factors and issues that need to be dealt with. Ultimately though, the reproducibility issue boils down to a failure on the part of the research producer to anticipate or account for the needs of the research user (that may sound an oversimplification, but it’ll do for now – I’ll go into details in a future blog post, otherwise I’ll ramble on for ages here).

A microscope from one of our Group B teams. Photo by Suzi Gage (@soozaphone).

A microscope from one of our Group B teams. Photo by Suzi Gage (@soozaphone).

#solo13lego aimed to redress the balance and get participants thinking about how to identify the needs of the end user. By dealing with the frustrations of poorly communicated instructions, could they pinpoint where the problems lay, how the original writer had failed in their communication, and how the situation might be improved?

Optical Microscopes in Lego

Split into groups of ten, the participants had to download a set of Lego instructions to build an optical microscope, complete with “mirror”, stage, objective lenses and eyepieces. We had three sets of instructions, each describing the same item in a slightly different way.

Photo by Sarah Cosgriff (@Sarah_Cosgriff).

The results of (I think) one of the Group B efforts. Here the faulty instructions for the middle section have caused problems in constructing the microscope stage. Photo by Sarah Cosgriff (@Sarah_Cosgriff).

And now for the catch: these were faulty instructions, deliberately written to confuse, confound and completely obstruct the user, and devoid of diagrams, schematics, images or any other visual aid. Although the participants were aware of this from the beginning, it didn’t prevent them from becoming highly frustrated with the situation!

In addition to dealing with the pecularities of the instructions, our Lego builders had to identify precisely what made these instructions bad instructions, how they had failed to address the user’s needs, and how they should be improved.

And the rules: no discussion between groups, no sneaky peeks at each other’s models, no looking at other group’s instructions. So, how far did they get in 35 minutes?

The End Result…

Given that they’d only had just over half an hour to interpret the instructions and build their microscopes, the groups made some good attempts. Notably though (and as one would expect) none of the groups managed to reproduce the original microscope model: hardly surprising, given the flaws in the instructions.

Finished micrscope by Group A. Photo by Jonathan Pritchard, @jr_pritchard.

Finished microscope by Group A – note how the alignment of the eyepieces differs from the other models shown above. Photo by Jonathan Pritchard, @jr_pritchard.

In fact, if you take a look at the photos in this blog, what may at first glance seem to be identical models clearly have quite obvious differences.

Some models completely missed out the band of dark green bricks in the middle of the microscope. Some didn’t manage to include the microscope stage. Others misplaced the focus dial or missed it out altogether; the alignment and position of the objective lenses and eyepieces varied wildly between models. And this really wasn’t the fault of our participants: they were doing their best with the instructions they had!

The discussion that followed identified various “improvements” required:

  • Use of a coordinate system to describe the position and orientation of blocks;
  • Corrections to the number and types of bricks listed for use;
  • Adequate description of where each level of bricks should be positioned in relation to the levels above and below;
  • Use of visual aids, such as photos, diagrams and schematics, to demonstrate how the sections of the model should fit together;
  • Inclusion of images for the end result…
  • …and lots more (full discussion can be viewed on the livestream footage).
Microscope base in progress. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY.

Microscope base in progress. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

Group work in full flight at #solo13lego. Photo by Sophie Kay (@StilettoFiend), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, CC-BY-3.0.

Even this short exercise demonstrates how a supposedly simple set of instructions can produce wildly different results if ambiguities leave them open to misinterpretation. It really got us thinking about what the needs of the end user are – something which we’re not taught to think about (or indeed encouraged to do so) at any stage of our education. Could this kind of exercise, whether with Lego or with hands-on science, be used to promote better communication amongst our scientists?

The extended session at the upcoming hackday (see below) is going to take this idea further and train participants to produce instructions that account for this user perspective.

All five microscopes at the end of the session. Photo by Peter Murray Rust (@petermurrayrust).

All five microscopes at the end of the session, alongside Sophie’s slide of how the models should have looked. Photo by Peter Murray Rust (@petermurrayrust).

Upcoming Hackday

Now, dates are yet TBC, but I’ll be running an extended session of Lego-Based Learning at the upcoming SpotOn Hackday, which will probably happen sometime early 2014. I’m hoping this longer workshop will last around 3 hours. It’ll give us time to explore both the user and producer roles and I’ll be implementing the rotation-based learning approach of OSTI, so there’ll be an even stronger incentive for good communication skills. I’ll be posting the details on the OSTI News page once the time and place are confirmed, as well as tweeting the details, so keep an eye on all that and let me know if you’d like to join: I’m looking forward to seeing some returning faces as well as new ones! And there are worse ways to spend a Saturday than playing with Lego…

And What Next?

Although the instruction sheets are still available via my previous blogpost, I’ve posted the slide deck and the instructions up on the GitHub repository for the Open Science Training Initiative. If you’re interested in running a similar session, you can download those now – of course, you’ll need to buy your own stash of Lego (or get someone else to buy it for you) but at least that’s quite a fun task. Good Luck! 🙂

#solo13lego: The Instructions

If you’re reading this then chances are you want to participate in the #solo13lego session, “Making Research Useful: The Consequences of (Bad) Communication“. After all, who doesn’t like Lego and science? You can follow our session remotely via the livestream, which will appear on the SpotOn Media page here.

This post has been scheduled to appear a little ahead of the session, to help remote participants with their preparations (and to make sure it’s available and working by the time #solo13lego kicks off!). So if you’re planning on attending the session, behave yourself and don’t be tempted to nosy at the downloads below ahead of time!

Groups who are in the session right now: You should be in groups of ten people at most. You need to assign a group leader and then form three smaller teams within your group. Your leader should help to coordinate the three sub-teams and (informally) collate feedback/critiques on the instructions as you progress with your Lego model. Talk within your team, but don’t talk to other groups – or sneak a peek at their models!

A (first) little word of warning…Now, a little caveat: ONLY click on the downloads below once you’ve had your group assigned and you know your group’s letter. Remember that you’re not allowed to discuss your work with the other groups, so you shouldn’t look at their sets of instructions either!

Remote participants should choose their favourite letter (without peeking at the instructions first!) and download the relevant set of instructions. Feel free to shout any questions via the hashtag #solo13lego. You can also message me via @StilettoFiend, or alternatively David, @drg1985, if you’d prefer to hear his dulcet Irish tones.

A (second) little word of warning… Remember, this session is about the consequences of poor communication. We’re encouraging you to gain the perspective of an information user rather than an information producer, so that you can bring those insights to the debate at the end of our session. So don’t be deterred by errors or ambiguities in the instructions: it’s your job to work around these, critique them and identify how these Lego recipes need to be improved (and as we said, they’re designed to have a LOT of room for improvement).

So, it’s time to reach for the Lego. You have half an hour. You may turn over the page and start…

  • Instructions for Group A: PDF ODT
  • Instructions for Group B: PDF ODT
  • Instructions for Group C: PDF ODT

Lego, the Universe and Everything

With SpotOn London kicking off today, it’s time I revealed a few more details about our workshop scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, “Making Research Useful: The Consequences of (Bad) Communication“, perhaps better known by its hashtag, #solo13lego. The entire conference programme is being livestreamed, so feel free to follow, or even participate in, our session even if you can’t be there in person – keep an eye on the #solo13lego hashtag and join in the fun from afar. And if you are at SpotOn this year, then get thee to the British Library’s Eliot Room at 3:30pm on Saturday – we can accommodate up to fifty participants in the session itself (there’s only so much Lego to go around!), so you might want to be reasonably prompt arriving.

The workshop will look at some of the issues surrounding reproducibility in scientific research and in particular, the roles of the information user and information producer. And all through the wonderful medium of Lego: the perfect way to spend your Saturday afternoon 🙂 If you keep an eye on this blog, another post will be appearing at the start of the session tomorrow, explaining exactly what’s going on and providing the instructions you need for Lego building.

And yes, our workshop is one of the final items in the #solo13 programme. By this stage of the conference, you’ll have enjoyed lots of fantastic talks, seminars and workshops, but may also be flagging a little with all the activity. We want our #solo13lego workshop to combine thought-provoking discussion with the fun of playing with Lego. It should be a friendly session and hopefully a great way to close out your SpotOn 2013 experience – before the official Wrap Up, that is!

Just a few words of advice on the dress code: the wearing of shoes is strongly advised. To quote Michael Rosen, “you know what it’s like treading on Lego with your bare feet” 😉

And just in case you had any questions…

– Do I need to bring my own Lego to the session?

Don’t worry about that – we’ll be providing Lego kits for each team to use. If you can’t make it to the conference but would still like to take part in our session, then you’ll want to have a stash of Lego to hand. Each group in our session will be using a 32 x 32 backing board and a 650 piece Lego kit, which contains an assortment of basic bricks in several colours, including lots of those pesky 3×1, 2×1 and 1×1 pieces. So if you’re planning on remote participation, you don’t need to have any fancy Technic. Just a decent number of basic bricks will do.

Each group will have one of these...

Each group will have one of these…

– What’s going to happen at the session?

We’ll spend the first 5 minutes on a brief introduction to the reproducibility problem in modern science, before getting hands-on with Lego in groups, using some pre-prepared instructions designed to give you an awkward time. Each of our five groups will be given a different set of instructions to build the same item. Main rule is this: NO DISCUSSION is allowed between the groups. You can talk amongst your group all you like, but not to the other teams.

It’s not expected to be plain sailing all the way: our instructions are intentionally problematic and you may have to modify them as you go or fill in the blanks if you find any omissions. At the end of the Lego building phase, our groups will be critiquing the instructions and, if they get ahead of time, providing their own new-and-improved versions. We’ll have a quick-fire discussion of what aspects were difficult, where the various Lego recipes fell down, and identify what the fundamental problems were with the way the methods were communicated.

...and one of these.

…and one of these.

After the Lego building, we’ll take those newly-gained insights and open out the session into a debate on policy and approaches for how we train our scientists, researchers – in fact, any kind of knowledge workers – to deliver their outputs. Does modern culture focus too much on information production at the expense of information utility? If so, what can we do to change this: what incentives, penalties and support are needed?

– I want to participate remotely, how can I view the session?

Once you get to 3:30pm, check out the conference’s Livestream and follow our session that way. You may also want to visit Sophie’s Academia.edu profile – a slide deck will be appearing under Talks sometime on Saturday, so you should be able to access the talk materials there.

– I want to participate remotely, how will I get hold of the Lego instructions for the session?

Another post will appear here at “The Stilettoed Mathematician” just before 3:30pm on Saturday 9th November. It’ll link you to downloads for the Lego instructions so you can get building with everyone else. Remember, this session is all about the consequences of bad communication, so you should expect a bit of a tussle with the instructions as you go and you’ll need to use your ingenuity.

– Who’s running the session and how can I contact them?

There’s a team of two running the session, myself (Sophie Kay) and David Robert Grimes, science writer for the Guardian and Irish Times.  Fire any questions at us over Twitter via the #solo13lego hashtag, or shout them directly to us at @StilettoFiend and @drg1985.