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But what is “proper” research?

“Research is what goes on when students are doing other things”, as I’m pretty sure I heard someone somewhere say. So I decided to stay around Durham over summer to take part in it myself while my friends were indeed doing other things, things perhaps involving beaches in Mediterranean climates. But Durham’s nice too. And then it turned out to be the best thing Durham University has offered me in the time I’ve been here. Because it made research real to me, it made data collection personal, and publishable work tangible.

It happened because the Anthropology department offers summer internships to people finishing second year. I chose one being run by Drs Rachel and Jeremy Kendal, and then they chose me. So what I’ve spent the last six or so weeks doing is helping Zarja Murši? (Rachel and Jeremy’s PhD student) collect data and code it. We worked in Newcastle’s Centre for Life (a science museum) getting primary school-age children to build things from wooden blocks. And it was fantastic. I got to know the department from a different perspective, and could pick Zarja’s brain on countless train journeys about what PhDs entail, the inside workings of the Anthropology department, and of course the topic we were researching.


The Centre for Life, Newcastle, where I undertook the research.

We were looking at how children built with blocks in three different conditions: individually, when they could copy from others, and when they collaborated with others. I’ll not go into the captivating details of social learning or children’s collaboration here, you can see more if you follow THIS link to our introductory blog.

Zarja’s study is part of a bigger collaboration between the department and the Centre for Life: a research project called ‘Designing for Creativity in Informal Science Learning’ which I have been able to take part in and contribute to (click THIS link to discover what it’s about!). It also means my name will appear on the papers using the data we collected – a nice touch for the CV.

This data collection involved recording what types of things children built, and listing the behaviours they performed as they were working together. Another task was to administer a questionnaire asking about the exhibit and our research to both parents and (more trickily) often less than attentive children. This data will be used to design future exhibits: feeding our knowledge back into the context from which we drew it. If you want to see more, I wrote another blog for the research project HERE on my experiences of research in the museum (and oh yes this is a concerted self-promotion).


But it was not all Newcastle-focused. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with Zarja in the department’s postgraduate rooms working out a coding system and writing the blogs above. Days in the office are just as much a part of the research as the days on the gallery floor, albeit with slightly less hurried scribbling on a bit of paper whilst working out whether the one in the blue jumper was copying her brother or not.


Children building with wooden blocks

From my first experience in what you may call “proper” research I can take away a humanising impression of what research means: the internship has made me associate the exercise with kind, friendly people, and has made it less abstract and more practical, more personal than institutional. I feel privileged to have been offered these insights through Durham Uni. I think this is what an education can be at best, and I can just hope that Durham’s opportunities for education aren’t only for my privilege.

Guy Lavender-Forsyth

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