The British Film Institute (BFI), with partners Cinelive, received a £30,000 Wellcome Trust People Award to run immersive science events across the country as part of the Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder Season. The project is called the ‘Midwich Experiment’ and enlists the expertise of several neuroscientists, including Cambridge PhD students and CamBRAIN members: Sally Jennings; Katie Manning; Andy McCombie; Deniz Vatansever and Madeleine Walpert.
The ‘Midwich Experiment’ uses John Wyndham’s novel about a village infiltrated by extraordinary children, The Midwich Cuckoos, as theatrical immersion for an educational experience. Cinelive provide the theatrical immersion by teaching local secondary school students to act the part of ‘cuckoos’ and ‘villagers’. The scientists then teach the key stage 3 audiences about their expertise in electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Some students pose as journalists and film proceedings so they can learn about filmmaking, from BFI experts. In this way, the ‘Midwich Experiment’ is an engaging and educational experience for all of the students involved.
A ‘Midwich Experiment’ day begins with the secondary school students being confronted by a scene of military personnel and governmental scientists setting up a cordon between themselves and several unconscious villagers. The students are immediately tasked with finding out why the villagers have fallen unconscious by assessing the environment. The pH of the soil is tested to ascertain if there has been an acid spill; a Geiger counter is used to check for radioactivity and an O2 sensor to gage the oxygen levels. The environment appears to be normal and as the villagers awaken it is decided to investigate whether a cognitive disturbance has caused the phenomenon.
The students move inside where the University neuroscientists are setting up EEG and MRI stations to examine the villagers’ brain activity and structure. The students split into two groups and the neuroscientists teach them about each of the imaging techniques. First, the neuroscientists explain the basic physics and utility of the imaging technique. Then, the students are encouraged to suggest potential neurological reasons as to why the villagers fell unconscious, and the neuroscientists explain how these hypotheses could be explored within the limitations of the technique. Lastly, the students come up with their own presentations about the technique they have learned, which they show to the other group. During the final phase, an extraordinary child ‘cuckoo’ reveals him/herself by asking an exceptional question and is sent to see the lead scientist.
When the ‘cuckoos’ meet the lead scientist a dramatic incident occurs which reveals the extra-terrestrial reason for their powers and the events of the day. The neuroscientists and cinelive use this as a platform to discuss the ethical implications of cognitive enhancers and the decisions to be made about the ‘cuckoos’. Watching The Village of the Damned, which is the 1960s film-adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos, concludes the day.
Some of the students at Canterbury Academy commented on their experience:
“I enjoyed learning about the brain because it was about new things.”
“I enjoyed learning about EEG because it was interactive and fun. I found nothing difficult to understand.”
PhD student and volunteer Andy McCombie reflected on his experiences:
“It was brilliant to see so many young students engaging with science in a fun and interactive way. The students were able to get to grips with the basics of neuroscience and demonstrated a real level of insight through their questions and presentations, in a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining environment.”
Previous dates and venues
Wednesday 26th November, Kinema in the Woods, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire
Wednesday 10th December, Memorial Hall, Midhurst, West Sussex
Thursday 15th January, Gulbenkian Cinema, Canterbury, Kent
Upcoming dates and venues
Wednesday 28th January, Nailsworth Sun Room, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire
Wednesday 25th February, Park and Dare Theatre, South Wales
Photo credit to: 1, 2. Mark Reid – BFI; 3. Sara Asadullah – Cinelive; 4. Sally Jennings – University of Cambridge; 5. Deniz Vatansever – University of Cambridge