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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Innovative art and biological sciences project aims to reduce the risk of falls in vulnerable groups

Published: 22 February 2022
Bone Crayon
Bone Crayon: Image credit Public Engagement Research unit, University of Southampton

An interdisciplinary arts and biological sciences project, supported by the Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS) and the Public Engagement with Research unit (PERu), has developed an educational tool ‘The Bone Crayon’ that aims to help community groups such as the visually impaired and elderly improve their bone health and reduce the risk of fractures.

IfLS member Dr Claire Clarkin, an Associate Professor in Developmental and Skeletal Biology, in Biological Sciences at Southampton, has been working with Teaching Artist and Art Educator Louise Fraser, from Edinburgh, to develop ‘The Bone Crayon’ to improve broader understanding of bone structure function and raise awareness of the risk of falls and fractures.

The project has seen them pair combine their different expertise to produce the innovative, multi-layered, textured wax crayon that can be used to educate the public on the hidden internal layering and complexities of bones.

Claire’s research uses high-powered imaging techniques to develop 3D-scans of the complex organisation of blood vessels and cells in internal bone structure. She has shown how these structures change dramatically during exercise, age and disease. Louise was inspired by the hidden complexities of bone and created the ‘Bone Crayon’ - based on Claire’s images - to represent the concealed structures within the bone which are represented by many layers and colours.

The pair met during an online event called Art and Science on a Postcard run by ASCUS Art and Science - a non-profit organisation committed to bridging the gap between art design and the sciences - and decided to work together to address the key social challenge of the increasing risk of falls and bone fractures in the elderly.

Claire said: “Often science informs art but here both subject areas work together. Louise and I have explored the creative possibilities at the intersection of these two fields to create ‘The Bone Crayon’ which can be explored in multiple ways. This engages a wider audience with complex information in a fun and active way, through the physical movements of drawing, exploring the bone crayon through sculptural excavation and our senses of colour, texture, and smell.”

Increased falls and fracture prevalence have been shown to be associated with poor vision caused by common eye diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration, all of which are strongly age-related. By better educating groups of visually impaired and the elderly, they hope to continue to adapt and use the ‘Bone Crayon’ to increase the uptake of health advice, improve bone health and reduce fracture risk.

The main aims of the project are to:

  • Bring Southampton’s world-leading interdisciplinary research to isolated, vulnerable, local community groups.
  • Explore the intersection between Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths subjects (STEAM) through reflective learning and creative practice.
  • Educate vulnerable groups about bone health and fracture risk
  •  Discuss the challenges influencing bone health in vulnerable groups, such as reduced mobility with age, to better inform scientific research practice and experimental design.

Louise said: “Co-production through the ‘Bone Crayon’ allows for an individual and questioning approach to explore what was before unseen ‘our bones’. By providing a physical object to introduce and investigate bone health, we allow for an open and inclusive conversation.”

The crayon, discovery tools and materials are now available to be distributed and used by visually impaired and elderly communities, and recently had their first public outing at the University of Southampton Arts and Humanities Festival 2021 and further workshops will also be run as part of the Science and Engineering Festival in May 2022.

The project was supported by the Institute for Life Sciences and the Public Engagement with Research unit (PERu)

Bone Crayon
Image credit:Public Engagement Research unit University of Southampton
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