Ideas for STEM projects and activities

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Birches Head Academy prizes its focus on STEM education, including its role as a lead school with the Computing at School initiative, supporting delivery of the computing curriculum. Sarah Williams discusses some of their activities.

As you may well know, 2014 is the Year of the Code. Starting this year, children as young as five are being introduced to programming and coding. The legislation makes England the first country in the world to mandate computer programming in both primary and secondary schools.

Having a network of excellence via the certified CAS (Computing at Schools) master teachers has helped Birches Head immensely when planning, implementing and teaching the new computer science curriculum. To become master teachers, candidates have to take part in extra training through CAS to help their school and others in the area develop the way they teach computer science.

This is the latest development in our school’s long-running focus on STEM education. Below, I discuss some of the initiatives we use to inspire our pupils in STEM, including the new computing curriculum.

Hack it – make it happen

Last year, in partnership with Stoke-based creative technologies firm bITjAM, Birches Head opened a hack lab in the school. The hack lab is designed to improve students’ computer skills and nurture their creativity. It aims to teach pupils how to hack into everyday technology, such as gaming equipment, and give the devices a new purpose.

The first project from the hack lab involved students using a Nintendo Wii remote to emulate an electronic whiteboard. Further challenges included integrating an iPad into a reception table, so its touch screen functionality could be used to flip through documents while waiting.

These kinds of activities gave pupils the chance to learn on their own and to foster their curiosity. In the case of the iPad coffee table, finding the right type of glass to enable the touch-screen functionality proved to be a real challenge. This was a genuine materials science question and a long way from the tradition of teaching STEM using egg boxes and straws.

The sessions originally took place at lunch-times and after school and the turnout was always high – a testament to the children’s interest in technology and ability to question the traditional uses of common devices.

This year, the sessions have moved into scheduled computer science lessons, with the children learning about programming by using devices like Raspberry Pi and Makey Makey.

If you have not come across either of these before, we very much recommend taking a few minutes to research the types of things you can achieve and the creativity you can inspire with these inexpensive pieces of kit. 

Heard it here first

As well as the computer sciences part of the STEM curriculum, we have also sought to develop engaging projects for other areas. At Birches Head, we are strong believers that to get children interested in something, you have to be interesting. 

With this in mind, the hack lab isn’t the only project to enjoy success and consequently make the move from an extra-curricular activity into the classroom. 

Students at the school also created their own radio station, again with the help of bITjAM. We launched the radio station during an open day, with the long-term aim of broadcasting beyond the school to the wider local community.

On the open day, bITjAM hosted an iPad DJ workshop and helped students to run the radio station at the front of one of the classrooms. Birches Head’s young presenters took turns co-hosting the show, while learning about the technology involved in the process.

bITjAM’s origins as a digital music collective, bringing people together at venues in the local Stoke area for iPad and laptop jam sessions, was put to good use and the children absolutely adored the session. Since then, the radio station has been taken over by our music department and is run in lessons.

On track

Last year, a team of budding engineers from Birches Head Academy tasted success in the 2013 Scalextric4schools competition. Year 9 pupils worked in conjunction with the technology department to design and manufacture their own race-worthy Scalextric car, before presenting their project to a judging panel. 

The competition was run in partnership with Scalextric manufacturer Hornby and software company PTC, who provided its CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, Creo, free of charge. 

The students used the Creo software to create a concept car; they were then able to manufacture a foam prototype that was tested in a wind tunnel to assess the effect of environmental change on the car’s performance.

Once happy with the prototype, the Birches Head team called upon the services of Aston University. Our contacts there helped move the project forward by allowing the pupils to use the university’s 3D printer to manufacture the parts required to build the car. With the build complete, the car underwent a track test that enabled the students to enhance their slot car driving skills.

All the pupils’ hard work paid off and our A-Team took the podium for fastest lap. The pupils that took part are now hoping to build on their success by pursuing careers in engineering.

Future developments 

A lead CAS school first has to prove that it recognises the importance of computer science in the STEM curriculum, but becoming a lead school isn’t completely based on retrospective achievements. A clear plan of progression must be formulated, which includes cross-curricular opportunities.

This term, Birches Head is offering computer science at GCSE for those who want to develop their knowledge in a subject that the government has expressly targeted as important for achieving success in the global race.

To encourage and illustrate the benefits and fun you can have when it comes to the subject, our year 10 students are currently taking part in a competition that combines computer science knowledge with hands-on engineering experience. 

Following on from the success of last year’s competition in which schools were asked to build and race an electric car, the KMF Young Engineer of the Year competition 2015 invites schools to take part in designing and creating “a gadget” using a 3D printer. 

The Staffordshire-based manufacturing firm has presented 25 schools with a Makerbot Z18 3D printer and, as with the previous year’s challenge, tied the competition in with school curriculum. Designs will be drawn up using digital engineering software and then 3D printed. The challenge is a fantastic way to attract children to computer science as a GCSE option, as well as teaching them about design, mathematics and mechanics. 

Partnerships and funding

After reading this, it may not surprise you to know that we pride ourselves in our ability to create partnerships within the local community to provide stimulating learning for our pupils. It is an aspect of our teaching that has been highly commended in previous years and something that we truly believe enhances opportunities. 

These partnerships were at the very core of all of the projects outlined in this article and many others that have helped our pupils to discover new interests and career opportunities.

Funding is another key aspect that has enabled us to follow through with ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. For the hack lab we were lucky enough to receive funding from the Lottery grants programme, Awards for All. The scheme aims to help fund small community-based projects throughout the UK. Birches Head also received finding from the Arts Council and both of these were crucial in allowing us to purchase the materials and equipment necessary for the hack lab to function and thrive. 

We are currently also working on more funding bids and hope that these will provide us with the necessary means to carry on offering stimulating learning experiences for our pupils.

  • Sarah Williams is assistant vice principal at Birches Head Academy in Stoke-on-Trent.

Further information
CAPTIONS: Code Club: Students gets hands-on with the new computing curriculum and STEM activities at Birches Head Academy


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