How serendipity led me to Cambridge, again!

As Prof. Ehrmann from my University of Duisburg-Essen says, I believe that “luck” is a resource that you can collect and build up , if you’re willing to. Doing exactly this, I found myself back in the UK in December 2017, staying there until July 2018, but it was not only a lucky accident that led me there.

In May 2017 I went to Cambridge for the first time in my life (you can read about my experience here: and at the Ph.D. Colloquium I met Elizabeth McGregor, who does research on the tinkering experience. I listened to her talk with great interest, because I’ve never heard about the concept of tinkering before, but I immediately connected to it. Later that day at lunch, I couldn’t hold back my questions. Ms McGregor humoured me by answering them all, which in turn sparked my interest further. She recommended literature and we remained in touch even after I returned to Germany. As part of my studies as a budding English teacher, I’m expected to go abroad for a few months to gain experience. Prof. Winterbottom suggested I could support Ms McGregor in her work, a proposition I happily accepted. How could I have turned down an opportunity to work at Cambridge? CETE network supported me with an exchange scholarship and I still can’t believe how lucky I am to work as their research assistant. Everything fell perfectly in to place as it counted as my semester abroad, gave me practical experience in a school and gave me the deepest insight into working in academia that a BA-Student could possibly get. Which was eye-opening in more than one aspect, but I’ll come back to that later.

Newtons Appletree

I, being what I think is a typical Bachelors student in her early 20s, tend to select too many tasks all at once, just to make sure to not waste any time or potential. So I decided not only to work 5 days a week for Ms McGregor’s study, but also got myself an internship in the Natural History Museum in London, took over an afterschool project at the St. Stephens Primary School, were the study took place and continued to work for Prof. Mammes’ workgroup in Essen via working from home. My first weeks were Monday and Wednesday working from Ms McGregor’s home, coding the data we’ve gathered the week before and discussing educational concepts, Tuesday I worked in the NHM London in the Life Sciences Department and Thursday and Friday, gathering data and doing the afterschool project in the primary school. Each day when I came home, I also worked for my workgroup back home in Germany. It didn’t take too long for me to notice that this amount of work is too much for me, not to mention the additional stress of moving abroad, so I had to shift my time management to a more appropriate amount of tasks to finish each week, and that helped me a lot to regulate my working from home, which also was a new working system for me.

Diving into what I did all day long, starting, as it was my main focus, with Ms McGregor’s project about the facilitation of Tinkering. Our work-week started on Thursday, doing a marble machine Workshop, every week other students worked with us, and I facilitated and documented them and their work. Being a facilitator is different than being a teacher, so I prepared by reading a lot about this topic and being facilitated myself by Ms McGregor. On Fridays we returned to the school and invited a few students from the prior Workshop to a focus group, where we got an inner view of their thinking while they were tinkering. The following week from Monday to Wednesday we re-watched all the material we had collected from the workshop and focus group, began coding and also discussed specific situations and their labelling, as well as we developed our coding scheme from time to time.

NHML Ausweis

For the first ten weeks of my stay I participated in the “Banksian 21” Project of the Natural History Museum London, where 7 volunteers helped to digitise old herbarium specimens. We worked with pressed plants (some were hundreds of years old!), this includes cleaning them, fixing them, re-labelling them and entering their information onto a huge database. According to plan, this database will be used by botanical researchers all over the world starting in 2020. It was fascinating to work “behind the scenes” of my all-time favourite museum. I’m especially interested in botany, since I’m going to be a biology and English teacher, so this part of my exchange covered both subjects completely. Overall, the crossover effect of my exchange was particularly high, allowing me to combine my educational studies with practical classroom experience, the English language and culture, biology and working in academia.


On Thursday afternoons I took over the Science Club with Ms Kelly for the first term I went there. We worked with year 1, year 2, and two students of reception. Having tinkering on my mind we structured our Afternoon Science Club like a tinkering workshop and we worked with tasks like building automata, little LED-flashlights, linkages, and more activities rooted in STEM.  For the second term we offered the “Little Inventors Club” that focused more on problem solving without instructions from the teacher through design, make and play.

Throughout the 7+ months I stayed in the UK I didn’t stop being a research assistant in Prof. Mammes’ workgroup and helped with everything I could, only from about 550 km away.

(Additional for the German speaking blog reader, here is a newspaper-article about my exchange:



Text by Helena Spyrou

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