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BBC micro:bit Model Rocket Car Competition sparks creative interest in Stem

Microsoft and the Bloodhound Project explain how focusing on the creative side of tech helps drive children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and maths careers

Microsoft and the Bloodhound Project have launched an engineering competition to encourage more children into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers using the BBC micro:bit.

As part of the BBC micro:bit Model Rocket Car Challenge, teams made up of Year Seven and sixth form students are building model rocket fuel-powered cars from foam before implanting a micro:bit to capture racing data.

The onboard micro:bit will record real-time data from the cars during races. This, combined with data from a micro:bit placed at the finish line, will help pupils tweak the designs of their cars to make them faster. The fastest cars from across the country will race against each other in June 2016.

Mark Chapman, chief engineer at Bloodhound, claimed mixing the disciplines of engineering and technology, and presenting them in a creative way for the project, is an attempt to encourage young people to further pursue Stem studies. 

“For the children to actually build something and fire it on the playground at their school is amazing,” Chapman said. “If, at the age of 12, 13, 14, they think a job in engineering is boring, projects like this are really important to get them engaged.”

Engaging children early

Bloodhound originally ran the event without Microsoft’s data analytics capabilities, but felt it was important to give the competition more dimensions – allowing the kids to analyse car data and adapt their design accordingly shows a practical demonstration of how technology can be used in industry.

One of the teams reached 533mph with their car, and will use the data collected by the micro:bit to attempt a faster time in the final.

Chapman said it was better to target children as early as possible, to spark an interest in Stem subjects while they are still creative and curious, and before they have been exposed to industry stereotypes.

“We need a generation that will question politicians and economists. It’s no longer acceptable to say you can’t understand technology or maths, and hopefully projects like this will get them interested.”

To encourage a better level of digital knowledge in children, the UK government introduced computing and computational thinking as a mandatory subject from the ages of five to 16 in schools.   

But the IT industry is currently suffering from an IT skills gap and a dry pipeline as industry struggles to find skilled candidates to fill roles.

Not coding, creating

Andrew Webber, emerging developer audience lead at Microsoft, claimed adding the engineering and data analysis angles to the creative rocket car project is “grasping that age group, both girls and boys” without seeming daunting or boring. 

“We talk about not coding, but creating – it’s a totally different discussion,” he said.

Webber claimed the industry is facing a “ticking time bomb for digital skills” as more young people leave education without the skills needed for business.

To prevent this, Webber proposed that the Stem and education industries should work together to ensure students are “more employable when they leave school”, adding that “Microsoft has for the past 30 years been looking to help both teachers and young people engage in computational thinking”.

Teaching exceptional children

Melanie Podya, an information and communications technology (ICT) teacher at competition participant Kennet Secondary School, claimed it’s a misconception that schools and industries are at loggerheads over skills. 

“We tend to think about industry and education as having two different agendas, and actually they don’t,” she said. 

“We both invest in our people to help them reach their potential, to help them come up with the most creative solutions, to get to the top and be the best they can be.”

Podya claimed she commonly asks industry speakers to come to classes to explain to children what a job in the IT industry is like, and industry professionals are often surprised at how advanced kids are in computational thinking and technology skills.

Making sure both students and industry are “switched on” to opportunities for work throughout the pipeline is important in closing the skills gap, said Podya.

“We’re teaching them to problem solve, and they don’t do that in other subjects and that’s why it’s key,” she said.

“To have someone from industry come in and say ‘you, right now, could work for us’ – what more inspiration do you want?”

Projects such as the BBC micro:bit Model Rocket Car Competition are important, said Podya, because they demonstrate to children where skills they are learning in school can be applied to industry.

Podya explained the technology industry is becoming more about teamwork and creativity, putting an emphasis on soft skills as well as development skills.

“It’s a common opinion that only exceptionally bright people do computer science, and that is so untrue. You’re always going to get the exceptional child who doesn’t have soft skills by the nature of the subject, but I’ve seen a huge change in the 10 years I’ve been in education,” she said.

“It just becomes the subject that everybody can do, and that’s what we need to make it – not a niche subject, a subject that everyone can do.”

Read more about Stem

  • A Stem competition run by PA Consulting encourages schoolchildren to use Raspberry Pis to create projects that solve real-world problems. 
  • BT joins Ericsson, O2 and Vodafone to create a mentoring scheme encouraging girls into Stem careers.

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