Widening Participation: exploring farming past and future

Written by Adam Lines, The MERL’s Widening Participation Project Officer

This week, the first of seven sessions with pupils from Reading Girls’ School took place at The MERL as part of a student project inspired by the Earthshot Prize.

The Girls’ School pupils have been given a plot of land on the school grounds to cultivate and conserve. At The MERL, we’re supporting this project through a STEM Widening Participation programme, developed in partnership with the school’s teaching staff.

Exploring the museum collections

The first session was centred around the past, present and future of farm cultivation, and the technologies that continue to drive these today.

The first part of the session gave pupils a chance to explore the museum collection. They were divided into two groups which alternated between two activities. One half explored items in the museum galleries, such as a threshing machine and tractor, while the other had the chance to handle museum objects and examine photographs from our archives that showed those objects being used in the past.

A model threshing machine from The MERL collection.
This model threshing machine was made in 1847 by Barrett, Exall & Andrewes of Katesgrove Iron Works, Reading. The machine itself was likely driven by four horses, and the operator stood on the platform. This model was probably made at the same time as the machine was in production. It is designed to be driven by a small clockwork motor. (MERL 51/2)

The pupils were asked to think about what these objects could be and think about what they might have been used for. It was fascinating to hear the students’ thoughts and perceptions, and we could see that they were certainly beginning to appreciate the appreciate the chronology of the development and innovation of farm tools.

Driverless tractors, farming TikTok, and a Wall-E for strawberries

We were then joined by Dr David Rose from the University of Reading’s Department of Agriculture, who gave a presentation about developments in driverless tractors and virtual livestock fences.

Dr David Rose speaking to pupils The Learning Studio
Dr David Rose speaks to the pupils about the future of farming.

Dr Rose showcased a number of videosincluding several TikToksfrom women farmers highlighting a variety of technologies they rely on daily to run their farms.

Pupils then had a chance to play as engineers, designing their own robots for picking strawberries which proved very popular and wonderfully imaginative. 

Pupils' designs for a strawberry-picking robot
Several examples of the pupils’ wonderful designs for a strawberry-picking robot! What would you name it? 

We were really delighted to explore these topics with the Reading Girls’ School students, and it was incredible to see their imaginations come to life as they thought about farming past and future. And, in an incredible turn, so were the Food and Agriculture Organisation (part of the United Nations). Dr Rose shared the girls’ designs with them, and the UN department wrote back to say that they are ‘glad to see how the next generation is already working to solve the food challenges of today, making us in good shape for those of tomorrow’.

We’re looking forward to future sessions, where we’ll be covering topics that include the benefits of trees for the environment, issues of contemporary pollution, and ways of managing sustainable food production and building a resilient future. 

This visit formed part of The MERL’s Widening Participation learning programmes, increasing access to museum collections and experiences in higher education.

If you would like to discover more about our work with schools, or speak with a member of The MERL learning team, then please email the museum’s Widening Participation Project Officer or visit our Widening Participation page.

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