Dec 10

Next generation engineers

What happens when 110 Year 4 & 5 Primary School children meet a 1,000 mph car?

Last week I was lucky enough to give a talk at a local (Bristol, UK) Primary School about the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (Bloodhound SSC) project. I signed up as a 1K supporter pretty much as the scheme launched (Aug 2009) and as an Ambassador shortly after that. Having done a couple of STEM / Bloodhound Ambassador events and activities, this was my first Primary School and first solo talk.

The pupils at the school had been making their own cars and were keen to know more about how Bloodhound SSC is being made. As a mechanical engineer by first degree, it was an excellent opportunity to talk with the children and pass on some of my passion for engineering!!

One of the great innovative technologies being used with Bloodhound SSC is the use of composite fibres in the monocoque shell that houses Andy Green & the HTP (High Test Peroxide) tank. While a primary school probably doesn’t have access to carbon fibre and autoclaves, they do use papier-mâché (which is a composite material) – so I could legitimately say they were using the same basic engineering technologies as Bloodhound SSC!

I also had the opportunity to show a video of some of the high speed machining that Hanson’s are undertaking for the space frame. While there was no direct link to what they’re doing in the classroom, I wanted to show them actual metal cutting and the preparation needed before you slam £25k of spindle into aircraft grade aluminium.

I had a couple of key things to communicate (mainly around what engineers do, and the level of teamwork and cooperation needed in modern engineering challenges), plus lots of facts & figures about the car itself.  I had to decide what to start with to engage with the children, and keep them engaged for 30min. The animation of Bloodhound SSC racing a Eurofighter is great for this – it’s high tempo and has lots of reference points that helped keep momentum through the talk.

Bloodhound SSC – by a Year 5 student

I followed this with some background details on the car, fortunately the Education Team at Bloodhound SSC make all this stuff available for Ambassadors. We just need to pick it up and flesh out the narrative, and make it appropriate to the audience. At each point when I started to talk about fabricating the structure, or the composite shell – I could pull up a video from BHTV (Bloodhound Television) to illustrate what I was talking about.

I ended the presentation with the video of the rocket test in Newquay on 3 Oct 2012. A really great high point to end on!

After about 30min presentation, I was then bombarded with questions; such as “Why was there all that water when they were cutting the metal bits out?”, and “Why does Andy Green wear a crash helmet?”

Communicating effectively is critical to success in any field; engineering, business, primary school teaching. Having a clear message, sound facts, and a simple presentation really helps tell the story, whether it’s an investor pitch or a class of 8-10 year olds!

That’s (part of) what I do; clarify objectives & ambitions, into plans & narratives, that can be communicated & acted upon.

[In the slide deck below, the blank slides linked to the Bloodhound / Eurofighter race (not officially available), BHTV Episodes 1, 15 and 17]
[slideshare id=15575330&doc=bloodhoundschoolevent-121210124940-phpapp02]

Jan 21

BETTr learning

Learn to Draw a Horse - Vancouver 1980 - Uploaded on December 1, 2006 by Mikey G Ottawa

Learn to Draw a Horse - Vancouver 1980 - Uploaded on December 1, 2006 by Mikey G Ottawa

What do you get when you fill Olympia Hall, Earls Court with companies trying to sell technology to teachers? The BETT Show is possibly the largest exhibition of it’s sort in the world and certainly Europe.

What don’t you get? You probably don’t get much learning as a delegate.

I attended earlier shows in 2006/07 as part of Futurelab but as with all exhibitions the cost-benefit is sometimes hard to justify. Certainly now, as an independent consultant and working with start-ups, the exhibition is of minimal value. Leaving aside the cost of an actual stand, there’s travel and accommodation and most of a week out of the office. From memory Olympia has poor phone coverage inside (plus concentration breaking levels of noise) and no free WiFi.

I say from memory because I didn’t go to BETT. I did go to BETTr, one of a growing number of unconferences that are springing up alongside their glitzier cousins. The benefits are multiple, being a smaller gathering you actually get to talk to people.

BETTr was mostly developers and smaller companies that supply innovative technologies to schools and universities. I advise growing companies on how best to plan for the future and have a couple of interests in the education sector so that was a perfect match. There was only one teacher, but that in itself was a topic of discussion in a break out session.

I really like the unconference model. In particular we had a detailed discussion on how to engage teachers in the development process far earlier than is currently the case. People shared experiences, ideas, thoughts, barriers, solutions. Challenges included their limited time, curriculum constraints and the usual challenges of getting beyond the early adopters to mainstream. The most popular solution was to take teachers to the pub!

The demands of modern teaching are that for most teachers its more than a 5-day a week 9-5 job, but a way of life. INSET days were commented upon (not just at BETTr but also the twitter backchannel where I was posting along with others in the room and from all over the educational globe).

There wasn’t an action plan or formal report, but it sparked off lots of new ideas, rekindled some old ones, and put a few to rest. It also brought together folks I’ve been reading online so we could meet up, though the Friday night TeachMeetBETT09 was the main event for that.

A big thanks to Jukesie for organising and to all the supporters for making it happen.

Update: Looks like I’m not the only one recognising the difficulty of engaging teachers. Today’s Guardian is reporting on BSF still not getting sufficient engagement despite a new drive from the Government.