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Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Back for its sixth year, the themed week is led by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and involving basically everyone else who’s big in engineering in the country. At NUSTEM we have a packed week of engineering-themed support with our partner schools, including:

  • Team newcomer Mel is out delivering her Systems Engineering workshop with several of our partner primary school. Expect mechanical puzzle-solving and plenty of chasing after marbles.
  • Secondary specialist Antonio is delivering an engineering-themed assembly in several of our partner secondary schools.
  • Our resident digital maker Jonathan is running a Maker Club, and will be at Virgin Money’s STEMtastic day on Thursday – both themed around digital networks, Internet of Things, and … musical robots. Because that’s the way we (rock and) roll.
  • Our sixth-form lecture this Thursday is on the mathematics of fractal geometry: book your place at that link!

If we can’t get to you this week (hey, even we have limits… like, ‘being in two places at once’, we’ve not worked out how to crack that one yet), or the evening lecture doesn’t suit, there are still opportunities to get involved. On Wednesday the central organisation is hosting a live-streamed Big Assembly, with features from a ‘Dynamic Dozen’ of young professional engineers. Or – parents and teachers – explore research published this week which indicates the parents’ guidance to their children tends to emphasise careers which they think will make a positive difference to the world, and that ‘engineering’ is high on that list. Or explore the range of careers ideas and information available at the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week forms part of the Year of Engineering, where you’ll find even more engineering-themed inspiration, background materials, can careers information.

Sixth Form Evening Lectures: the 2018 edition

How Physics and Maths Make a Difference in the World

Each year NUSTEM organises a series of Sixth Form Evening lectures for students in North East schools.  With the help of Northumbria University’s academic community and local employers we explore how physics and maths are used in the world around us.  The aim is to show students that Physics and Maths Matters! 

Physics and maths intersect in so many different areas and lead to so many different post-16 choices that we want to showcase that to young people (and sometimes their families).  Here in the North East we have nationally and internationally renowned research and industry, and NUSTEM is proud to be able to host speakers at the forefront of these developments.

2018 has been recognised as the Year of Engineering. Engineering fundamentally relies on strong foundations in physics and maths, and the transferable skills that people who study them develop. With this in mind the 2018 NUSTEM Sixth Form Evening Lectures will open with a fantastic lecture on fluid dynamics and it applications in Mechanical Engineering.

One lesson we have learnt over the years is that the lectures appeal to a wider range of people than Sixth form students. Even though we have Y12 and Y13 students at the heart of these lectures we encourage schools to extend the invitation to Y10-Y11 students and their parents/carers, to come along and find out how fractals, hydrophobic surfaces, smart materials, waves, and electron scanning microscopes matter in the world around us.

Our series of evening lectures take place every Thursday from 17:30 to 18:30 at Northumbria University starting on the 4th of October. You can register to attend here.

 

Plan B

As part of the ESH Building my Skills programme each year, NUSTEM staff take part in a mock interview day with students from North East secondary schools. During the day, students have the opportunity to be interviewed once or twice by representatives from local businesses and other organisations.  At NUSTEM we see the interviews as part-practice and part ‘behind the scenes’ to gives students an insight into what they might be asked and why in an interview.

I ask the students to tell me about themselves, and what career they might thinking about.  As part of Building my Skills they will have already done some research into possible sectors of interest to them, so they all have something to say.  There’s always an wide range of detail in their answers; with some young people knowing very clearly what they want to do and why, and others who have only a vague idea.

Regardless of their answer, my follow-on question is:

‘What is your plan B?’

This often throws the students as I suspect they’re not often asked what happens if they’re not successful.

What is most interesting to me is that, in their answers, students will often change the whole direction of what they would like to do for their plan B.  For example, I’ve had students who had been interested in midwifery suggest that their plan B would be ‘something to do with drama’, or who wanted to be a tennis player, but their plan B would be ‘I dunno, maybe history?’.  Very few give suggestions that are in a similar sector to the one they are planning for.

At this point in the interview, I’ll talk about other possibilities that the students could do that is not their first choice, but that is linked to it.  Often I’ll suggest websites or resources that they might like to investigate.  For example, if a student wants to study medicine, but their predicted grades make that look unlikely we’ll talk about what is it about medicine that interests them.  They could study radiography, occupational therapy, Information management and so on.  (Although I do have to admit that if it’s the salary that they find attractive, then the other options aren’t so well paid!)

I would encourage all students (and teachers and parents/carers) to think about their Plan B.  Just in case.

Some useful websites:

Health careers from the NHS – an invaluable website for students that want to work in healthcare, and for their teachers and families to find out the huge range of careers.

This is Engineering from Engineering UK – looking at the opportunities in engineering from a range of different viewpoints e.g. design, space, fashion, sport

National Careers Service website – a government backed website which includes an A-Z description of over 800 different careers.

International Women in Engineering Day 2017

Today (23rd June) is International Women in Engineering Day.

Across social media, companies and organisations are tweeting and posting to show their support for women in engineering.

Tweets which show employees looking happy, often standing in front of large equipment!

Here at NUSTEM, we think that it’s really important to show the diversity of the engineering profession along with other STEM careers.

American activist Marian Wright Edelman said

‘You can’t be what you don’t see’

It’s not having role models exactly, but thinking that if someone else, who is like you, can be in a career, then so can you.  We hear parents tell their children ‘You’re just like your Aunty, she’s very good with numbers.  Perhaps you could be an accountant like her’ or words to that effect.

We believe that it’s important that children and young people see ‘people like them’ in a range of careers.

In school, one of the most common sources of information when students are ‘researching’ is wikipedia.  And wikipedia is a good starting point.  But what if students want to find out about women who work in science or engineering.  How good is wikipedia then?

Sadly, it’s not great.  Only 15.5% of Wikipedia articles on people are about women. So when students look for information about people in science and engineering, they’ll get a skewed viewpoint.

Here at NUSTEM we’ve teamed up with Dr Jess Wade from Imperial College and Dr Alice White, resident wikipedian at Wellcome Trust to change this imbalance on wikipedia.

On 25th July we will be hosting a day-long wikipedia Hackathon for girls aged 14 – 18 in the North East.  Girls will find out how to judge the reliability of a source, when and where to reference and how to edit wikipedia to create their own content.  They’ll then edit or create wikipedia pages with information about some of the great women who are working in science.

If you’re interested in joining us, and are aged 14-18, then please sign up on our eventbrite page.

And if you’re looking for more images and stories about women in engineering then follow the hashtag #IWED on twitter.

125,000 rpm centrifuge… powered by hand, made from cardboard

This is outstanding!

One of the first steps in a whole host of blood tests which might be used for medical diagnosis is to ‘spin down’ the sample – to bung it in a high-speed centrifuge and whirl it around, separating out the red blood cells from the blood plasma. Accordingly, you’ll find centrifuge equipment in every haematology lab in the West… but they don’t work so well in places where the electricity supply is shaky.

In 2013 Indian-born Manu Prakash, now a physical biology researcher at Stanford University in the US, stumbled over a centrifuge in a clinic in Uganda. Literally stumbled, as it was propping open a door.

Prakash is the same guy who, a year ago, introduced a microscope made from folded paper and a cameraphone. The result of his discussions about centrifuges is similarly simple yet inspired: his team at Stanford have now adapted an ancient children’s toy to make a hand-powered, cardboard-based centrifuge which achieves 125,000 revolutions per minute. That’s astonishing, and it’s sufficient to prepare samples for a range of tests in just a few minutes.

The ever-marvellous journalist Ed Yong (check out his book I Contain Multitudes!) has the full story at The Atlantic, with more details of all the juicy bits of physics the group had to do to optimise the toy for medical use. It’s one of those simple systems that nobody had thought to study before. Nature have produced the video above, and the invention is written up as a paper at Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The “Paperfuge” can be made for something like 20 cents, and the researchers have even submitted an application to Guinness World Records for the fastest rotational speed via a human-powered device.

Prakash’s group are now testing their design in rural Madagascar, and are exploring 3D-printable plastics in the hopes of being able to cheaply produce centrifuges which are integrated with specific blood tests, or transparent versions which would double as microscope slides.

Awesome invention.

Connecting with Physics

When I did my A-levels a couple of decades ago, there were only two or three girls in my physics class. The situation has got a little better since then, but many girls still find they are in a minority in their physics class. Whilst this doesn’t stop the students enjoying physics and doing well, it can sometimes feel a bit isolating.

To help the situation here in the North East, Think Physics is running a second year of our Physics Connect Network. This aims to allow girls from different schools to connect with each other through on-campus meetings and an online support group.

The network kicks off on January 28th with a Saturday morning session. Award-winning physics communicator Dr Jess Wade will be talking about her research at University College, London, on flexible solar cells. We’ll also look at where physics can lead to in terms of careers.

Later in the term there will be sessions on practical work using K’Nex, an Easter revision morning, and a visit to a local physics-related industry (watch this space for details!).

You can find more about the network sessions here, and the timetable for January 28th, including a booking link, here.

Reece Engineering Summer School

As well as Physics Connect, Think Physics organises a three-week summer school for Year 12 female Physics and Engineering students. Funded by the Reece Foundation, the course provides an introduction to engineering in its many forms. It’s an intense and hectic few weeks, with industry visits, challenges, individual and group research, presentations… everything we can cram into the time.

Applications are now open for the 2017 school: for more information and the application form, click here.

Maker Faire UK 2017 announced

It’s baaa-aaaaack!

The greatest show (and tell) on Earth is returning to Newcastle with Maker Faire UK 2017, April 1st-2nd. It’s the biggest, loudest, most ridiculous and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. More than 300 makers, hackers, crafters, coders, artists and inventors from across the globe come together at the Centre for Life to showcase what they do, run workshops and activities, and generally loon around in the name of expressing themselves through things they make.

Think Physics built a magnificent pendulum wave sound sculpture for the 2015 Faire, which was accidentally chucked in a skip during renovation works at the University this year. Oops. This year we showed the Technology Wishing Well, which all worked for the first time about three minutes after the Faire opened. Both years we ran the beautiful Light Wall activity. What will we do for 2017? Watch this space!

Better still, sign up to the mailing list at the Maker Faire UK website, block out that first weekend of April in your diary, book your tickets as soon as they’re available, and – best of all – think whether you or your school have projects you could showcase yourselves, attending as fellow Makers. There’ll be a Call for proposals via the website soon.

Want to get a better idea of what the Faire’s about? A few years ago I filmed Make magazine founder Dale Dougherty as he took a wander while it was still quiet on the Sunday:

Chain Reactions (with electronics)

Like everyone else delivering ‘maker’ education, we use chain reaction machines in some of our workshops. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and some intriguing mechanisms to be discovered. But there are also some classic problems:

  1. Connecting bits of a chain reaction machine together is fraught with difficulty. It’s typically the links that fail, and that can lead to frustration when it’s not clear who ‘owns’ the connection.
  2. There’s a tendency for everything to start high and finish low, and hence for each stage to run out of energy somewhat.

One of the things we’ve been playing with attempts to solve both problems, by chucking a bit of electronics into the mix. We use Arduinos as control circuits, running some code which is fairly readily tweaked to handle one of a range of inputs, including:

  • Straightforward ‘short to ground’ switches
  • Light-dependent resistors
  • Force- and flex-sensitive resistors
  • IR distance sensors
  • Tilt switches
  • Hall Effect magnetic field switches

The software is configurable into a couple of different modes, but is typically set to trigger on a threshold reading and operate either a servo, or a continuous-rotation servo as a low-speed motor.

The resulting chain reaction machines integrate physical and electronic segments, and splicing them together is hence usually a case of running longer wires from a sensor at the end of one segment into the Arduino which controls the trigger for the next. Last week we ran an end-of-term workshop with 15 year-olds from one of our partner schools, who came up with the machines you see in these two films. We think they did a cracking job.

Now, we don’t use this workshop very often. The challenge, we find, is that there are so many alien pieces of technology that participants tend to freeze rather than try things out and explore. These groups worked particularly well, but more generally we (unexpectedly?) find this to be a better workshop with primary groups than secondary. Younger children tend to be more receptive to (or familiar with?) failure and iterative development.

However, when the workshop comes together it can produce some outstanding results. We think there’s some mileage in the approach, and we’ll continue to refine the idea.

The code we’re using is on Github, I’m afraid with rather minimal documentation at present. I’ll try to include part details for the sensors, but the code comments should walk you through most of it.

This shape-changing visual effects car can… wait, what?

Suppose you’re trying to make a car advert, you’re up against tight deadlines, but you don’t actually have the car you’re supposed to be filming. What do you do?

This sort of scenario is more common than you might think. Maybe the car hasn’t quite been built yet, or perhaps there are late design changes, or the manufacturer could be really paranoid about keeping it under wraps until the grand reveal. The advertising industry spends big money – huge money – and it expects this sort of problem to be solvable.

OK, so you head out to a test track or a desert road or whatever, and you film some other car driving around, then you do the whole special effects wizardry thing to paint a 3D model of the car your client wants over the car you actually filmed. So far so good. But your client isn’t happy, because nothing looks quite right. Dust isn’t being kicked up from precisely the right places, because the wheels aren’t right. And the 3D-composited car doesn’t reflect the world around in a way that’s convincing, because it wasn’t actually there. And it doesn’t move quite right, because you’ve had to guess at all the velocity vectors of the car you filmed.

One of the biggest special effects houses working on this sort of job is The Mill. You’ll have seen their work everywhere, without knowing it, and they’ve just revealed the most amazing solution to the filming-a-car-without-the-right-car problem, the Blackbird. Watch the video above, and be astounded.

Yet in some ways, it’s unsurprising. We’re used to character replacement in movies, where an actor performs in a green suit with motion-tracking dots painted all over them, then a graphical character is animated over them in post-production. The character can be larger, smaller, wider, have more legs, whatever you like. What the Mill have done is, effectively, the same thing but for a car.

The really neat parts are the integrated motion logging and the camera mounted on the roof. The camera seems a bit like the ones used for the cars which compile Google Maps – as the Blackbird drives around it records 360° images of the world around it. Video compositors can then use that data to work out what the reflections on the car’s bodywork would have been, had it been there in reality.

I love this sort of project. It’s plainly ridiculous, and yet it’s solving a very real problem with very real sums of money hinging on it. There’s a wealth of engineering, physics, maths, and computer science involved in pulling together a solution, and you have to get all of that right before you can even start to see finished results and judge whether it looks right.

When everything comes together, you’ve done the impossible, with the result that… nobody notices. And that’s the whole point.

There’s more about the Blackbird at the Mill’s website.

Go Ballistic! winners at Big Bang North East

Phew! We’re slowly recovering from a couple of crazy days at the Big Bang North East. We spun patterns and collected hopes and dreams for future tech with the Technology Wishing Well; explored the universe with our space-themed show; and launched ping pong balls with hundreds of catapults in our Go Ballistic! workshop.

We had about 18 booked groups through the workshop, and managed to squeeze in a few more schools too. We’re sorry if we had to turn you away, we were crazily popular. Apart from anything else, there are no more decent plastic spoons to be had anywhere in central Newcastle. We bought (and used) them all!

So here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the grand reveal of the final standings on the leaderboard:

Click the image to see it larger, but here’s the leading portion of results of 4m and above:

  • Longest distance achieved: Royal Institution, 5.80m. However, see below!
  • Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 7): 5.00m (secondary winner!)
  • Academy 360 (yr. 8): 4.80m
  • Monkwearmouth (yr. 7), Washington (yr. 8): both 4.65m
  • Monkseaton Middle School (yr. 6), Bede Academy (6JRA): 4.40m (joint primary winners!)
  • Farringdon: 4.40m
  • Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 6): 4.30m
  • Heworth Grange: 4.10m
  • Southlands A: 4.00m
Emma King RI catapult

Dr. Emma J King of the Royal Institution with her redesigned catapult, which achieved a throw of 5.80m from a single elastic band.

Congratulations to the entrant from the Royal Institution in London, Emma J King, pictured left. Emma’s throw of 5.80m was the longest we saw on the day. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that her catapult design was dramatically different to anyone else’s, but you’ll also notice that Emma isn’t quite a school student. In fact she has a PhD in physics, and neither we nor she thought it was entirely fair to count her remarkable score against everyone else’s. Hence: she’s disqualified.

Our Secondary winners therefore remain Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 7), who landed a remarkable 5.00m to huge jubilation around the launching table. Academy 360 (yr. 8) were worthy runners-up, spending over an hour trying all manner of different approaches to eek out the next twenty centimetres they needed. Valiant determination!

Sterling performances also from Monkwearmouth yr. 7s and Washington yr. 8s, both groups with impressive bests of 4.65m.

Snapping at their heels were our joint Primary winners Monkseaton Middle School (yr. 6) and Bede Academy (class 6JRA), both at 4.40m.

We’ll be sending both primary and secondary winners suitable trophies, just as soon as they’ve emerged from our 3D printers.

Well done all, and our thanks for your enthusiasm and ideas. We had a blast running the workshop, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. One of my favourite moments was when a chap from the Army was standing nearby for a good half hour, watching a couple of groups develop, test, and iterate. I wandered over and invited him to make his own catapult. “Not a chance,” he said, “I wouldn’t get close to what this lot are doing, and I’d never live that down: I’m Royal Artillery.”

Wise man.

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