Meet Fran Scott: Lego Master and engineering genius
You might recognise Fran Scott. She’s an engineering expert who pops up on Lego Masters, Abandoned Engineering, Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, and a load more. Get to know her a bit better courtesy of this interview from the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine.
Even if you don’t know the face, you’ll have seen the work: she used to be the in-house prop maker for the Royal Institution, creating demonstration materials for (among others) the iconic Christmas Lectures. She’s set off rockets with an aluminium finger, she’s set fire to many, many things, and she’s fond of making things explode. We caught up with her to find out how someone with a background in neuroscience ends up in engineering, what it’s like to walk in Michael Faraday’s footsteps, and why it’s right to get things wrong.
HackSpace: Morning Fran! You have a background as a neuroscientist, but you’ve ended up exploding things on the TV. How did that happen?
Fran Scott: I think engineering was always in me: I just didn’t know it. I went into neuroscience to get a Nobel Prize – you know, aim high! As part of my degree you could do a year in industry, and I was lucky enough to get a placement at the Australian Stem Cell Centre. Bear in mind, this was 17 years ago, so it was when we were just starting to tinker with them. And I was like – ‘this is where the Nobel Prize is.’
But I was really frustrated. I grew up on a farm; I was quite practical. And then I went into a lab and it seemed so antiquated. I enjoyed the thinking; I enjoyed the problem-solving; I enjoyed the coming up with ‘what ifs’. But I was frustrated by a lot of the processes. And so I decided that science wasn’t really for me.
There was this thing that frustrated me a lot in science, which was that if you take something complex and explain it simply, then you obviously don’t understand the complex parts of it. And this really perplexed me, because, to me, it’s obvious that you need to understand something well in order to explain it. So anyway, a very, very astute careers advisor at my university asked me if I’d thought of science communication.
At this point there were two ways into science communication: you could go to Imperial College and do a master’s in it. Or, you could get a job. I looked at the price of the master’s degree and thought, oh well.
My friends took me to the Science Museum and I was like – whoa, what is this place? I’d visited museums as a kid, you know, my mum had dragged us to what was then the Museum of Film and Television in Bradford. So I knew these things existed, but not for science: science had always been put on this pedestal. Science was serious; science was not fun. And at the Science Museum, I was fascinated that you could combine these two things together.
I got a job there as an explainer, where you’re in the interactive galleries, talking to the families and the schools and the parents as they come in, getting them to engage with the exhibits. And it’s where I learned to communicate: a lot of people think that in science communications, the ‘science’ part is the hard bit, but it’s really not. It’s the ‘communication’ bit that’s hard. Working at the Science Museum was a really great learning bed for that.
While I was at the Science Museum, I got back in touch with this love of making that I’d had as a kid on the farm where I would make things that we used.
And when I got promoted, and I was writing the shows and workshops, I’d go down to the workshop and try to make my own. I think I wanted this clock that, when you opened it up, springs all sprang into the air. And the guys in the workshop were great. I think I just needed that reassurance that this was OK.
HS: What do you mean by OK?
FS: Unfortunately, on my way to university, there’s always been this sort of divide between design and technology on the one hand and the sciences on the other; if you could do the science bits, you didn’t do design and technology, you had to just stick to the sciences to get the points to get to the university that you wanted to.
Now that I had my degree, I was still enjoying the design and technology. I started to build props [for the Science Museum] and got approached for lots of freelance work where people from other organisations were asking me to build things.
Back in 2020, I found out I was dyslexic. I had always worked very long hours as a student, without realising that other people didn’t work the long hours; I’d be in the lectures, then I had to go back and sort of do the lecture again, so it made sense to me. I sort of assumed that everyone else had to do that – they don’t.
And when I entered the world of work, and you started at 10am, and finished at 6pm, I was like: amazing! And so, I was filling the rest of my time with all of this other work, all this tinkering and just playing really. Whereas, with science, I felt that I never really fitted in, here I was finding this community, finding makerspaces. And it was OK to like these things. It was OK for things to not look perfect.
HS: That’s ringing a bell. I’ve seen a talk of your video, on Ada Lovelace Day, where you say that one of your goals is for people to look at your work and say, ‘That looks rubbish. I could have done that.’ I love that. The Apple shiny, pure white cube is so alienating.
FS: This is why I ended up wanting to work for the Royal Institution. It’s the home of science communication. It’s where Michael Faraday was; it’s the home of demos; this is the place to be. There’s this corridor outside the theatre, but they call it the anteroom. And in there is a big oil painting of this eminent scientist doing a demonstration there. And the actual apparatus used in that demonstration is in a display case below it. And it’s brilliant, because it’s a Van de Graaff generator complete with bits of string that look like they’re stuck on with chewing gum.
I remember seeing that and thinking, if something like that could end up in an oil painting at the Royal Institution, it doesn’t matter that my stuff is held together with sticky tape. And one thing that I learned, I suppose because I did a lot of work behind the scenes on TV shows, is that making stuff look pretty isn’t the hard bit; the hard bit is making it work.
HS: What did making things for the Royal Institution look like? Because that looks like a dream job.
FS: It was. I was a northerner in London; I moved down with a suitcase, and I didn’t know anybody. I remember walking into the Royal Institution, and, oh my gosh…. It’s got this marble entranceway, with plaques everywhere and paintings. And I just remember thinking that they were going to throw me out for wearing trainers.
But they really welcomed me. There was a guy, Andy, who was in the demo team. Actually, at that point, he was the demo team. I became really good friends with Andy. I would be coming up with demonstrations, often involving explosions, in my flat and my small backyard. And you know, there’s only so many times you can set off explosions in East London before you get a few calls.
I’d be like, ‘Andy, I’m doing this demo; It might end up with some fire. Can I come to the RI to test it out, I’d like there to be another person there?’ Some of my demos, I remember, I would call my mum on a video call so that she could watch it and call someone to come and get me in case it went wrong.
And so Andy would come up with his car, we’d pack in the equipment, he’d drive us to the Royal Institution on a Sunday, and we’d have a play – the deal was that if we got the demo working, he could then use the demo as well. This worked really well. It was nice to have someone to bounce ideas off. And there were other things, like I’d get invited on Blue Peter and poor Andy – he’d always be the workhorse at the RI – I’d be like, Andy, I could say that I need some help on Blue Peter if you fancy coming up for like the afternoon. It worked for both of us. But then Andy left.
At this point, I was running my own business where I was writing shows and taking shows internationally to coding and engineering shows, and his job became available.
I did not see that job becoming available in my lifetime, so I had to apply.
I’m so glad I did it. I don’t work there anymore, but I’m so glad I did it, because I learned so much. And it gave me so much confidence. I’d always been quite hard on myself… when I was building things, no matter what schedule I set myself, I always seemed to be rushing up to the last minute and things wouldn’t quite be working. I’d be like, Fran, why are you doing this to yourself?
And then I realised that, even at the RI, that happens, and the RI has been around for 220 years, and if the RI does it, then maybe it’s OK that I do it.
HS: I must admit, I only know the Royal Institution through the Christmas Lectures.
FS: The Christmas Lectures is the flagship that everyone thinks of when they think of the Royal Institution. And I realised that it’s actually a very small part of what the RI does.
I suppose, just like with any other TV programme, it’s underfunded, it’s under-scheduled… there’s a massive panic in making the demos. What you have got to build in the time allowed is unfathomable. And the team is incredible, how everyone works together. That was something that I had to learn as well: I’d been a freelancer, I had run my own business. I thought I knew teamwork, but I knew teamwork from a freelance perspective. And I have changed multifold since working at the RI in terms of how to work with people.
We worked so hard in those six weeks leading up to it. We wanted to make them the best we could be. And also for the lecturers, it’s such a chance for them: it’s decades of their work, and you want to help them explain it in the best way possible. But I also learned that having to do things last minute, that’s not just me, that’s just life.
HS: You’ve written a book: How to Build a Racing Car. What did you want to tell the world?
FS: What I really wanted to get across is that mistakes are all right. I had maker books as a kid, and it was actually recently I remember finding this book again full of things to do.
And it said on the front cover ‘for boys’ – I’d never seen that as a kid! I would try to make the things in the book, and my thing would not look like the thing in the book. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I’m the failure.’ And so, I really wanted to get across that it may not work first time. That’s not on you: that’s part of the process. And it’s a fun part of the process. You can look at what didn’t work and ask yourself, what if I do this differently? There’s a testing and tweaking part of the book where it’s like, how to make it faster, how to improve the traction.
And what I really wanted to try and get across was just fun. Not to ‘make engineering fun’, but just to show that it is fun. There’s definitely some dubious humour in the book. There’s not enough humour in science books. It just seems like science and engineering is put on this pedestal. What will you learn? Let’s make this worthy. Or, you could just have a play. We could laugh and make fart jokes.
There’s scientific proof of the power of learning through play, and that doesn’t have to stop when you’re three or four years old. And so, I just really want to get across this essence of fun, of making mistakes, and the process, rather than, ‘here’s one step – here’s another step, now do this, now here’s your perfect thing – now why doesn’t yours look like this?’ It’s more about the process than the product, I suppose. But the product itself is fun as well.
It will land differently with different people, you know – the brain is a wonderfully diverse thing. Some people do like strict rules. But this is why I sometimes believe that science is intimidating, and making is intimidating: because we’re taught that there’s a right and a wrong.
And we’re told that if you can’t get the right answer, then you must be stupid. If something doesn’t work straight away, then it’s on us. But that’s so wrong. It’s OK for something you’re building to not work. That idea of playing, of making mistakes, of getting things wrong, isn’t perpetuated enough. You know, don’t cry when it doesn’t work out. Just have a think and work it out.
And that’s frustrating, but frustration is just an emotion where we don’t know how to deal with what we’re experiencing. And what we’re experiencing is the unknown. And it’s only by experiencing the unknown that we can come up with new things. So, we need to harness this feeling of frustration and the unknown. Because if we don’t, we’re never going to come up with anything new.
HS: That makes so much sense. Can you tell us about being a judge on Lego Masters? That looks like another dream job.
FS: Lego Masters was a lot of fun. I was brought in for Lego Masters for the second series; in the first series, they had the Lego judge Matthew, who was excellent. And then there was an expert judge, and that would change every episode in the first series. I was brought in to assess the builds from an engineering perspective. The whole reason I got into TV was because when I was growing up, I was always a bit annoyed that on factual programmes, the woman was always there to ask questions, while the man was always the knowledgeable one. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, why does the woman not have to know anything? Why can’t they be the expert?’
And so that’s sort of why I made the beeline for being on TV. I’m an expert in science, I can talk; how hard could it be to get into TV?
What I found absolutely lovely was the people on the teams. It was a competition, but my God, it was not a competition. The contestants had to be held back from helping each other, because no one cared about winning: they were just so wonderfully happy to be in a room with that much Lego. And one thing I found lovely was that at the end of the first week of filming, we were like, ‘Oh are you guys going for dinner?’ And they were all going out to the Lego Store instead.
I really love people who are passionate about something. And if that something is engineering-based, even better. I really loved meeting the people and this was their passion, they loved it. What was even nicer was watching children meeting adults who still had that passion, and realising that it was OK to grow up loving Lego. They were getting this acceptance about who they were. They were only eight, you know, and saying, ‘Oh, I can still like this when I’m an adult’.
There are interesting things with TV. I’m a dungarees girl, and I was having to dress up and wear dresses every week. And I remember I would get an ASOS delivery to work and there were some women there who knew about fashion. I’d get eight dresses delivered each week and get someone to tell me what to wear, and then seven of the dresses would go back. I know it’s part of my job as a TV presenter to look presentable, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me – I’d much rather be on the farm in my overalls.
HS: You’ve said that you aren’t a science communicator, you’re a science translator. Is that still the case?
FS: What I was trying to get across there – so that was probably about ten years ago, that I was saying, ‘I’m not a science communicator, I’m a science translator’.
To me, science sometimes goes around and around in its bubble, and it talks in jargon. And everyone nods. And not everyone understands. But if you’re nodding, then surely you’re nodding because you understand. The thing about being a science translator was that I wanted to break that down and not use the jargon at all, but use words that everyone understands, and to actually explain concepts rather than just use the words.
But after that, I suppose I’ve re‑evaluated my definition of communication. And it’s because I used to think of communication as being broadcasting. Yeah, I mean, you communicate it out. And people will listen, maybe, maybe not. But now I define communication as something that only happens when the person who would want to receive information that you want them to receive actually received it. And if they haven’t received it and understood it, then you haven’t communicated; you’ve just broadcast.
HS: Oh, that’s excellent. I always thought it was a weird thing that in order to get on at say, undergraduate level, you’ve got to learn the jargon. But then if you listen to the top, top experts in any field, they just don’t use it all. They don’t have to impress anyone anymore.
FS: It’s like the classic thing that Einstein reputedly said: if you truly understand something, you can explain it to an eight-year-old. And working on children’s TV, there have been times when I’ve been asked to talk about density, or magnetism, and thought yeah, I can explain this. And then I’m like, oooh, hang on. Give me a little bit of time here!
HS: Do you find there is a big difference between presenting for adults and presenting for children?
FS: No. The only difference is tone. And I suppose using jargon. What I would do differently when presenting to a child is I have a thing. I think it’s getting better as I’m getting older, because I’m getting wrinkled and therefore I look wiser.
And so I have a thing of when I’m presenting, I have to prove my credibility. It’s just a societal thing; people think that I don’t look like I should know what I’m on about. So with that, when I’m presenting to adults, I will use jargon. And I will use jargon first, and then maybe explain it a little bit later. So you’d say, ‘This thing is buoyant’, and you would throw in the occasional jargonistic word just as this short cut to assumed knowledge.
And this is where you can use it in your favour. But I would never do that presenting to children. I sort of want children to think that they’re smarter than me, because science is put on this pedestal for kids. So if they think the person presenting science is brilliant, that means they could be scientist.
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Fantastic interview. So much wisdom gotten at and gotten out. And so inspiring. Thank you Fran and Ashley.
Raspberry Pi Staff Ashley Whittaker
She is GREAT isn’t she? However, you reminded me to alter the author as it wasn’t me, ’twas our Andrew Gregory from HackSpace magazine!