Teaching building and building teachers

Orestis teaching the Towers project in Ghana. Photo credit: DIEM Project (E4C)

This post sees Ryan Gilmour, an electrical engineering student and the ex-Engineering for Change (E4C) society president, talk about the society’s work across schools in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoons…

It seems a fitting time for a discussion around the teaching of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) one year into the Scottish Government’s five-year plan to increase STEM training and teaching, and a fortnight after STEM day was celebrated in the United States.

In Scotland, STEM has a rich history. Earlier this year, University of Edinburgh’s Engineering Department celebrated their 150th year, recognising the successes of engineering and innovation in Scotland. But STEM still faces challenges. A BP article paints a bleaker picture, particularly for engineering, highlighting a 20,000 annual shortfall of engineering graduates, and a lack of racial and gender diversity.

This is where Engineering for Change (E4C) can help. The student society features four local and two international projects, in addition to running various STEM teaching projects since 2012. The most recent of which is Project DIEM (Developing Intermediate Educational Materials).

DIEM began life as an international project under the EWB-UK banner. The project developed and documented eight STEM workshops to be taught in schools in Ghana using only basic teaching resources.

Six years later the project is still developing. Last year saw 200 Edinburgh primary school pupils engage with the project, as our volunteers teach practical engineering skills through fun group workshops.

Me and Daphne teaching the Sand Filters workshop in Edinburgh. Photo credit: DIEM Project (E4C)

As well as our regular school visits, the Engineering for Change Romania project, also run workshops alongside FAST Romania. DIEM has workshops covering bridge building, water filtration, renewable energy and car racing.

Caledonia and Xiaobei teaching the Bridges workshop in Romania. Photo credit: Project Romania (E4C)

Workshop Format

All the workshops follow a similar structure: Teach, Learn, Design, Build, Explain, Compete (any suggestions on a nice acronym are welcome!). Each workshop is self-contained, lasting around 1hr 30mins.

  • Teach the children a bit about engineering – get them thinking. This usually involves the lovely realisation that STEM is everywhere and very relevant.
  • Learn what the task requires of them, and some tips of how it might be solved (e.g., a triangle might be a stronger shape for bridge building than squares).
  • Design on paper an innovative (and do-able) creation; be it a bridge, car, water filter or wind turbine.
  • Build the masterpiece in small teams of three to five people.
  • Explain your design in front of the whole class, describing what worked and didn’t work.
  • Compete to be the winning design against the criteria set in the task description.

Actionable Advice

This blog post about the Geo-Science outreach programme gives useful advice on how to structure programmes before heading into the classroom. But here is some advice, based on my own experiences, for those entering the classroom:

Know your audienceSuperfluous and expendable obfuscation is not appreciated in primary schools. Use plain English – you might not realise how technical your language is until you speak to 12-year olds.

ShowcaseThe children are usually proud of their designs, so take some time to highlight the work and creativity of all groups. Try to engage with every team member, even if this means directing questions such as: “why did you decide to call your team the Silly Sausages?”

CompeteThis is the fun part. Destroy some bridges or race some cars. Get the whole class watching to create a positive, collective atmosphere. This may need a bit of monitoring to keep everyone happy and avoid tears.

Let the teachers helpAlthough outreach workshops should give teachers light relief in lesson planning, they are still there to help. Talk to the teacher before the lesson to discover any pupil requirements, and use them as an extra pair of hands. This will help to improve the workshop quality, and also engage teachers who may have been apprehensive about carrying out practical STEM work in class.

Remember, everyday is a school day: Working with children is a learning experience, and you should always remain open to changing your methods. For example, David Attenborough’s ignition of a new-found ‘war on plastic’ led us to being (quite rightfully!) told-off for using plastic straws in our workshops. We have now replaced these with eco-friendly and reusable bamboo sticks to set a better example.

Highlight of it all…

The struggle of being significantly less practical than some of the whizz-kids does eventually pay dividends. My favourite memory was a young girl looking at the screen in awe of Deepika Kurup (a young female scientist). Deepika’s solar powered water filtration device led the pupil to affirm:

Yep, I’m going to be an engineer.

And off she went. This kind of gratification makes it all worthwhile.

Want to get involved?

Contact Engineering for Change here, with ‘Project DIEM’ in the subject to find out more.

Ryan Gilmour

Ryan Gilmour is an electrical engineering student in the School of Engineering, with a passion for renewable energy, teaching and developing solutions for the 1 billion people without electricity access. In his spare time he gets involved with humanitarian and sustainable development through Engineering for Change, and also leads a local scout troop.

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