By Lee Pinkerton
Academics and students from the University of East London (UEL) have teamed up with an educational theatre company to teach east London school children about the inner workings of the human brain.
The collaboration between UEL’s Creative Writing, Music and Performance Department and the touring immersive theatre company, M-SET: Multi-Sensory Educational Theatre, began in 2018 and involved ten local schools.
Open Minds was a multi-media and immersive theatre project that explored how we understand the human brain, integrating pupils from SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) and mainstream schools.
Over three intensive weeks in January and May, M-SET Artistic Director Paula Manning, with the support of 26 UEL students on the BA (Hons) Drama, Applied Theatre and Performance course, facilitated creative workshops and experiences through participation in role drama challenges, digital technology and the visual arts.
The project cultivated young people's understanding of brain activity and function as humans develop and age. It also challenged their perceptions about disability, using the performing arts as a learning tool.
It explored and celebrated differences in society and how conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, strokes, epilepsy and diseases such as Alzheimer’s affect the human brain, with an emphasis on active, multi-sensory learning and inclusion and access.
Artistic Director of M-SET Paula Manning said, “This project builds on M-SET’s extensive experience of providing multi-sensory, participatory arts education to marginalised groups. Our intensive and interactive approach helps young people to understand the neurological causes of their disabilities and increase disability awareness amongst their neuro-typical peers.
Academic input from UEL came in the form of Professor Duncan Turner and Dr Adela Desowska from the Neuroscience and Neuro-Rehabilitation Unit and Liselle Terret, Co-Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Drama, Applied Theatre and Performance degree.
Liselle was invited to collaborate on the project by Paula.
Liselle said, “The company’s practice compliments what we are teaching here at UEL, using the performing arts to work with marginalised groups and in education. It was a wonderful example of good practice for our students to experience as they also created an ensemble performance on neurons for the children as well as supported the workshops.
“Also, as the project involved bringing 10 Newham and Tower Hamlets Schools into the building, we felt it was an important opportunity to really place our University within the local school community.”
The UEL students involved felt it was also a learning experience for them.
Myriam Taga, a postgraduate neuroscience student at UEL said, "The children really impressed and, importantly, challenged me with their questions, exuding a curiousness and understanding that amazed me. I left with a happiness having seen strong and interesting personalities behind the label that is ‘autism’."