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University’s engineering star lands gold at national awards

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Published on 21 November 2023

Francesca Mobberley's prototype unveiling at the University of Sunderland
Francesca Mobberley's prototype unveiling at the University of Sunderland

A school pupil whose engineering talents were discovered at the University in Sunderland has gone on to win a top prize for her children’s hospital invention at a prestigious national award ceremony in London.

Francesca Mobberley, from Dame Allan’s Junior School in Newcastle, first wowed a panel of engineering experts in 2022 with her Unicorn Health Bot (Unibot), which is designed to keep children calm in hospital and offer a pleasant distraction, while using electronic sensors in its horn to read important information, including heart rate, oxygen levels and temperature.

The eight-year-old’s design was crowned one of the winners of the Primary Engineer annual Leaders Award competition, ‘If You Were An Engineer, What Would You Do?’ hosted by the University at its David Goldman Technology Centre, St Peter’s Campus, for the north-east region.

The national competition sees tens of thousands of pupils across the UK, from reception to Year 13, identify problems – large and small – and design solutions to solve them. All entries are graded by engineers and all pupils receive a graded certificate.

When the competition returned to the University in June this year, Francesca’s Unibot was revealed for the first time as a working protype – thanks to a team of University engineering experts, or ‘ProtoTeam’ – Electronic and Electrical Lecturer Dr Abdu Shaalan and Spyros Fakiridis, and Associate Head of the University’s School of Engineering, David Knapton. They also created a smaller 3D model for Francesca to take home with her.

David said: “The idea demonstrates the importance of engineering technology solving problems in other sectors and enabling ideas from the classroom to become a reality is a privilege.

“We used technologies from industrial monitoring proven through our research together with experience in product design to enhance Francesca’s idea. The result is an interactive toy that can monitor patients’ vital health statistics and transmit results to medical staff on a hospital. This can improve patient experience and comfort.”

In November this year, school pupils, university partners and engineers from all over the UK travelled to London for the highly prestigious Primary Engineer MacRobert Medal award ceremony, including Francesca and Sunderland’s ProtoTeam.

The event, which was hosted at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, celebrates the people who have turned the ideas of school pupils into reality.

The ceremony consisted of three gold medals, two silver and two bronze.

Francesca’s Unibot prototype received a gold prize.

David Knapton said: “We are thrilled that our hard work has been recognised and presented with this award against a high level of competition.

“We are thankful to Francesca for the idea. It is pleasing to see the future of engineering is in safe hands and impressive to see a range of such inventions to solve real world problems – many of these were on a sustainability or healthcare theme.

“As for the future of the Unicorn Health Bot, there are so many areas this could impact on future research, and we hope soon to be able to test this more fully.”

While developing the prototype, David and the team worked closely with colleagues from the University’s Helen McArdle Nursing and Care Research Institute.

Head of the institute and Professor of Health Services Research, Yitka Graham, explained: “The Health and Care Interdisciplinary Research Network supports health-based research, innovation and knowledge exchange activity across all Faculties. 

“I was delighted to have a further opportunity to work with the University’s School of Engineering to support the Young Engineer project by arranging a focus group with the Young Person's Group at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust. Together with Abdu, we presented the prototype and collaboratively explored ideas with the Group, getting first-hand feedback from potential service users to help refine the design and explore wider potential for use across a range of healthcare settings.

“I offer my deepest congratulations to the team for their well-deserved gold medal."

Dr Susan Scurlock MBE, Founder and Chief Executive of Primary Engineer, spoke at the award ceremony and said: “The young people who entered the competition at the outset may not have known what engineering is, but now they know what engineering does - it helps people, saves the planet and makes the world a better place. The quality of the ideas and designs has completely blown us away this year, with it being an exceptionally tough job for the judges to decide the winners from our shortlisted prototypes, all of which have incredible potential to impact the real world.

“What these inspiring school pupils, university students and engineers have shown us above all else is that “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” is a question that has the potential to change more than we know!”

You can find a full list of the winners and learn more about each prototype here.