Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Routes into STEM, Watford Football Club

I was pleased to be invited, along with two of my colleagues from LJ Create, to help run the first two “Routes into STEM” events at Watford Football Club in South West Hertfordshire (UK), on the 3rd and 10th of November 2010.

The two STEM days were organised by the South West Hertfordshire SAPG. Each of these events consisted of a full day of combined Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics tasks for teams of students from a number of schools around the Watford area.

The school boys and girls, aged between 12 and 15, worked in teams of 4 or 5 to investigate a number of problems that we set them.

The United Kingdom, like many other countries around the world, sees the importance of promoting the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to school children in order to produce a strongly equipped workforce for the future. The aim of the Routes to STEM is to demonstrate to the school pupils that all four subjects work together in order to solve real world problems. The secondary aim of the day was to show the teachers who had attended how LJ Create’s resources could be used within problem solving activities.

Five students from the local college acted as mentors for the school pupils. At the beginning of the day, before the school kids arrived, we trained the college students on how to use the equipment. We also briefed them on the safety concerned regarding activities involving fast moving parts or high heat. The students were then able to join the school pupils as they arrived and supervise the activities. On the second day (which involved a much higher number of school pupils), the college students were joined by four helpers from a high school to provide us with a further supply of willing helpers.

The college and high school students did an incredible job as mentors, working with the school pupils during the activities. They were able to guide them through the technical parts of the activities and asked them questions about what was happening during the practical activities. A couple of the students showed a really strong teaching aptitude.

Teachers from the schools involved were free to observe or join in with any of the activities taking place, and chat with the students about the problems that the students were solving. It was interesting to see the pupils explain to their teacher why they had made a wind farm with their wind turbines in a specific configuration, or how they could program a robot to sort parts on a conveyor belt.

The Activities:
Here is a quick description of some of the activities. I won’t give too many of the secrets away as we will probably be using some of these activities again in future STEM events around the world...

Students arranged a number of small scale wind turbines (from ST100, our Sustainable Energy module) to build a wind farm and measured the power output. They investigated organising the turbines in parallel and series circuits and watching the combined voltage readings. They discovered what happened when turbines blocked each other. Some students were able to observe turbines that were not in the flow of the “wind” (an office fan) turning with the power generated with the power from the turbines that were in the flow of the wind

Each team of students used Tactic, a large-scale plastic construction kit to build a catapult capable of throwing a beam bag at a pyramid of plastic cubs.

The students were asked to use a variety of materials to build a crash buffer for a magnetic levitation train (part of our ST150 – Research and Design module). The students worked as a team to test the train with a large assortment of different buffers made out of balloons, cotton wool, folder paper, rubber bands and drinking straws. I was surprised at the variety of novel solutions that the teams came up with. Every team had a completely unique solution and could prove their designs using the impact sensors on the track.

The students used the Energy Simulator (also from ST100 – Sustainable Energy), a strategy computer game developed by LJ Create that would allow them to plan a green energy installation for a tropical Island used as a holiday resort.

A computer controlled robot and conveyor belt (from the ST240 – Robotics and Automation module) was used for one of the tasks. The school boys and girls were given a program that would select a part on a production line. The students had to add more lines of code to the program to make th robot move the part onto a conveyor belt and then turn on the belt to send the part to a sorting bin at the end of the belt. This activity was so popular that all the children involved wanted to stay after the activity had finished and program the robot do other things.

The students used the Beam Designer Simulation software from the ST121 Structures and Materials module. The teams configured the application to compare different types of beam structures and work out what type of beam can hold a specified mass and be made for a specified cost. This activity was a challenge for the students and I heard several cheers from the teams who worked out solutions to the problem.

One of the pneumatic panel trainers from ST270 - Pnuematics was used for the events. Students were asked to use the components on the panel trainer to construct a pneumatic door that operated using a button. The students were given a scematic diagram to work from and the activity involved identifying the pneumatic components on the diagram. Some of the groups not only completed the exercise, but went on to configure their doors to open and close at different speeds.

I was delighted to see the impact the event had on all the students, teachers and other guests who attended. Everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves. I couldn’t see a single student who was not involved with the activities. The students worked so well in their teams.

It was quite funny to see the school kids trying to get back to the activities as soon as possible during the refreshment breaks. I observed several students trying to drink their drinks as fast as possible, or wolfing down their biscuits, so they didn’t miss a minute of the tasks.

Another interesting observation was made whilst watching a team made up of students from two different schools that did not know each other before the event. After just one of the STEM activities, they were able to work as a team and even went on to win a prize for the best team of the day.

We had some really good feedback from the students and teachers who took part in the day and from the South West Hertfordshire SAPG who had invited us to the events and we are now all looking forward to the next one.