Annual Review 2020: Responding to Coronavirus

Producing PPE for the NHS

The University answered the urgent call for personal protective equipment (PPE) on the frontline of the NHS through two separate projects in the city. Firstly, engineers at the University worked with Plympton-based Prestige Packaging to design and manufacture a new series of recyclable face shields. Fully tested and certified as meeting BSI standards, 20,000 of the shields were readied for procurement by the NHS. The initiative was first conceived by Dr Antony Robotham, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering, with the aim of providing a safe form of protection for frontline staff which had the least possible environmental impact. The institution also joined a city-wide consortium to help manufacture components for medical PPE, including 3D-printed face shields.

Technical and research staff from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business, and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, used 3D printing equipment housed in the new Digital Fabrication Laboratory and the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, as well as labs within Smeaton Building and at Plymouth Science Park. 

The consortium involved a range of partners including Babcock International, Plymouth Science Park, the Royal Navy and Plymouth College of Art, as well as independent 3D printing enthusiasts from the city’s maker community.

It is a true demonstration of the valuable public contribution this and other universities make. It also exemplifies the value of creative subjects and creative interdisciplinary thinking in relation to innovative and adaptive problem solving.

Chris Bennewith, Professor of Interactive Art and Design, and Head of the School of Art, Design and Architecture.

Student diaries offer glimpse of life inside the NHS

A series of video diaries recorded by University students while working in the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic reached a national audience in the summer after being featured on the BBC. The diaries, recorded by 2nd-year BSc (Hons) Adult Nursing student Joy O’Gorman, offered a unique insight into life on the NHS ‘front line’ at the height of the pandemic. The project arose from Joy’s participation in the Council of Deans of Health 150 Leaders programme. They featured Joy herself on placement at Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, and diaries recorded by final-year BSc (Hons) Dietetics student Olivia Mason while working at Poole Hospital in Dorset, as well as live interviews with final-year midwifery student Abbie Rich.

This project is hugely valuable in raising awareness of the contribution students have made over the last few months, particularly in areas like dietetics, which do not traditionally receive much of the limelight. I hope their efforts will help people to see that caring for patients, whether suffering from COVID-19 or anything else, is very much a team effort, and that the contributions of all the professionals involved are equally crucial.

Professor Sara Demain, Head of the School of Health Professions

Help for home-schooling families

Two projects with a long-running tradition of providing educational and engaging content stepped up to provide new versions for young people being educated at home during lockdown. The first involved the hugely popular podcast series, Histories of the Unexpected, which produced a series of home-schooling ‘specials’ catering for children and parents. Developed by James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History, and Dr Sam Willis, author and television presenter, the series outlined the wealth of material available to anyone with access to the internet, such as virtual tours, books and engaging websites. It also launched a campaign to engage youngsters in ‘oral history’, encouraging them to interview their grandparents online and over the phone to find out about their own lives, memories and reflections on their past.


The second project involved the release of the Maths4All website by education experts, targeted at primary and secondary school learners having to work at home. Covering Reception pupils to those sitting GCSEs, the website draws together a broad range of material based upon more than a decade of research and development arising out of collaborative work between the Plymouth Institute of Education and teachers, both in the UK and internationally.

We are living through something that could possibly become a defining chapter in tomorrow’s history books. Through our Home-schooling Specials, we’re supporting history teaching and hoping to stimulate the imaginations of budding young historians.

James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History, and Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business

Impactful research across the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business

Academics from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business engaged with the pandemic and its implications across a range of projects and initiatives. For example, an international project led by Professor Anthony Caleshu from the School of Humanities and Performing Arts was awarded £110,000 to bring together 40 poets to write about coronavirus. The project will develop an interactive website for members of the public to take part in discussions and even submit their own work. Meanwhile, academics from the Built Environment Research Group worked with a Devon hospital to install thermal imaging scanners for a trial project on whether they could be used to keep the site COVID-19 free. The team worked with Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust to use thermal imaging scanners, normally used to research building sustainability, on patients and staff entering Newton Abbot Hospital.

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr, Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies from the Plymouth Institute of Education, has been researching the childminding sector for the past year, funded by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) charity, and has documented a number of deep issues that are contributing to an underlying decline in the number of childminders. And a study by academics in the Plymouth Business School found that parents forced to work from home as a result of the pandemic believe the experience could ultimately be a positive one for their family, with better work–life balance and greater connection to their children.

These findings were among the preliminary results released by Dr Jasmine Kelland, Lecturer in Human Resource Studies and Leadership in the Plymouth Business School, who surveyed 134 working parents of school-age children, asking them how their daily routines had changed as a result of the lockdown.


Students hitting the high notes in support of the community

The University’s students took centre stage with two music projects to support healthcare and wellbeing staff in the city. In the first, intercalated BA (Hons) Music undergraduate Sam Adedero recorded a music single with his Creative Change Plymouth group (containing another four University students) to raise money for Trevi House in Plymouth, one of only a handful of residential rehabilitation units for women in the UK and the only one that allows them to remain with their child while in treatment.

<p>Music student</p>

The second project saw music students working with their lecturers to produce a video of NHS workers singing, Lean on Me. The collaboration between the Emergency Department at the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust and the University involved more than 50 individual videos being mixed together with Bill Withers’ music. The production was then released online and has been viewed more than 23,000 times to date.

Being a musician is a relatively self-serving pastime, an inward process focused on creativity and expression. But with this, we have all been able to give back something more meaningful than entertainment.

Lee Whittock, Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Music degree, School of Humanities and Performing Arts.


Civic Engagement

A commitment to civic engagement is one of the defining characteristics of the University and has been for many years. The ‘Civic University’ is now an officially recognised model across the higher education sector, and one that Plymouth has helped to shape through its engagement with, and input to, the Civic University Commission. Indeed, it is developing its own Civic University Agreement with stakeholders across the region, which will place the economy and quality of life in the local community among the University’s strategic priorities, and serve to strengthen and celebrate the links between institution and location.

The last 12 months have really proven and tested the importance of the University’s role in the community. Whether it was supporting the national effort against coronavirus, or securing millions of pounds’ worth of European funding for the business community in Cornwall, the University has made a profound contribution. With the Strategy 2030 in place, and its particular focus upon significant industry partnerships, the institution is well placed to go on doing so for many generations to come.

Our civic impact