Co-Creating and Leading a STEM workshop

Summary:

A major part of my first months at Siemens was the programming workshop I worked on with a few of my colleagues. The idea was to introduce school-aged children to the basics of programming in a light-hearted and fun way. We were provided several BBC micro:bit microcontrollers, which are a small, inexpensive printed circuit board with numerous sensors and programmable electrical contacts on it. Schools around the country normally use it for smaller engineering and programming related lessons, so it made sense for us to use it too. The controller can be programmed through a web-based block-code editor, much like Scratch or Google's Blockly.

 

We were given a deadline in about 2 months to come up with some exercises with these resources. The workshop would then run for a few days with multiple schools attending from the Poole area. They had a fully-fledged field day at Siemens with the workshop being one of the main events of their day.

Undertaking the project was a nice look into corporate practices as well as a nice challenge to start the year off. The idea was introduced to us more than 2 months before the planned sessions, which with my university adjusted mind was a time span way too long to plan for, and for the most part a very excessive period for what was essentially a coding exercise and a presentation. Being the eager intern, I spent about 2 weeks working on different ideas we could implement to form the main ‘curriculum’. We were told it had to be traffic related to align with what ITS does, so we eventually arrived at the conclusion that the best thing to do is to build simple traffic light circuits with a red, amber, and green light and use the microcontroller to turn them on in a way that resembles a traffic light. This allowed us to teach the children about the basic operation of a traffic light, and it provided for a nice basis for a simple programming exercise using the official code editor that comes with the controller.

Challenges and things I learned:

While structuring and preparing for the sessions, we ran into various hurdles that come with teaching smaller children, like gauging their level of skill in certain tasks, and deciding what needs to be explained and what can be assumed to be common knowledge. I personally found it quite scary to go out and lead a workshop, but after a few sessions I managed to come to terms with it. I think the biggest surprise was how hard it is to teach even something as simple as a loop or a conditional statement to somebody who has no knowledge of programming whatsoever. I have tremendously improved my public speaking skills over the 12 or so sessions we did during the scheduled event and gained confidence in teaching and explaining the very basics of what my degree is based on. It doesn’t sound like much, but there's nothing cooler than seeing off a group of kids all talking about your workshop being awesome or having someone come up to you for advice on their programming project.

©2020 by William David Altbacker