An entertaining bin? STEM programme realises schoolchildren’s creative engineering ideas

31 August 2018

Credit: Primary Engineer
Credit: Primary Engineer

“Without the constraints of ‘technical reality’, access to materials or expertise, children dare to dream,” says STEM education programme, Primary Engineer. Capturing such dreams, they are inspiring young minds to propose – even have realised – their innovative engineering solutions to everyday problems.

The Primary Engineer & Secondary Engineer Leaders Award has this year alone harnessed the creativity of over 37,000 primary and secondary school children inside the classroom. This unique annual competition for primary and secondary pupils brings schools and engineers together, and asks pupils: ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’

The pupils, some as young as 3, then identify problems to solve, drawing and annotating their solutions and writing to engineers explaining why their invention should be built. The competition sees pupils’ ingenious designs displayed in public exhibitions around the country, and some pupil inventions even being realised.

The programme is supported by engineering firms, professional engineering institutions and universities across the country. Engineers are interviewed by pupils, help in the grading process of the entries and university teams build prototypes, blogging and sharing the process.

Two great examples of this powerful fusion of expertise are winning design prototypes from 2017, which were recently unveiled at the awards ceremony at Kingston University. The two inventions, which were built by the prototype team at Kingston, were the Electricity Trampoline, which converts bouncing into electricity to charge mobile phones, and the Truggy – a travel buggy which is a cross between a pushchair and a suitcase.

These were invented by a twelve-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, demonstrating the innovative problem finding – and solving – skills of such young minds.

The Primary Engineer & Secondary Engineer Leaders Award is a free, annual competition awards programme open to all schools, nurseries and sixth forms. All students entering the competition must interview an engineer, find a problem and draw and annotate a solution to it, explaining why an engineer should build it. The competition opens in September 2018 and closes in March 2019. During this period live interview sessions will be broadcast over the internet and local engineers will be sourced to visit schools.

Bella Hunt's illustration of her brainchild, the 'Fun Noisy Rubbish Bin' (end result pictured above)
Bella Hunt's illustration of her brainchild, the 'Fun Noisy Rubbish Bin' (end result pictured above)

The concept is a simple one, with children answering the question: “If you were an engineer, what would you do?”.

Dr. Susan Scurlock, founder of Primary Engineer and creator of the awards said: “I am inspired each and every time I attend a Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer Leaders’ Awards ceremony. We are creating engineering stories of invention, care and attention and frequently fun that you hear people re-telling spreading the stories of engineering to an ever- widening audience.’

7 year-old Bella Hunt, from May Park Primary School, wanted a solution to a problem that often applies to children and adults alike: the fact that tidying up is a chore. Bella’s ‘Fun Noisy Rubbish Bin’ was designed to stop littering and encourage more children to recycle their rubbish. It inspired the engineers at the University of Southampton to build it, visiting Bella’s school and sharing the process widely. The Fun Noisy Rubbish Bin informs pupils who use it with facts about recycling.

Said Dr Steve Dorney, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton: “We were so impressed by many of the designs from pupils, but Bella’s drawing really stood out. The Fun Noisy Rubbish Bin helps clean up schools – but most importantly – keeps it fun! We were very pleased to be able take Bella’s design and create a prototype with engineering students for their Group Design Project.”

Professor Mark Miodownik, UCL Mechanical Engineering at University College London is no stranger to innovation himself. In his book, Stuff Matters, which reveals the miracles of craft, design, engineering and ingenuity that surround us every day. Miodownik works from the mantra: ‘everything is made of something’.

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

“I have been truly inspired,” said the Professor, “by the innovative approach taken by all the pupils who entered the Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer Leaders Awards – and I’m so impressed with the winners for coming up with superbly creative solutions to some of society's problems. The Primary & Secondary Engineer Leaders’ Awards exhibitions are so clearly nurturing creativity in the young – that will give us the engineers of the future.”

It is not only schools that benefit from the programme, moreover. Many engineering firms across the country have taken on board the concept, and to date, over 850 engineers have helped by being interviewed and by judging the entries to the Primary Engineer Leaders’ Awards competition.

Babcock International has been supporting Primary & Secondary Engineer Leaders’ Awards for some time. As Sean Donaldson, Babcock’s managing director of the Rosyth site, explains: “Babcock has long been a supporter of the excellent work carried out by Primary Engineer to promote STEM activities at schools across the UK, and it was particularly exciting for us to take part in this event during the Year of Engineering – of which we are a proud partner.

“We were really impressed with the invention ideas from our aspiring engineers of the future – they were incredibly inspiring, and I look forward to continuing our support of Primary Engineer’s work.”

For more information, visit, which details the campaign further, and also offers the option to join the programme.

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