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Gearing up for remote workshops

As our partner primary schools well know, the sharp end of NUSTEM starts with in-school workshops. We do many other things, but workshops are a key part of us meeting and working with schools and teachers, showcasing how we think practical investigation and careers ideas can be incorporated into science lessons, and prompting dialogue to help us understand what schools need.

Obviously, this is all a bit challenging if we can’t, well, go into schools.

In the run-up to the summer holiday Joe and Jonathan threw themselves into trying to work out how remotely-delivered NUSTEM workshops might work. Thanks to the sterling efforts of our fabulous partner schools we almost managed to pilot our thinking, only a completely unrelated last-minute disaster scuppering everything. But we’ll be back at it almost as soon as schools return next month. Along the way we’ve faced a host of challenges, some expected but many surprisingly subtle.

Over the summer we’re waiting for some equipment deliveries (we… er… broke some kit while testing it. Ahem.). We’ve also had discussions with a range of organisations facing similar challenges. It looks like we might be getting together with others for something of an online symposium / share what you know / learn from our mistakes session, in the second half of September. Drop us an email and we’ll keep you posted.

Without wanting to bore you with the details (I mean, who really wants to know about our measurements of different video streaming platform latency averages?), a sketch summary goes something like this:

We’re aiming to replicate key aspects of our conventional classroom workshops as closely as possible, as a starting point, in particular we want to develop workshops that still feel personal and allow us to interact and react to the children in the classroom, and that promote ‘hands on, minds on’ learning.  We’re also interested in the situation where workshop participants share a physical space (ie. their classroom), and the presenter is remote. This is quite different from the typical Zoom/Teams/Google Meet arrangement, where each participant is in a separate physical space.

In our partner schools, we’ve found the class PC (the one connected to a data projector, displaying at the front of the class) typically does not have a microphone or camera. We chose early on to adopt a policy of not asking schools to replug any IT equipment, so for the presenter to follow what’s happening in the classroom a second channel is required. That is, our basic setup is:

  • Presenter delivers to class PC, projected onto whiteboard.
  • Roving iPad/laptop in classroom, showing proceedings back to the presenter.

These devices have to be in separate video chats, or there’s audio ring-around/howl. The only work-around for that would be to manage microphones manually in the classroom, and we don’t want to impose that burden on our schools… so we have to handle audio at our end.

Meanwhile, schools vary in their IT policies, and the extent to which the software fit on their PCs/laptops/tablets matches those policies. So whatever we do has to be platform-agnostic: it has to work across Zoom, Teams, Meet, and others. We want to be able to deliver fluid, high-quality audio and video into any of these systems.

…aaaand whatever we build has to be useable for us, such that our presenters can focus on the content and participants, not on working the tech.

We’ve explored a bunch of other aspects, but this is already getting long and we’ll have to save a full write-up for another day/paper/booklet. Last week we ordered a bunch of equipment which – we hope – will allow us to do what we need in a relatively simple way. If we’ve guessed right, the technology will start to fade into the background and we can lift our gaze to the questions which are actually interesting:

  • How do primary-age children perceive workshops delivered via streaming video? Does it seem natural to them, or forced? Does it come across as ‘like TV, but worse?’, and could we address that by making our streams more or less like broadcast?
  • How much do our workshop structures and content need to be adjusted to accommodate remote delivery? Is the old model still appropriate, or is there something better?
  • Is the workload manageable for teachers and assistants in the classroom? How much can we involved them in the delivery of the workshop?
  • How does it feel for our presenters? What support and development can we extend to ease their transition and help them build confidence?
  • What opportunities can we identify from this? It’s theoretically easier to include a working scientist or engineer in a school workshop if they can join from their (home?) office rather than have to travel to the school. Is that a good thing?
  • Can (and should) we deliver to multiple classes at once? How about multiple schools?
  • Do we present demonstrations ‘live’, or play-in prerecords? Does that judgement change if we’re delivering an assembly rather than an in-class workshop?

We’ve learned a lot to this point, but the really important work lies ahead of us. We’re also watching what other people are up to, and trying to work out where their thinking improves on ours. Behind-the-scenes, there’s really gratifying sharing and collaboration going on across the science communication sector, with individuals, institutions and umbrella organisations trying to help each other out as best we can. If you’re part of this world and don’t feel you’re part of those conversations, drop us a line and we’ll try to loop you in.

New competition for secondaries: Microsoft STEM Student Challenge

I know, I know – the education world is awash with competitions. Stick with it, this one’s a little different and it looks like it could be genuinely fun… and also smart.

Microsoft Research in Cambridge are running a competition which builds on students’ knowledge of STEM subjects, but also on their research skills and particularly their imaginations. The challenge goes:

  1. Pick one of these themes:
    1. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality
    2. Data security
    3. Healthcare
  2. Now come up with an original technology idea which you think could exist in that field in 20 years’ time.
  3. Make a short film which showcases your idea.
  4. Submit the film.

Prizes and the experience for finalists look good, and there’s a clear information pack available at the challenge website. The competition’s open to teams of 4-6 students, in years 8-10.

What I like about this particular competition is that the central conceit is both accessible and clever. We all dream about what the future might bring, this is simply asking you to commit to (and describe) a specific vision. In doing so, you’ll have take what you know about STEM subjects and extrapolate that thinking twenty years into the future. This isn’t some well-intentioned-but-ham-fisted attempt to ‘make science relevant to our everyday lives,’ it’s an invitation to students to find the relevance for themselves. That’s clever.

Also, I’m a sucker for a schools’ STEM film competition.

The only thing I find a little surprising is that there’s no category for primary-age entrants. A pity for them, but also for the judges, who’ll miss out on genius like this. Ah well, maybe next year?

Anyway – secondaries: get your cameras out, sharpen your pencils, brush up on your tech skills and prop-making, and show us how the world’s going to be in 2037. Registration deadline is 8th December, with entries due by 10th February 2017.

 Microsoft STEM Student Challenge website.

Ooh, one last bit of advice: with our Technology Wishing Well we’ve collected about 800 wishes for future tech, from Maker Faire UK and Big Bang North-East. We haven’t yet done a proper analysis, but as a quick hint: lots of people want a flying robot dog which does their homework and tidies their room. Which would indeed be awesome, but you might not be the only entrants to suggest such a thing to this competition.

 

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.

How long would it take to fall through the Earth?

This is a classic calculation, and one that’s surprisingly tricky: suppose you could bore a hole all the way through the Earth. If you jumped in, how long would it take you to fall through and come out of the other side?

If you’re taking A-level physics you know pretty much everything you need to do the calculation for yourself, but there are a few fiddly little problems you need to deal with along the way. Most importantly: if you’re falling through the Earth, only some of it is below your feet. The rest of it is above your head, and the force of gravity from that part is pulling you not downwards but upwards. So working out the forces isn’t as simple as you might hope, but you do get something back: when you start picking away at the maths, you’ll find that what happens when you reach the centre of the planet is pretty important.

Have a think about how you’d tackle the problem yourself, then take a look at this video from MinutePhysics.

Tip of the hat to Alom Shaha for pointing us to this.

Watch a gigantic ship being built in six minutes

Projects like Think Physics spend a lot of time illustrating how engineering careers mostly aren’t about welding or metalwork. But there’s still something plain cool about seeing huge slabs of steel being thrown around by massive cranes and slotted together like oversize Lego. This video is the cruise ship AIDAprima being built in Nagasaki, Japan, between June 2013 and May 2014.

On board are two water slides, climbing walls, a lavish sports deck, 1643 guest rooms, thirteen restaurants and some sort of clever roof I don’t quite understand. Underneath is what sounds like a fiendishly clever air bubble system which reduces friction between the hull and the sea it’s travelling through, which is claimed to reduce fuel consumption by 7%. That’s a huge saving for a ship of this size (more technical details about the ship here).

When we’re talking about cutting edge engineering innovations and the exciting career opportunities that are emerging from breakthrough sectors, it’s worth remembering that the traditional heavy engineering companies are also still doing cool stuff. Ship building, power generation, mining, machine tool production – they’re all busy fields, and they’re not standing still when it comes to new technologies and approaches.

(video via the superlative blog The Kid Should See This)

 

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