STEM Matters: from little acorns...

13 September 2017

Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor at EPDT

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. I’m often reminded of this proverb when I think about STEM education and inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists...

Science and engineering has enabled us – and indeed, continues to enable us – to do so many truly awe-inspiring things: build amazing structures; travel great distances by rail, road, water and air; dramatically reduce the impact of illness and disease, extending life expectancies; democratise access to powerful computing and communications technologies; even escape gravity and the earth’s atmosphere to put people and technology into space.

All these incredible achievements grew from a small idea or discovery, often aided by the work and ideas of others – whether by collaborative innovation or  separately building upon established concepts in an iterative process. The same is true of growing the engineers and scientists of tomorrow. Their curiosity, knowledge and skills must be nurtured and developed, building on the work of those who have gone before them – ultimately equipping this next generation with the tools (and resourcefulness) to discover, innovate and make the next big ideas and things to help us understand and improve the world around us.

Ask many engineers particularly of Gen X-age or older how they got started or developed their interest and they will often talk about taking apart and re-building things (radios, cars, clocks, cameras, computers, and so on) to discover how they worked, fix or improve them. This approach is often not as easy or possible with much of today’s technology (consider what’s under the bonnet of your average modern car, or indeed, the ubiquitous smartphone). But this natural curiosity and eagerness to get hands-on with technology is often still a familiar trait in many budding engineers and scientists.

Smart educators understand this and have figured out ways of injecting this into the learning process and journey, with successful academic courses featuring a high proportion of practical, hands-on laboratory and project work. And there are plenty of extracurricular options too, from student design competitions, like FIRST LEGO League and Formula Student, and engagement activities such as STEM Clubs or the Big Bang Fair, to work experience and placement opportunities, plus the growth of MakerSpaces, FabLabs and HackSpaces. A common element of much of this activity is resource constraints – whether it’s in materials, tools, budget or time. But I’m constantly amazed by how creative souls overcome these constraints to produce incredible results. Recently, I talked to the architects of a couple of examples.

Hyp-ED is a team of student engineers, scientists and others (including members of the business and art schools) at the University of Edinburgh, working on a concept and prototype for a Hyperloop pod. Serial inventor and entrepreneur, Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX fame), has proposed a mode of very high speed transportation, using specially-designed ‘capsules’ or ‘pods’ that travel at speeds of up to 760 mph (within 10mph of the speed of sound) through a tube maintained at a partial vacuum. This extraordinary top speed means Hyperloop could theoretically move passengers between London and Edinburgh in less than 30 minutes, a journey that currently takes over four hours by train. Musk’s SpaceX sponsor a global competition for teams to design and build a subscale prototype pod to demonstrate technical feasibility of various aspects of the Hyperloop concept.

The Hyp-ED team’s pod design was selected from hundreds of applications as one of 24 worldwide (including only a handful from Europe) to go forward to the competition’s 2016 Design Weekend in Texas, bringing home a prize for Subsystem Technical Excellence. Subsequently, the team has gone on to secure sponsorship funding and resources to build their prototype pod (named Poddy McPodface); and after successfully repeating their selection for the 2017 competition, they returned to Texas last month to demonstrate the prototype.

Team GlitterBomb is a team of robot builders who have competed in the BBC’s iconic Robot Wars, as well as regularly visiting schools and other venues to help inspire potential future STEM students. A family affair, the team consists of team captain and designer of the pink, sparkly and very formidable GlitterBomb robot, plus engineer and robot builder dad, James, with additional support and encouragement from costume maker mum, Rachel. Again, team GlitterBomb has proved resourcefully adept at pitching to local and national companies for support and sponsorship, in the form of (often advanced and high tech!) materials and parts, as well as access to workshop and tool facilities at their local university.

These two teams and the inspirational engineering they are doing fill me with a heady mixture of confidence, pride and hope that UK engineering is continuing to nuture little acorns... and grow mighty oaks!

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