Bringing STEM to life – at Rapid speed

Author : Chris Calver, Education Manager at Rapid Electronics

08 June 2018

The depth of passion for STEM that exists in the UK was in full evidence at this year’s VEX Robotics National Championships. Snowfall over several days had virtually cut off parts of the country. But it did not stop many teams from braving treacherous road conditions and making arduous journeys to the event in Telford...

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Teachers were determined to ensure months of hard work did not go to waste – and students were desperate for the opportunity to win the chance to represent their country at a World Championship.

Rapid Electronics takes a great deal of pride in this. Through its Education division, the company has played a key role in co-ordinating the VEX Robotics and VEX IQ competitions.

From a handful of teams in 2012, participation now exceeds 1,500 students, aged 8 to 18, from all across the UK. Rapid’s work includes funding, mentoring and organisational support at a regional and national level.

Several schools have even become unofficial centres of excellence, having sent multiple teams to national and world events.

Before the current high level of focus on STEM education and the skills gap in UK engineering had become a regular news item, Rapid was already stressing the importance of giving students easy access to industry-grade electronics and engineering resources. The company always believed it had a role to play, with its products and knowledge being well suited to education. This in turn has resulted in obvious benefits to the business, increasing brand presence amongst future electronics engineers – and Rapid continues to take risks with new products or technologies.

Due to the popularity of its products within education, Rapid has always had close links with schools, colleges and universities. Rapid first supported engineering educational initiatives in 2004, when it partnered Toyota Manufacturing UK on the Toyota Technology Challenge (latterly the Toyota STEM Challenge), in which teams of pupils designed, built and raced environmentally friendly vehicles using solar power and PIC microcontroller technology. Rapid has also been a sponsor of numerous engineering competitions, such as the Jaguar Maths in Motion, Formula Schools and Formula Student challenges, and has also supported a range of individual schools with both one-off and ongoing STEM-based projects.

But why robotics, and why this particular platform? Chris Calver, Rapid’s Education Manager, explains more:

“Some years ago, I was working regularly with the STEM club of a local school who wanted a long-term project that the students could really get their teeth into. They also needed to include some programming, because this wasn’t an area they were covering at the time, and so a robotics project seemed like the ideal solution. We gathered together a group of students from Years 8 and 9 to introduce them to the VEX Robotics Competition, which had just launched in the UK.”

Calver himself has been an inspirational mentor to many schools, guiding teams from their very first taster sessions – all the way to competing at regional, national and international level with distinction. His enthusiasm, ideas and knowledge were often an important contributor to their success.

“We don’t only need to inspire students, we need to motivate them too,” says Calver. “Motivate them to carry on when the going gets tough, motivate them to push themselves further when success comes easily – and motivate them so that they themselves become an inspiration to others.”

There are two elements to the VEX platform: VRC, for students aged 11 to 18; and VEX IQ, a tool-less platform for Key Stages 2 and 3 – which both give students the opportunity to design, build and program competition-ready robots. The two platforms are ideal for building expertise in various programming languages, developing students’ understanding of mechanical engineering, electronics and CAD, and ultimately encouraging their problem-solving skills. Tweaking code and making in-competition repairs are the kind of experiences that help to prepare a student for a career in engineering: a vital field for securing the UK’s future economic growth.

One of the more impressive aspects of Rapid’s work with VEX and VEX IQ is the appeal both platforms have had for girls. The VEX IQ Challenge enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2016/17 with female participation equalling male for the first time, and the youngest UK girls’ team going on to compete at the World Championships. Henrietta Barnett School for Girls, based in North London, sent 11 teams in total to this year’s combined UK Finals – more than any other school.

Rapid was nominated for both a BEEAs (British Engineering Excellence Awards) Engineering Ambassador Award and an Elektra European Electronics Industry Awards Educational Support Award in 2017 for its work with VEX IQ. But it is not just in this field of educational robotics that Rapid is helping – as its branding states – to “bring STEM to life”. Any visitor to its stand at the BETT show (formerly known as the British Educational Training and Technology Show) each January will see a company with all the robotics, programming and coding bases covered.

Rapid was the first distributor to introduce NAO and Pepper to the UK – pioneering humanoid robots that are capable of speech and other intuitive means of communication. NAO and Pepper are now familiar faces, having been featured in numerous TV programmes about the capacity that robots could have for assisting humans in various aspects of daily life, including healthcare and retail environments.

“Our product range has made us an ideal partner for universities, colleges and UTCs,” says Calver. “We supply a wide range of equipment to UTCs, including electronics and facilities equipment, and have been able to offer specialist assistance for those with engineering and technology curriculums.”

Products like the NAO and Pepper are not only high in value, but technology rich. Rapid’s team runs training days and provides full technical support and assistance at marketing events.

“We realise that an educational institution is making a significant investment when they are 

buying one of these robots,” says Calver. “Our job is to give them the best possible support before, during and after the purchase.”

This year, Rapid has launched a new STEM enterprise for secondary schools, ‘Airgineers’, based on drone technology. Calver believes this fills a gap that exists in the curriculum.

“Drone racing, in a safe environment, is pretty exciting as an educational challenge, and is a great way to engage students. But it is also incredibly rich in STEM learning opportunities. 

Students get involved in 3D printing and CAD design, learn how to build their drone and understand how to fly it using configuration software.” Of course, controlling a drone, whether it is in autonomous or remote-controlled flight, is a highly skilled activity – with this technology now part of an engineering educational curriculum.

There has been huge interest in Airgineers, with many schools seeing it as an ideal Spring and Summer project. Ten heats will take place during June and July across the UK, from Jersey to Scotland, with plenty of schools already signed up to take part.

If Airgineers can ‘take off’ in the same way as VEX or VEX IQ, then Rapid will know, once again, that it is helping to develop the engineers of the future!

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