Research Impact


Voicebox: Facilitating science teaching in schools

10 December 2014


Work on the speech capability of Neanderthals stimulated the development of a science teaching resource for secondary schools. This was distributed to over 5,000 British secondary school science teachers, and an evaluation found it to hold appeal even to students who were uninterested in science.

A 2012 study by the Royal Academy of Engineering found whilst the UK needs 100,000 STEM graduates yearly, only 90,000 graduate annually, including international students. Many of these subsequently do not work in science-related fields. Thus encouraging secondary school students to choose STEM subjects is a priority.

Researchers at UCL drew upon their research to develop teaching tools aimed at increasing interest in STEM subjects amongst secondary school students in the UK. This was stimulated by collaborative research at UCL (Sandra Martelli and James Steele in the UCL Institute of Archaeology) and at the University of Southampton (Antoine Serrurier and Anna Barney in the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research) that reconstructed the Neanderthal vocal tract and its potential to articulate speech sounds. Neanderthals are our closest extinct relatives and indirect evidence - from tool use and from ancient DNA - is consistent with an adaptation to complex spoken communication. The team developed new anatomical reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tract morphology and simulated its acoustic and articulatory properties.

This work stimulated the production at UCL, in a further collaboration with Mark Huckvale of UCL Speech, Hearing & Phonetic Sciences, of materials to enable school science teachers to introduce the evolution of speech and language in the classroom, guided by curriculum developers at the Institute of Physics and the Nuffield Foundation Curriculum Programme. The result was Voicebox: The Physics and Evolution of Speech, a school science teaching resource for pre-GCSE teaching, published in 2010 as part of the Gatsby Foundation's Science Enhancement Programme.

The Voicebox booklet contains an illustrated overview, activity sheets and notes for teachers and technicians. The electronic files also include video clips and drag-and-drop interactives, specially-written interactive software packages illustrating the properties of sound, PowerPoint presentations, and a video of a human larynx during speech production. A tube-like physical apparatus was designed by Mark Huckvale to enable the sound properties of the human vocal tract to be reproduced for the vowels [a], [i] and [u], using inexpensive everyday materials.

The Voicebox resource received excellent reviews in the trade press, with a 5* user rating on the National STEM Centre website, and copies were distributed free to charge to about 5,700 science teachers and schools. The resources were further evaluated in a series of science workshops held in 2013 at London secondary schools. These were also highly rated by teachers and pupil feedback showed that many students, even those less interested in science, found the material appealing. Of the pupils who said they were only 'fairly interested' or 'not very interested' in science generally, 70-80% were either 'interested' or 'very interested' in the workshop activities and in doing more activities on this topic.

Thus the resource successfully uses the voice and speech, and its relationship to human and hominid anatomy, as a vehicle to introduce key concepts in physics and biology. The Voicebox is now part of the Institute of Physics' offer for teacher training workshops.

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