Article - Issue 50, March 2012
Anna Paczuska and Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
North London STEM Club participants extracting plastic from milk. Students heated up whole milk before adding vinegar, causing the protein caesin to precipitate out of the milk as a white solid. Caesin is a long-chain molecule, or polymer, and the students were encouraged to mould the solid into different shapes, thereby making a comparison with other plastics
Thousands of UK schools are now running after-school clubs that give young people sustained, positive experiences of the creative excitement that engineering and technology can provide. Ingenia recently contacted hundreds of schools asking about their experience of running these clubs and specifically about programming physical devices. Scott Steedman, Editor-in-Chief of Ingenia, and Anna Paczuska, an education researcher and writer, considered the responses and give an overview of after-school club activity.
A new crop of after-school engineering and technology clubs has sprung up across the UK in the past decade. These clubs are aimed not just at older pupils already committed to studying engineering or other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, but also at younger secondary and even primary pupils. Some extraordinary projects have been undertaken, ranging from building a plane to developing applications for ‘smart’ textiles. Clubs have emerged in many different types of school, with gender being no barrier to access or success. Many clubs are diverse and inclusive, organised by staff motivated to increase the take-up of STEM subjects at all stages in the curriculum and perhaps even to stimulate more young people towards a related career.
The approach adopted by the vast majority of clubs is to engage young people in ‘real world’ activities, often using the latest technologies, to build or create something that works. This has enabled thousands of young people to see the study of STEM subjects as fun, exciting and relevant. Club leaders are consistent in their view that projects should be based on themes or activities chosen by the students themselves and that they should be ‘hands-on’ and closely related to what they can see and experience in the world around them.
Building eco-friendly buildings or ‘green’ cars have been popular choices for clubs, as has the never-ending interest in programming machines to race each other, climb over obstacles or carry out robotic tasks. Remote-controlled cars, jitterbugs and buggies are commonplace, while rockets continue to fire the imagination. In a nod to the television programme Scrapheap Challenge, at least one club has built go-karts from old bicycle frames. Some clubs have gone even further combining ‘classroom’ projects with a wider interaction with their school or local community based on ideas related to medicine, health, and consumer products, such as clothing.
Victoria Junior School Engineering Club Children race motorised buggies that they have designed and put together themselves © Davison
Building controllable devices
One major advance in recent years has been the availability of cheap programmable devices that allow students to design and make devices that produce computer-controlled movement. These allow pupils to experience the concept of a programming language and how logic may be used to structure a series of commands that control mechanical devices.
Controlling movement in a machine can be achieved using a simple Peripheral Interface Controller (PIC) or more advanced microprocessors. Microchips offer a useful introduction to programming without the need for expensive computer suites. To make things easier, a range of commercially supplied kits are now readily available, comprising simple programmable devices with software for as little as £2 each.
School clubs are also able to purchase reasonably priced microcontroller systems that help with an introduction to programming. PICAXE is a UK-sourced system based on a standard PIC microcontroller chip. Arduino is an open-source (free to use and develop) single-board microcontroller. Both systems are designed to make the process of controlling electromechanical devices more accessible to people with limited or no programming experience. Schools also reported using the GENIE 8-pin microcontroller system, the Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer open-source toolkit and Lego Mindstorms.
The next stage is to consider more sophisticated systems such as the $25 Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized computer that can connect a television monitor, keyboard and other peripherals via a USB hub. Despite its small size, each unit packs considerable processing power and can be used as part of a toolkit for young people interested in learning about programming for operating systems such as Linux, and in developing games or controlling sensors.
One barrier to the introduction of programming reported by some schools has been the tendency for after-school clubs to be organised by Design & Technology (D&T) departments, whose teachers sometimes lack the programming skills to exploit these new opportunities effectively with their students. A survey by the Design and Technology Association (DATA, a body representing D&T teachers) found that only a small fraction of D&T departments were teaching this part of the D&T syllabus. The Royal Academy of Engineering subsequently developed two professional development courses for teachers, ‘Let’s Make It Work’ and ‘Let’s Make It Move’, which are delivered by Science Learning Centres across the UK. These courses focus on the physical, as well as virtual outcomes that can be achieved through programming and enable teachers to introduce programming activities to their classrooms.
Funding and outside support
Many after-school engineering clubs began with some kind of project funding at the outset and have continued by using a combination of school funding, sponsorship and contributions from parents. At one end of the scale, North East Wolverhampton Academy has launched a two-year project with Boeing to build and fly a two-seat micro-light plane at a cost of £40,000 in conjunction with the Royal Aeronautical Society and Light Aircraft Association, which are providing support in kind.
However, it is not necessary to spend such large sums to achieve remarkable results. Guiseley School in Bradford has found success in building go-karts from old bicycles and collaboration on its robotic projects with Bradford Model Engineering Club, approaching local businesses for support.
In fact, a vast array of resources, many of them free of charge or low-cost, has been developed by a range of providers to support club activities. They include kits and activity sheets on every aspect of engineering and STEM ambassador networks of employees from industry and students from universities who visit schools to support club activities. Career websites, such as Future Morph, competitions (such as Young Engineers’ Club Competition and First Lego League) and award schemes for pupils, and start-up funding for projects are all available to support club leaders.
Clubs increasing in popularity
The first big push towards bolstering club activity numbers came from the government-funded After School Science and Engineering Clubs (ASSEC) programme which ran between 2007 and 2009 and aimed to set up 250 after-school clubs across England and Wales. Government funding following the recommendations of Lord Sainsbury in his 2007 report Race to the Top was a key element in the subsequent success of the programme, which was managed by STEMNET, a government-funded body set up to support STEM initiatives in schools. The programme targeted secondary school pupils with a view to improving their performance at Key Stage Three (years 7, 8 and 9) in science subjects and to encourage them to consider careers in engineering and science.
Since 2009, participation in after-school engineering and STEM clubs has increased more than threefold. Indeed, the number of clubs in the STEM Clubs network has risen from 500 in 2009 to around 2,200 schools today, with new affiliations being made daily.
Operating alongside STEMNET are programmes such as Imagineering, the independent education charity that takes part in a number of engineering fairs and supports over 150 after-school clubs led by volunteer engineers, and Young Engineers, an organisation that also supports a national network of engineering clubs as well as other activities such as challenges and competitions Young Engineers now has 1,800 clubs on their register. Most of these are in state schools, and around four new clubs join the network every week. The average Young Engineers club has some 21 members, a third of whom are girls, and students are involved in clubs for around two years at a time. Additional outreach activities such as The Big Bang Fair and the Tomorrow’s Engineers initiative (a partnership between EngineeringUK and the Academy) involve an estimated 50,000 secondary pupils. The Imagineering Fair, with hands-on engineering activities and opportunities for students to meet young, working engineers, attracts over 100,000 visitors annually.
Measures of success
From the bath bombs of St Boniface’s College to the model cyclotron at Orangefield High School, Belfast, our survey has found that whether a club is successful or not from the pupils’ perspective seems to depend primarily on the confidence and commitment of the teacher or club leader and the support they can muster from local engineers and sponsors. From a national perspective, whether the after-school club model is successful or not depends not just on the activities and their relevance to the real world, nor with the number of pupils attending and their apparent enthusiasm, but on whether the clubs make any real difference to the way pupils think about STEM.
There is plenty of supporting evidence to show that these clubs do indeed make an impact. Some club leaders quoted figures of 50% increased take-up of A-level Science and Product Design, which must be a positive short term indicator.
Above all, though, the value of after-school clubs that have a technical bias appears to lie in the increased motivation of the pupils and teachers towards a common understanding, firstly of engineering as a function, and secondly of engineering as a career. The active involvement of major industry must also play a role. The opportunity to strengthen the traditional model of engineering clubs to include programming skills could yet see a further step up in interest and numbers across the country. Maltby Academy, whose girls have been developing projects for people with disabilities and who have now set up their own company and are talking to manufacturers, is surely an exemplar. There is no more powerful outcome that after-school engineering clubs could deliver than to stimulate the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
Good progress has been made. Now we must promote the key ingredients for success in after-school clubs: incorporating sponsorship from industry, the integration of software programming and a focus on entrepreneurial skills.