NI, Raspberry Pi and the next generation of engineers

21 November 2012

NIDays was held in London yesterday, and there were two main themes running throughout the event; education and productivity

For this newsletter I’d like to concentrate on the education aspect. It is a theme that I hear from many different sources; that the UK economy faces a drastic shortfall in engineers of all disciplines. There is an urgent need to reduce this deficit if the UK is to remain competitive in the global market. Children are naturally drawn to science and technology, but that interest gradually drops off at every age throughout the academic cycle until graduation. The main challenge is to capture that enthusiasm for exploration, reinforce it through the academic period and make it a relevant choice for a career.

Educational Keynote speaker, Dave Wilson, Director of Academic Programs at NI, suggested that to harness children’s natural enthusiasm for engineering it was important to reinforce any theory as soon as possible with fun, practical examples, or even to give the children the tools to explore without initially teaching theory. He stated that theoretical information usually is retained for about a week, but practical experimentation is retained longer. Information is retained even longer if the experiment fails or does not run as planned and the reason for the failure has to be investigated. NI has formed a partnership with Lego Mindstorm to try give children early access to experimental technology.

This view was reinforced by afternoon keynote speaker Robert Mullins from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, who said it would benefit the country as a whole if technology was a compulsory part of the curriculum in the UK. He said that at the moment children were taught to use applications like Word and Excel under the ICT banner, but children needed to interact with technology more and not look at it like a black box that interactive apps ran on. He also said that a grounding in technology could be integrated into other subjects like maths.

Mullins also said that he was amazed by the initial demand for Raspberry Pi boards, and there are future plans for getting more boards inside schools, hinting that corporate sponsorships was one avenue currently being explored. The Foundation was keen to get Raspberry Pis into the hand of children from all areas and backgrounds. There will also be a program to develop new boards that will give users access to the latest technology.

The academic keynote also included presentations from universities on how they could help enhance the learning experience and retain students in engineering disciplines. Dr Danielle George from the University of Manchester described a remarkable turnaround in the university’s electronics department from being ranked 34 of 36 in the annual survey for student satisfaction in 2009 to being ranked number 1 in 2010 with satisfaction ratings in the three categories over 90%.

The main reason for the change was a realisation that the department had to have a stronger direct link between theoretical and practical learning. The department authorised the purchase of 9 of NI’s ELVIS educational modules for use by the 180 first year electronics students and tailored theoretical learning around experiments on the modules. It proved such a success that all first year students now are presented with NI myDAQ modules, enabling then to study outside the classroom environment. The department has also invested in another 80 ELVIS modules to encourage learning with smaller workgroups.

The University of Leeds took a slightly different angle. Students there have to take part in a real-world project in every year of study, these projects are generally based round NI technology. Examples of these projects have featured highly in NI’s Graphical System Design awards and include a heart simulator, and a device to assist stroke victims regain movement. Courses at the university are based round teaching the students the theory behind the projects.

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