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Raspberry Pi competition sparks interest in Stem careers

A competition run by PA Consulting encourages schoolchildren to use Raspberry Pis to create projects that solve real-world problems

PA Consulting has announced the winners of its fourth Raspberry Pi coding competition, an annual challenge that aims to encourage children to further pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

Groups of children from schools across the country sought to create a project that would solve a real-world problem – using a Raspberry Pi. This year’s challenge was to invent projects that would drive innovation in the sports and leisure sector.

The competition was set up four years ago to make sure the next generation is passionate about innovation, and to highlight the often overlooked soft skills that are needed in a technology job, said Anita Chandraker, head of the digital service team at PA Consulting Group and chair of the competition’s judging panel.

“Young people need to learn to code, but we’ve also seen and learnt that teamwork is equally important,” she said. “We have seen teams where some children are into engineering, some into coding and others are great at marketing. It’s this teamwork which creates fantastic inventions.”

Tackling the Stem skills gap

Many people believe Stem careers have a negative stereotype, and too few role models in entry-level positions has been blamed for a lack of young people, and girls in particular, seeking careers in these areas.

As part of PA Consulting’s competition day, entrants were given the opportunity to take part in a “speed networking” session with business leaders and people from industry, allowing the children to find out more about Stem careers.

Sarah Maskell, wing commander and diversity and inclusion advocate for the Royal Airforce, said taking part in the speed networking exercise allowed her to showcase Stem-related jobs in her sector and break down the stereotypes surrounding them.

She said it was “critical” to make sure the Royal Airforce was seen as an employer of choice in the eyes of the next generation.

“In my own organisation, the Royal Airforce, 50% of jobs are Stem related, so recognising that there’s a talent deficit in the Stem environment in the UK, especially for women, is absolutely critical,” said Maskell.

“We need to make sure we get this talent to work for us, but also make sure there’s a pipeline so that when these boys and girls who are currently in primary school or junior school move on to the secondary environment, they understand the route to working in these professions or industries.”

Maskell talked to the children about tackling challenges and problem solving, and highlighted how some of the skills they use in day-to-day tasks can be applied to wider projects.

She said a lot of the children involved in the competition day had taken away a fresh view of how the processes they went through in developing their Raspberry Pi initiatives were equivalent to business issues.

Breaking down Stem stereotypes

A previous competition winner, Tom Hartley, also took part in the speed networking activity to tell the children what he had gained from his experience as a participant.

“It’s about capitalising on all the opportunities that are thrown at you, especially when it comes to competitions like this,” Hartley advised. “Don’t be afraid to try things and to fail. Failure shows you’re doing something different and new.”

Hartley’s Raspberry Pi project was a small outdoor weather sensor, which he designed to fit the project specification: Technology that could change the world.

After manufacturing and selling the development kit for his device, he put the project to one side to attend university. He is now head of the robotics society at Imperial College London. 

To meet his aim of recruiting more women into the society, Hartley has started the process by electing more women onto the society’s committee in an attempt to make girls feel more comfortable when applying.

“They deserve to be there,” he said. “It’s easy to think the gender gap is something that will fix itself, but it actually needs a lot of focus and work.”

The competition winners

Of the nine participating schools, the winners of the 2016 Raspberry Pi coding competition were:

  • Egglescliffe CE Primary School, whose team of eight to ten-year-olds developed a competitive game called Colour Smash, which is designed to test people’s reflexes and reaction speeds.
  • Wick High School, whose team of 11 to 16-year-olds developed an app-controlled robot, designed to provide live video streams of rugby matches from the pitch.
  • Highgate School, whose 16 to 19-year-olds designed a photo finish image capture device, which uses infrared motion sensors to accurately document the exact finish time of races.

Maggie Philbin, CEO of TeenTech, claimed events that combine technology and creativity help break down the stereotypes around Stem careers, encouraging children to pursue more technical subjects.

“It’s a real reminder to me what kids are capable of, so when people tell me kids won’t be interested or it’s too complicated, I know they’re actually capable of some amazing things,” she said.

Teachers are a great part of running the event and encouraging the children in their classes to take part, and Philbin believes teachers who are enthusiastic about Stem should receive more recognition.

“These teachers have spent hours working with these young people, but they get no real rewards and very little credit or recognition,” said Philbin.

Read more about digital skills

  • Creative industries such as media, marketing, advertising and sales place more value on digital skills than IT and telecoms sector does.
  • Almost half of employers think UK firms would be more productive if there was a higher level of digital skills.

Read more on IT education and training

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My sister teaches elementary school students in a neighboring county, and has great success using a Raspberry Pi, spinbots, and many other inexpensive technologies to spark interest STEM subjects. The really interesting thing is that it affects more than just the students - it also sparks interest in the other teachers, the school system and, perhaps more importantly, the parents.
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