Bringing engineering to life with some Key Stage 2 schoolchildren and K’nex

This content is 6 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last year, I signed up as a STEM Ambassador. With my employer’s backing, I can now volunteer to take part in events that are intended to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects to life and demonstrate their value in life and in careers.

I receive regular invitations to take part in events but, until recently, I hadn’t been able to make them fit around my calendar. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw an invitation to run an engineering workshop with some Year 4-6 students as part of a school Science Day. The brief was to give a short presentation on:

  • What is STEM?
  • Why STEM skills are important
  • The story of what I was like at school and what I wanted to do for a job
  • What I do now
  • What I enjoy about my job

and then to facilitate an activity, breaking the children into small teams with a box of K’nex to build a tower that could support a small object.

I was pretty nervous about the activity – after all, I’m not a teacher! I spent quite a bit of time tuning the presentation and, taking advice from my own children (who are in years 6 and 8), making sure there were lots of images (that’s my style anyway) and animations. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the school, the animations were useless: PowerPoint 2010 didn’t like my 2016-based graphics so I quickly removed all of the transitions and animations – and the moral of the story there is don’t take advice from your 13 year-old…

I ran two workshops, each with a class of around 28 children. The teachers were present at all times (dealing with any disruptive children) and I found I just needed to be myself, to answer the children’s questions (which, of course, ranged from “what age can you start being an engineer?” to “what car do you drive?”) and to guide them during the activity.

I set out the activity as a challenge, with requirements and materials:

STEM engineering challenge, with requirements and materials

but I didn’t tell the children how to make a tower strong.

Time to test the towers

Only after we had tested it, did we spend some time talking about the things they had done to make their towers work (and all of them had managed this themselves, whether they did it consciously or not).

Making towers strong and stable

It was fantastic to see how each group approached the activity – each team had different ideas for how they might use the K’nex. Some children had played with it before whilst others needed some advice on how to make the connectors and rods fit together but almost every team completed the challenge successfully. The one team that didn’t complete the task had struggled because they had divided into two smaller groups and ended up with two short towers – that gave me an opportunity to talk about teamwork and also about project management (managing to time!).

I came away from school that afternoon with a great buzz. It’s wonderful to hear children say things like “I like your lessons – they’re fun!” and “Are you coming back next year?”. And, if you want to know more about STEM Ambassadors (either getting someone involved in an activity or event – or perhaps becoming one yourself), check out the website.

Learning Scratch, from an eight-year-old

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Much has been written in recent years about the state of ICT education in Britain’s schools, so imagine my pleasure when my wife told me that my son was learning Scratch at school. I’d hoped that he would do something more than Microsoft Office and Google soon but had a suspicion we might have to wait for secondary education (he’s currently in year 3).

I asked him about it and he seemed really enthusiastic, so I asked if he’d like to do some more at home. Then, this weekend, I plugged the Raspberry Pi into the TV, loaded up Scratch, and asked him to show me how it works.

Wow! After two lessons at school, he’s off and away. Within a few minutes we (actually, no, I was a bystander – it was my son doing the “driving”) were drawing shapes on the stage with a helicopter sprite. He progressed from squares, to circles, changing the colour as each pixel was drawn on the screen, then worked out how to draw triangles and within a short while was doing what I can only describe as the modern equivalent of a Spirograph (remember them?), running two scripts in parallel with a single keypress.


I was about 12 before I got my first computer (a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+) and took my first tentative steps in BASIC. Meanwhile, my kids are growing up in a world of smartphones, tablets and netbooks. It’s fantastic and I only wish there was some special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programme at his school as he clearly enjoys it (sadly, he finds writing more difficult and I had to “bribe” him to complete his spelling homework by saying he could have some more time in Scratch if the spelling was completed without any fuss…). Private education is out of our reach but I’m pleased he’s getting exposure to Scratch at such a young age.

I’ll have him on JavaScript and C# next!

Lego: the best value toy that money can buy (and tracking down replacement parts)

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Thirty years ago, I was a ten-year old boy who spent a huge amount of time building Lego models, usually to be destroyed by my younger brother*. Today, my sons are playing with that same Lego, supplemented by a growing number of sets of their own (slowly taking over our house in spite of my efforts to contain it to the living room and their bedrooms).

Imitation sets are just not as good

There have been a few sets gifted from others that are not “real” Lego.  It may sound ungrateful but these mostly have been passed on to charity shops as either:

  • They had black and white instructions that were difficult to follow.
  • They needed us to download and print the instructions ourselves (surprisingly expensive and impractical).
  • They just didn’t fit together as well as real Lego (the models are too fragile).

Whether it’s Knex, MegaBlox or one of the plethora of wannabees, it seems that imitation Lego is really just a false economy.

Sourcing replacements for broken parts

One of the properties of Lego bricks is that they are incredibly strong. Anyone who’s every stood on one whilst walking bare-foot can tell you that! But, ever so occasionally, a practically indestructible Lego part gets broken and, faced with an inconsolable eight-year-old who wanted to use a 2×2 plate with ball connector that had snapped off (“it’s really rare and we’ve only got about 2 of them Dad”), I set about locating replacements (super glue had done a better job of sticking my fingers together than it did two pieces of Lego…).

There are various Lego parts databases online, as well as sites specialising in selling second-hand Lego parts (although parts availability can be patchy). I found the BrickSet Lego Brick Guide to be comprehensive, accurate and easy to work with (it ought to be – I’ve just noticed it’s an official Lego site!) and I searched for the part I needed, using a set number that I knew it appeared in.

Lego’s parts replacement service is not available in all countries and I couldn’t find it via the UK website but a friend who used to work at Lego said they often sent out parts to replace broken/missing pieces. So, after locating the exact part, I went to Lego’s replacement parts system and requested a new piece.

This is where Lego excelled. Not only did they replace that part but I also asked for replacements for some others that had become broken over the years and Lego shipped them, free of charge. I would have paid for them, if I could find them but Lego’s customer service is so good and their confidence in the quality of the product so strong that they will replace the broken pieces.

The real value of Lego

I can’t think of any other toy that’s provided as much play value as Lego and it was interesting to read an article about how Lego’s price has changed over the years (it’s not as expensive as it first seems).  Then, last weekend, my sons spent their pocket money on some more.  My 6 year-old plumped for some Lego Star Wars sets (no surprises there) but my 8 year-old bought a battery pack, motor, lights, switch and gears.

Over the next few days, he built a vehicle that drives itself, worked out how best to arrange the gears and motor, how to make it stronger, how to tweak the electrics so that the lights came on separately to the motor. Each iterative change brought improvements, and taught him a little more about making things work. In short, Lego taught him about physics, engineering, electronics (arguably innovation too…) – all with very little input from me.  Whilst my wife is looking for ways to feed his interest (and apparent aptitude) for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I think we might get quite a long way just by buying lots of Lego Technics and Mindstorms!


* On one notable occasion I “left home”, aged 7, walking out after my brother broke up a Lego model I’d created… I came home a few hours later in a panda car

Last Orders at The Fantastic Tavern (#TFTLondon)

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

About a year ago, I wrote about a fantastic concept called The Fantastic Tavern (TFT), started by Matt Bagwell (@mattbagwell) of EMC Consulting (ex-Conchango – where I also have some history). Since then I’ve been to a few more TFTs (and written about them here) and they’ve got bigger, and bigger. What was a few people in a pub is now a major logistical challenge and Matt’s decided to call it a day. But boy did it go out with a bang?!

Last night’s TFT was at Ravensbourne (@RavensbourneUK) – a fantastic mixture of education and business innovation hub on London’s Greenwich peninsula. I was blown away by what Chris Thompson and the team at Ravensbourne have achieved, so I’ll write about that another day. Suffice to say, I wish my university had worked like that…

Last night’s topic was 2012 trends. Personally, I thought the Top Gear-style cool wall (“sooo last year, tepid, cool, sub-zero”) was way off the mark (in terms of placing the trends) but that doesn’t really matter – there were some great pitches from the Ravensbourne students and other invited speakers – more than I can do justice to in a single blog post so I’ll come back and edit this later as the presentations go online (assuming that they will!)

The evening was introduced by Mike Short, VP of Innovation and R&D at O2/Telefonica who also sits on the board of governors at Ravensbourne and so is intimately involved in taking an institution with its rooms in Bromley College of Art (of David Bowie fame) from Chiselhurst to provide art, design, fashion, Internet and multimedia education on Greenwich Peninsular, next to the most visited entertainment venue in the world (The O2 – or North Greenwich Arena). Mike spoke about O2’s plans for an new business incubator project that O2 is bringing to London in the next 3 months as O2 looks at taking the world’s 6bn mobile device subscribers (not just phones, but broadband, payment systems, etc.) to connect education, healthcare, transport and more. In an industry that’s barely 25 years old, by the end of the year there will be more devices than people (the UK passed this point in 2006) and the market is expected to grow to more than 20bn customers by 2020.

Matt then spoke about the omni-channel world in which we live (beyond multi-channel) – simultaneously interacting on all channels and fuelling a desire “to do things faster”.

Moving on to the 2012 trends, we saw:

  • A. Craddock talking about smart tags – RFID and NFC tokens that can interact with our mobile devices and change their behaviour (e.g. switch to/from silent mode).  These can be used to simplify our daily routine to simply enable/disable functionality, share information, make payments, etc. but we also need to consider privacy (location tracking, etc. – opt in/out), openness (may be a benefit for some), ecology (printable tags using biodegradable materials) and device functionality (i.e. will they work with all phones – or just a subset of smartphones).
  • Riccie Audrie-Janus (@_riccie) talking about how, in order to make good use of technology, we need to look at the people element first.  I was unconvinced – successful technology implementation is about people, process and technology and I don’t think it matters that kids don’t understand the significance of a floppy disk icon when saving a document – but she had some interesting points to make about our need to adapt to ever-more-rapidly developing technology as we progress towards an ever-more complex world where computing and biology combine.
  • @asenasen speaking about using DIY healthcare to help focus resources and address issues of population growth, economics and cost. Technology can’t replace surgeons but it can help people make better healthcare decisions with examples including: WebMD for self-diagnosis; PatientsLikeMe providing a social network; apps to interact with our environment and translate into health benefits (e.g. Daily Burn); peripheral devices like FitBit [Nike+, etc.] that interact with apps and present challenges. It’s not just in the consumer space either with Airstrip Technologies creating apps for healthcare professionals. Meanwhile, in the developing world SMS can be used (ChildCount), whilst in Japan new toilets are being developed that can, erhum, analyse our “output”.  Technology has the potential to transform personal health and enable the smart distribution of healthcare.
  • Matt Fox (@mattrfox) talked about 2012 becoming the year of the artist-entrepreneur, citing Louis CK as an example, talking about dangerous legislation like SOPA, YCombinator’s plans to “Kill Hollywood”, Megabox (foiled by the MegaUpload takedown) and Pirate Bay’s evolution of file sharing to include rapid prototype designs. Matt’s final point was that industry is curtaining innovation – and we need to innovate past this problem.
  • Chris Hall (@chrisrhall) spoke about “Grannies being the future” – using examples of early retirement leaving pensioners with money and an opportunity to become entrepreneurs (given life expectancy of 81 years for a man in the UK, and citing Trevor Baylis as an example). I think hit onto something here – we need to embrace experience to create new opportunities for the young, but I’m not sure how many more people will enjoy early retirement, or that there will be much money sloshing around from property as we increasingly find it necessary to have 35 year and even multi-generation mortgages.
  • James Greenaway (@jvgreenaway) talked about social accreditation – taking qualifications online, alongside our social personas. We gain achievements on our games consoles, casual games (Farmville), social media (Foursquare), crowdsourcing (Stack Overflow) etc. – so why not integrate that with education (P2PU, eHow and iTunes U) and open all of our achievements to the web. James showed more examples to help with reputation management (spider  graphs showing what we’re good at [maybe combined with a future of results-oriented working?]) and really sees a future for new ways of assessing and proving skills becoming accepted.
  • Ashley Pollak from ETIO spoke about the return of craft, as we turn off and tune out. Having only listened to Radio 4’s adaptation of Susan Maushart’s Winter of Our Disconnect the same day, I could relate to the need to step back from the always connected world and find a more relevant, less consuming experience. And as I struggle to balance work and this blog post this morning I see advantages in reducing the frequency of social media conversations but increasing the quality!
  • Ravensbourne’s Chris Thompson spoke about virtual innovation – how Cisco is creating a British Innovation Gateway to connect incubators and research centres of excellence – and how incubation projects can now be based in the cloud and are no longer predicated on where a university is located, but where ideas start and end.
  • The next pitch was about new perspectives – as traditional photography dies (er… not on my watch) in favour of new visual experiences. More than just 3D but plenoptic (or light field) cameras, time of flight cameras, depth sensors, LIDAR and 3D scanning and printing. There are certainly some exciting things happening (like Tesco Augmented Reality) – and the London 2012 Olympics will e filmed in 3D and presented in interactive 360 format.
  • Augment and Mix was a quick talk about how RSA Animate talks use a technique called scribing to take content that is great, but maybe not that well presented, and make it entertaining by re-interpreting/illustrating. Scribing may be “sooo last year” but there are other examples too – such as “Shakespeare in 90 seconds” and “Potted Potter”.
  • Lee Morgenroth’s (@leemailme‘s) pitch was for Leemail – a system that allows private addresses to be used for web sign-ups (one per site) and then turned on/off at will. My more-technically minded friends say “I’ve been doing that for years with different aliases” – personally I just use a single address and a decent spam filter (actually, not quite as good since switching from GMail to Office 365) – but I think Lee may be on to something for non-geeks… let’s see!
  • Finally, we saw a film from LS:N profiling some key trends from the last 10 years, as predicted and in reality (actually, I missed most of that for a tour of Ravensbourne!)

There were some amazing talks and some great ideas – I certainly took a lot away from last night in terms of inspiration so thank you to all the speakers. Thanks also to Matt, Michelle (@michelleflynn) and everyone else involved in making last night’s TFT (and all the previous events) happen. It’s been a blast – and I look forward to seeing what happens next…

[I rushed this post out this morning but fully intend to come back and add more links, videos, presentations, etc. later – so please check back next week!]