Making students curious: Using an app-based walking tour as a pedagogical tool

In this post, Dr Niki Vermeulen, a Senior Lecturer in History & Sociology of Science, describes how Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme funding helped her and her colleagues develop an innovative app-based walking tour to complement the History of Science course…

Curious Edinburgh is an app-based walking tour which showcases the many buildings and places in the city of Edinburgh which are connected to the history of science, technology and medicine. It was originally developed for undergraduate students following courses on the history of science and medicine to connect their learning to the city in which they study. History is literally on the streets here in Edinburgh, and so we are taking the classroom into the city through the app.

The story of Curious Edinburgh starts in 2014, when I arrived in Edinburgh to take over the History of Science course, which emeritus Prof John Henry had been teaching for over 30 years. In my first month, John organised a tour through Edinburgh to show students and staff some of the sites that were important in the history of medicine and developments in science and engineering. Starting at the Old Surgeons Hall, which used to be the place where bodies were cut open for anatomy lessons, we went to the Old College where the university first began. We followed on to the National Museum of Scotland, which once used to be part of the university. In fact, the connection is still there in the form of a bridge between the Old College and the museum which is now out of use. Opposite the museum you can see the heads belonging to the infamous phrenology society… and the tour continued… (you can follow it further on the app).

That day I learned many new stories woven into the fabric of the city, which I wanted to capture, preserve and integrate in teaching. However, as the courses on history of science and medicine are electives serving over 500 students from across all disciplines, it is impossible to take them all on a tour through the city. Therefore the development of a digital walking tour app made a lot of sense: we could present our stories to everyone interested: students, staff, alumni, citizens and tourist alike.

With the great help of Bill Jenkins (now in St. Andrews), Matjaz Vidmar, Kate Bowell and many others, we have been able to develop the digital project to what it is now. We integrated it into the course assessment – students need to write an essay about a place in Edinburgh – and also added specific thematic tours: from history of physics, geology and genetics, to the history of Enlightenment. Moreover, people wanting to develop new tours connected to us: first academics working with the Jewish community of Edinburgh and on connections with India, and then also community organisations like granton:hub and EVOC who have helped us to explore and map the social history of Edinburgh further. We will also link-up with UncoverEd to highlight diversity, and have many other plans and ideas, so watch this space!

I hope that our work is making students and other app-users see the city with different eyes. Edinburgh is beautiful as it is, but adding a historical layer to the city, opening-up the many stories that have formed the city and its future, is certainly adding to its appeal as a city of knowledge with a social heart and an international outlook.

You can read the full PTAS report here.

Niki Vermeulen

Dr Niki Vermeulen is a Senior Lecturer in History & Sociology of Science, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) in the School for Social and Political Science (SSPS) of the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in research and innovation policy and the dynamics of scientific collaboration, also looking into the role of space in the integration of knowledge. She won the Tam Dalyell Prize for Excellence in Public Engagement with Science, and is a visiting scholar in the Centre for Science and Technology Studies of Leiden University.

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