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The magic of machines making medicine safer

Key points

  • Our public engagement programme based on magic tricks has been highly popular, engaging school students and their teachers about important themes and issues drawn from CHI+MED research.
  • We created a book, shows, science festival activities, school activity sheets and workshops for teachers, all based on magic as a way to introduce CHI+MED themes.
  • Through our websites and invited keynote talks at international conferences the approach has been taken up internationally.

Magic and Safe Interaction Design
There are two key ideas behind the use of magic to engage people with our work on interaction design for safer medical devices:

  • Magicians show we can engineer systems that lead to people consistently making mistakes, however hard they try not to.
  • Magic, like software, is a combination of an algorithm and a presentation, and both must be right.

We used magic tricks to engage our audiences with several themes of CHI+MED.

  • How good interaction design can prevent people making mistakes. Poor design can cause people to make mistakes.
  • The importance of learning culture rather than blame culture to safety.
  • The need for both computational thinking skills and design processes based on understanding people.
  • The importance of mathematically-based modelling and verification for ensuring systems are safe and easy to use.

We used examples from medical device design throughout to illustrate the issues introduced by the magic tricks in a real world context.

Live Magic Shows
We developed a magic show based on these ideas, presented in schools across the country, including as part of a Royal Institution Masterclass series. We have also presented a close-up magic version at a series of science festivals. The approach we took was to demonstrate a magic trick, challenge the audience to work out how it is done then explain how it works, finally explaining the linked computer science.

Magic Book
We developed a magic book (The Magic of Computer Science 3) with a print run of over 20,000 copies, and thousands more of our pdf's have been downloaded. Copies were sent to schools across the UK with multiple copies, including in some cases class sets, sent to several thousand schools that signed up for them.

Supporting Teachers
We gave a series of workshops for teachers that included our magic trick based activities. The aim was to give teachers themselves a deeper understanding of the issues and also practical, fun ways to teach it themselves. The workshops are linked to the new UK computing curriculum which has required ICT teachers to retrain and learn about computer science so this was a major opportunity to influence what happens in classrooms. These workshops have helped teachers embed CHI+MED ideas and the magic approach in their teaching. We also developed supporting activity sheets for teachers. These activities have been taken up by teachers across the country including by other groups supporting teachers, such as the Mayor of London funded Digital Schoolhouse project. We have also demonstrated the approach at a series of invited keynotes and at UK and international workshops for teachers leading to international interest.

Feedback about the activities has been extremely positive. For example, over 1,000 pdfs on our magic tricks have been downloaded from our teacher-facing site (teachinglondoncomputing.org). The vast majority of teachers attending workshops said the approach increased their confidence with most saying they would use the activities in their teaching. More anecdotally, a series of teachers have informally told us that they have used the magic tricks in class and that they inspired their students. One teacher is now planning a whole course around magic tricks for ICT students to ensure they learn computing too.

Curzon, P (2014) Unplugged computational thinking for fun, Invited Keynote, KEYCIT- Key Competencies in Informatics and ICT, July, Potsdam, Germany,.

Curzon, P (2013) cs4fn and computational thinking unplugged, Invited Keynote. 8th Workshop in Primary and Secondary Computing Education, Denmark, ACM

Curzon, P and McOwan, P.W. (2013), Teaching Formal Methods Using Magic Tricks, Fun with Formal Methods, Workshop at the 25th International Conference on Computer Aided Verification, St Petersburg, Russia, July.

Curzon, P (2012) "Serious Fun with Interdisciplinary Computer Science", Invited Keynote, STEM interdisciplinary education workshop, Society for Design & Process Science Conference Berlin., Germany.

These activities involved CHI+MED teaming up with high profile engagement projects including cs4fn, Teaching London Computing and Digital Schoolhouse, leveraging funding from EPSRC, the EU, Google, the Department for Education and the Greater London Assembly. We have also worked with Hertford College, University of Oxford and King's College London.