Inspiring 5 year olds to become software engineers
24 October 2018
Stephen Thompson Senior Research Associate
On the 4 and 16 October I visited two North London primary schools - Mulberry Primary School in Tottenham, and Carlton Primary in Gospel Oak, to inspire groups of 5 and 6 year olds to think about jobs in engineering.
The events were organised by Inspire (http://www.inspire-ebp.org.uk/) as part of their ongoing work to promote STEM careers to London schoolchildren. Many of the children come from groups significantly underrepresented in STEM, and a key aim of Inspire! is to address this imbalance.
I was there to explain to the children what a software engineer does, and to let them know that this is a job within their reach. Personally, I was also there to develop my communication skills and to test out my software with a very demanding user group!
Talking to groups of eight children at a time, I started off with a two-minute introduction, explaining that the most important skill for engineers is the ability to listen to other people, and understand their needs. I then outlined my attempts to develop ‘X-ray specs’ for surgeons. I had created a demonstration utilising the Basic Augmented Reality Demo on a plastic model of a liver, which I encouraged the children to interact with while I discussed what was going on. This tended to only engage two to three children at a time, so I also programmed a simple game in Scratch to illustrate basic programming, introduce augmented reality, and explain basic anatomy which the children were able to access via a second tablet computer (https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/250160735/).
The children appeared to find both demonstrations fun and engaging, interacting in interesting ways with both devices. The Scratch game was programmed to use the tablet's front facing camera for interaction, to avoid too many fingers on the screen. Most of the children struggled with this user interface initially as their first instinct is to touch the screen, but they learned quickly. They asked lots of questions, many about the liver model, blood and anatomy, but also about software and what I did on a typical day. I explained to the children why I love my job and what had inspired me to work as an engineer in this field.
I found the event very rewarding and it was an interesting exercise trying to express what I do in language comprehensible to a 5 year old. The process of preparing for the event enabled a degree of reflection on what the important and worthwhile parts of my research and teaching are. And the software I developed for the event performed well and provides a useful resource for future events and teaching.
The children showed a real interest in medicine and engineering and I was able to get several parents and children interested in starting to code with Scratch.
I would encourage any researchers to consider volunteering for Inspire, and I’d be more than happy to offer any advice or support to anyone thinking of dipping their toes in the water!