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Experiments fire up pupils' imaginations

Published date: 22 May 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


 

AT THIS time of year, students at Glyndwr University are usually busy getting on with their last pieces of work for the year.

The campus is usually a quiet place.

But yesterday it became a hive of activity as hundreds of schoolchildren and hundreds more scientists and engineers descended on the Wrexham university for the region’s first Teentech event.

It was a big undertaking.

Throughout the Catrin Finch Centre, the sports hall and a number of classrooms, experiments and challenges were set up to give the young visitors a taste of technology.

“It’s a real buzz,” said Teentech director Roland Allen, somewhat appropriately as electricity figures quite highly in the exhibits.

“We have 28 schools here from across North Wales and the Wirral, including Ysgol y Grango in Rhos, Ysgol Morgan Llwyd and Castel Alun from Hope.

“There are about 130 engineers and scientists, which is almost one to every two pupils – a fantastic opportunity to speak one-to-one.”

A quick wander through the displays revealed a miniature wind tunnel, a 3D printer, puzzles, levitating inflatable balls and a bisected car with all of its guts on show.

Elen Ritchie, classroom teacher at Castel Alun, was herding her 10 pupils around with the help of an ‘industry ambassador’ from wing-makers Airbus.

An ambassador, someone who worked in a tech-related field, was attached to each group so pupils could ask questions as they went along.

“We’re very pleased to have been invited to take part,” said Miss Ritchie.

“Ten pupils from each school could come along, so we picked out some of the most academic.”

Happily, the boy-girl split was fairly even, which bodes well for the future.

There is an estimated shortfall of 40,000-a-year in homegrown graduates in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), according to the Social Market Foundation think-tank.

Part of the solution is to get more women involved and Teentech, which appeals to early high school pupils, appears to be doing just that.

The day started off with a vote on views about engineering, the polling conducted by Maggie Philbin, who developed Teentech while working on science programs for the BBC.

A hefty percentage of those present admitted they would be interested in going into engineering.

Miss Ritchie said: “It’s great – a good experience for the kids. Personally, when I went to school, there wasn’t that much information around. We didn’t really talk about engineering.

“Pupils this age aren’t sure what they want to do in the future. This is giving them more possibilities.”

Miss Ritchie’s charges were directed to a booth run by staff from clothing store Matalan.

The whole event was carefully orchestrated. Split between three zones, the ‘challenge zone’, the ‘innovation zone’ and the ‘insight zone’, each team of children took on time-dictated challenges.

They would spend 15 minutes at the Matalan booth, in the insight zone, where they were tasked with finishing a electrical circuit – with a few twists.

To complete the challenge, they had to use salt water as a conductor, flick switches to ‘true or false’ settings,and even let a (safe) current pass through their body.

The group of young pupils beat students at Swansea University’s technology department by a solid three seconds.

Mr Rowland said: “We’ve got all sorts of people here from all different levels. We have company directors and we have young employees.

“Our emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. A lot of expos will invite thousands of youngsters in.

“We only have 300 at a time and we make sure it’s timetabled so there’s a mix of computing, electrics and engineering.

“That way they have an interactive experience instead of standing in a crowd watching or waiting their turn."”

Some familiar names cropped up. Airbus is a main sponsor of the event, and Tata Steel, staff from the Deeside Toyota plant and staff from Deeside power plant were also in evidence.

Teentech also hosts companies that work on a smaller scale.

Jason Davies, a BSC Computing student at Glyndwr, set up his own web design company with his wife.

They converted a Raspberry Pi, possibly the world's simplest and most inexpensive computer, into a Super Mario arcade machine.

They were busy showing off its capabilities.

Aaron Durban, who works for the company,  said: “We have three consoles here. The pupils on this one are testing the electrical resistance in fruit and vegetables and identifying them that way, while the pupils on the other side are using the Raspberry Pi to turn themselves into a drumkit.”

It’s not quite as mad as it sounds. The computer program reacts when the pupils join hands to complete a circuit by beating out a little riff.

Mr Durban said: “It’s brilliant. We’ve been into schools a few times with the Mario arcade and some bits and bobs – but here we can talk to dozens of kids all at once.”

Martin Bell, a chemistry teacher Upton-by-Chester High School, said: “It’s been very interesting so far. We’ve apprentices who are not much older than the pupils.

“We’ve been to Tata Steel. It looks like a pile of nuts and bolts but their challenge to build a structure out of them is similar to the one they give actual apprentices.

“And the forensics table was fascinating. They showed us how to lift footprints and fingerprints.”

The young visitors also seem impressed.

Scott Middlehurst, 14, a pupil at Upton High, said: “I was invited and I thought it would be fun. It’s good to actually get to do stuff. My favourite part was the fingerprinting.

“I don’t know what's next. It’s a surprise.”

Whether Scott was due to spend three hours at the innovation zone, building an app, or 30 minutes in the challenge zone programing a robot to pathfind its way along a zig-zag course, it will have had a practical application.

For more news from across the region visit newsnorthwales.co.uk

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