Robot dogs and dance experts challenge engineering in pioneering project

An unusual dance-off – between robot dogs and human performers – helped to demonstrate the value of collaboration between science and the arts.

Year 8 students from Batley Girls’ High School visited Northern Ballet’s headquarters as part of a partnership project with the University of Leeds, aimed at challenging stereotypes and perceptions of engineering and introducing new audiences to the mechanics of movement through dance.

The girls took part in action-packed workshops which explored materials in the body, range of motion, the physics of spinning, and comparisons between mechanical and organic movement – highlighted by the robots versus ballet dancers challenge – as well as learning engineering terminology and touring the ballet company’s wardrobe department.

The session was the second in a pioneering project – The Mechanics of Life: Movement, Mobility and Me – which brings together University engineers, led by Dr Briony Thomas from the School of Mechanical Engineering, with creative minds at Northern Ballet.

Breaking barriers

Dr Thomas said: "This project speaks to the essence of innovation – breaking barriers, fostering collaboration, and pushing boundaries. With engineers, teachers, and dance artists involved, it’s brought together diverse perspectives for an enriching experience – we’re all learning from each other.”

She added: “Our co-creation approach has also enabled a dynamic, engaging, and social learning experience for the students, bringing to life real-world applications of engineering. We’re breaking down the perceived boundaries between the arts, science and engineering through movement and hands-on learning.”

Day of creativity

Leanne Kirkham, Director of Academy Operations and Learning at Northern Ballet, said: "It was fantastic to welcome students from Batley Girls’ High School and colleagues from the School of Mechanical Engineering into the Northern Ballet building for a day of creativity and innovative thinking.

“This project speaks to our core goals, as we want to break down barriers to cultural engagement. Here, we not only get to do that, but also challenge stereotypes around engineering.

“So far it has been brilliant to see what happens when these two worlds collide, and to see how different ways of learning can feed young people's imaginations.”

The pupils also began co-designing an engineering-inspired performance, which will be choreographed and performed by the renowned Leeds-based dance company, and filmed for a screening that will premiere in 2024.

Earlier this year, the ground-breaking project was selected for an Ingenious Award, a scheme run by the Royal Academy of Engineering and funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to support public engagement projects with grants of up to £30,000. The project has also received further funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

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