STEAMing through the skills gap

James Pozzi talks to Matt Bell, European secondary education manager at Autodesk, which is supporting the F1 in Schools competition, giving pupils the opportunity to design and manufacture compressed air-powered racing cars.

As a Premium Global Software partner to F1 in Schools, how has Autodesk played an active role in its association with the initiative?

Matt Bell, Autodesk
Matt Bell, European secondary education manager at Autodesk.

One of the major inputs we have is making all of our software free and accessible to all participating schools over the world. These are our design and analysing software, everything a student or school would need to participate in the competition. We also have developed a wide range of resources and tutorials to support people in using the technology as part of the competition. On a daily basis I’ll get contact from schools asking for information and support. We’re engaging with the F1 in Schools programme from right at the top from the management to the supporting the individual student in best utilising the technology in the outcomes they are producing in the competition.

What do pupils get out of F1 in Schools in terms of experience and skills?

The competition covers a wide curriculum area focused on roles within a team. Aside from just designing, analysing and creating a car, there will be additional roles such as a team manager, a marketing manager and someone to run the website. They have to fund raise and create business plans also, so it really does cover almost every curriculum area within the school environment. A gentleman called Steve Nevey, who was part of the F1 in Schools management team, came from Red Bull Racing and he does a presentation detailing what his experiences and how it reflects F1 in Schools. In honesty, everything they do is pretty much crossing both those areas, so the students really do go through a real life F1 experience – just on a slightly smaller budget! This really is a great platform to give a real life context to the delivery of STEAM education. It’s very difficult within the structure of the school systems to deliver a STEAM or STEM project based curriculum, as the vast majority will still be teaching the subjects individually by lesson. What this programme allows them to do is combine all of those and using technology to put into context what they are learning in their Maths and Science lessons. It’s almost education by stealth.

How have pupils and teachers taken to using CAD and SFD software and has there been a strong level of sophistication in the finished designs?

What we’re finding by making sure every teacher and student has access to software at home, is young people going away from class for the weekend and coming back and showing what they’ve produced and its very impressive. Young people’s grasp of technologically is becoming ever more sophisticated, and having the software gives them the option not to just sit and be a user of CAD technology but be active in development. Within an F1 team, you’ll generally have 2-3 CAD designers, analysers and makers who will work collectively.

It’s no secret that there is a particular shortfall in female participation in STEM subjects. What’s been your experience of this in relation to your work with Autodesk and the F1 in Schools project?

I would completely agree that we need more females. But in terms of F1 in Schools, I’ve seen a strong percentage of females due to the broad elements that make up the participating teams. There have even been instances of all girl teams participating also, with an award for the Female of the Year presented at the national final as well. We’re trying to remove to ‘dirty’ image of engineering and promote the latest, high end technology and advanced manufacturing and present this as an exciting career. I also do a lot of work with the UK National Apprenticeship Service which also focuses on this. F1 in Schools is a prime example of this working: and how engaging girls in this opportunity makes it an accessible thing to participate in.

Your role also covers the rest of Europe. What are some of the comparisons with the UK you see on the continent in promoting STEAM and embracing technology for educational purposes?

The obstacles the UK faces apply to everyone else not just in Europe, but globally. We were recently visited by China’s minister for education, who came to view our activities over here. When looking at Europe, the likes of Germany, Switzerland and Austria have very strong vocational and educational training (VET) system, which sees a very strong percentage of people enter upon leaving school. In the UK, the funding going into national apprenticeship programmes is great, but we have a little way to go yet. But we are seeing things changing, and with the new trailblazers and apprenticeships being written, the UK can go a long way to support STEM and STEAM education. If we can bring on the vocational side of things with a better use of the Science, Engineering and Maths subjects and make career paths accessible, then that will be progress. But what’s important is also making sure teachers have the resources to support pupils through this. Right now there’s a big initiative for 3D printers in schools, and while its great having the machine in the classroom, the teachers need the tool set to use it to its maximum. From our point of view, to maximise 3D printing in education, everyone needs to be competent in the technology. Other countries across Europe have identified this as well.