"Now I know what an engineer does, I want to be one!"

Kisha working with the students to make solar-powered cars

Kisha working with the students to make solar-powered cars

In my previous blog post I described the challenge set by Tracey and how my rumination on the topic brought me to the decision to design a programme that would teach Design Thinking. Tracey paired me up with her colleague at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Helen Valentine (Young People, Enterprise, and Skills), who would play a vital role in liaising with the schools and in sense-checking the materials and content that I produced. Helen leads on the IKIC (I Know I Can) Big Challenge, an annual enterprise competition for young people in the borough, and has also organised delegations from Barnsley to take place in TeenTech, a UK-wide competition that educates and inspires young people in STEM.

The intention was to provide a broad overview of what the students should learn, provide some useful resources and materials, and leave the decision over how to teach this with the experts, i.e. the teachers. The programme would culminate in a full day of learning and activities, held at Barnsley Digital Media Centre, where the students would have the chance to present their solution to a panel of judges.

How might we...

I set ten “Design Challenges” from which the student groups could choose one to work on. The Design Challenges encouraged students to consider topics such as how to future-proof public transport; how to make their community more supportive for elderly neighbours; how to encourage more environmentally-friendly behaviours; how to make themselves healthier and happier; or how they might design the house of the future. In other words, the students were given real-world challenges and encouraged to think big. The Design Challenges were phrased as “How might we…” questions, which is a methodology developed by IDEO. "How might we..." questions are perfect for innovative thinking because, "they suggest that a solution is possible and they offer you the chance to answer them in a variety of ways."

Tech as an enabler... it helps us to solve a problem

The Design Challenges were purposefully not tech specific because I wanted to impart to students the learning that, first and foremost, tech is a tool to solve a problem. Before building apps for everything, the students should understand how these challenges affect the people involved, and then they can be encouraged to include tech in their solution. This is an important concept, tech is an enabler, i.e. it is a tool that helps us to solve a problem.

The example I gave to illuminate this was as follows: “Think about communicating with your friends. You could walk over to their house, knock on their door, and speak to them face-to-face. You could wait to see them at school and talk to them then. You could write a letter and put it in the post. You could find a pay phone and give them a call." But what we tend to do these days is send them a text message, WhatsApp them, write to them on Facebook messenger, send them a Snapchat, or tag them in a photo on Instagram. Whatever you do, the outcome is still the same, you are still communicating with your friends, but the tech has made it quicker, easier, and often, more fun too. Tech has helped you to solve the problem of you being in one place, your friend being elsewhere, and not being able to communicate instantly.”

TechTown Lab: A day of learning & activities

Tracey, Helen and I had agreed early on that we wanted to include a practical element to the programme. Alongside this, we wanted introduce students to possible careers in digital and tech by inviting in people working in these sectors to talk about their work. I had just the right two individuals in mind for this project, Kisha Bradley and Ruth Amos, and then Kisha introduced me to Alison Buxton, who was the perfect addition to complete the trio. These three amazing women are all engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs, and have tons of experience running activities for young people. Our panel of judges comprised of Ben Marsh, Hannah Bailey, and Shaun Waddington, and we were also joined by Craig Burgess, our TechTown Lab Entrepreneur-in-Residence, founder and CEO of Genius Division, and the host of a daily podcast about design.

I started the day with an introduction to Design Thinking, and showed a couple of YouTube videos that bring a lot of the learning to life: a clip about James Dyson (have a guess at how many prototypes he designed before he settled on the final version...)* and a feature called "Digital Future 2030" which is well worth watching for an inspiring / exciting / slightly terrifying visions of the future.

"I loved learning about jobs in design & engineering"

I then passed over to introduce our three wonderful activity leaders. Kisha Bradley is an engineer and entrepreneur, and the founder of My Bright Toys. She gave an honest account of the joys and some of the struggles of studying engineering, and how she was inspired to start her company so that she could engage young girls in engineering through play. She also told us about some pretty cool engineering projects that she had been a part of at university - making a wireless charger for electric cars for example! 

Dr Alison Buxton is the founder and Director of The Discovery Project. She runs workshops and programmes for children and young people in schools, showing them the fun that comes with solving a problem or creating a new product using simple engineering techniques. Her PhD was about how young people make career choices, so she was the perfect person to talk authoritatively about some of the pressures that young people face... the dreaded question being "what do you want to be when you grow up?". She, like all of our speakers, reassured the students that no one ever knows the answer to this question!

Alison helping the students to make LED light up badges and keyrings

Alison helping the students to make LED light up badges and keyrings

We then heard from Ruth Amos, founder of StairSteady, a invention that she came up with as a 16 year old and that is now sold worldwide. Ruth shone a light on what it was like to make the decision *not* to go to university, and deciding instead to pursue being an inventor and entrepreneur. Amongst many other projects, Ruth now runs the Kids Invent Stuff YouTube channel, whereby her and her co-presenter Shawn take kids' inventions and make them come to life, building extraordinary contraptions such as a flame-throwing piano and a custard-firing superhero suit.

Before the students presented their solution to their chosen Design Challenge, we introduced our wonderful panel of judges: Ben Marsh (Digital Coordinator at Barnsley Libraries), Hannah Bailey (Digital Outreach at Berneslai Homes), Shaun Waddington (from local IT firm, Code Green), and Craig Burgess (founder of Genius Division). Craig gave a brilliant talk about his job as a designer, what skills he uses on a daily basis, and the sorts of projects he's been involved with. You can hear him talk on this theme on this podcast episode

Ruth leading on the messiest activity of them all... SLIME!

Ruth leading on the messiest activity of them all... SLIME!

All four of our speakers, Kisha, Alison, Ruth, and Craig, were down-to-earth, relatable, and honest. They all spoke about the fun and satisfaction that comes with solving a problem and being able to create, design, and built a solution. They talked about all the times that things had gone wrong, and how they had learnt from those mistakes. The feedback forms at the end of the day showed how much the students got from these talks... "I was thinking about doing tech or engineering already but I now definitely want to because I know more about it". "I most enjoyed learning about what people do in engineering and design." "I enjoyed hearing about the different engineering jobs."

"It's not going to be right first time... just keep trying"

The three groups took turns to present their response to the Design Challenges. We had "Up-and-Mat'em", an alarm clock that only turns off when you go and stand on a mat downstairs. The "Washermashen" was a "mash-up" of washing machine, dryer, general tidier, and incorporated a sound system. And the "Crown Clock" was an all-singing, all-dancing alarm clock that linked via Bluetooth and WiFi to the curtains, light switches, entertainment systems, and tea-making facilities. All the groups had clearly put a lot of thought into their designs, and were able to answer the judges' questions about having gone to speak to people and test out their prototypes. Some of the students were quite nervous at presenting, but each and every one of them participated. It was great to see!

The winning team, "Up-and-Mat'em"

The winning team, "Up-and-Mat'em"

The afternoon activities were a lot of fun. Kisha was working with groups to make solar-powered cars; Ruth had the students getting their hands stuck in to make magnetic slime; and Alison had all the fun craft materials to make LED light up badges and key-rings. It was a real joy to see how engaged and focussed the kids were as they got stuck in to "making".

What's next?

The feedback that we received from the students hit all the right notes. They had enjoyed the activities: "I loved playing with the slime!", "I enjoying making the solar panelled car", "It was fun designing my keyring". They had learnt a lot about different jobs in tech, engineering, and design: "I now know what I want to do for a career, some sort of engineer or in tech. I was thinking about doing it already but I now definitely do because I know more about it". And, they had come away with a better understanding of how to creatively solve a problem: "I should talk to different people about our prototypes to get a better understanding", "I learnt to create prototypes and see which is best one", "I will think about how I would resolve the problem, to be more creative, and never give up". There are some tweaks to be made to the format of the day (mostly around timing), and we'd want to jazz up the teaching materials too, but generally, we were really pleased with how the day went.

The trickiest part of a project like this is how to fit it into school time... because of the emphasis on teaching the curriculum (and teaching for exams...), a project such as this has to be extra-curricular. The trouble with that is not only around available resources, teacher time, and students participating, but it also means that it doesn't reach all pupils - self-selecting based on participation in STEM clubs for example means that we'd miss out all those pupils who have written off STEM as "something I'm not good at". An awareness of all of this is important, and in the new academic year I hope that there'll be an opportunity to think creatively about how we overcome that challenge...