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The success of the STEM challenge

For Emily Farmer, promoting STEM education is an integral part of the engineering profession. However, the recent pandemic made traditional promotion methods a challenge. Here’s how she overcame that challenge.

It brings such joy to see how people have been able to participate in STEM challenges from their own home, creating such a great virtual network and bringing positive energy to the daunting situation of lockdown.

Great things can be taken from volunteering and for me, the ability to have fun during the activities helps to engage people, particularly the younger generation, which all contributes to promoting the industry to our engineers of the future. However, the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 including the Government lockdown resulted in many volunteering opportunities being immediately put on hold.

When COVID-19 started to take effect, the balance of juggling day-to-day engineering work with home-schooling and keeping children entertained became a daunting prospect - and an unexpected challenge - for many. For me, this presented an opportunity to think outside the box and come up with a unique way for STEM activities to continue to keep our staff and their offspring entertained. My colleague Lucy and I used this chance to put together a series of, what we decided to call, STEM at Home challenges to offer educational and fun activities to Mott MacDonald employees, their children and wider networks.

Where it all began
Initially we had intended to create a single STEM challenge which colleagues could do at home with their children to introduce them to STEM and the engineering industry. We focussed on a challenge which addressed the 2m social distancing rule as a fun way to try and ignite some imagination. Together Lucy and I came up with a scenario to introduce the challenge.

The scenario was a mini version of us practicing social distancing by staying 2m apart with a way to reconnect once the distancing was no longer needed. We challenged the future engineers to replicate this by spacing two chairs 2m apart and creating a bridge out of household materials to connect them.
The challenge was distributed to our team and we had an unbelievable response. We soon started receiving entries from other divisions, countries and schools! I was overwhelmed by the number of responses and imagination; the variety and originality of ideas gave me lots of faith in the future engineers!

Evolving the idea
After the success of challenge one, we decided to try and make this a series of weekly challenges. We issued nine challenges in total with varying themes such as wind power and egg parachutes.

We kept the challenges broad and vague to allow participation from all ages, with the use of any readily available materials from home and any level of commitment. All that was required was a little bit of skill and a lot of creativity and enthusiasm – and we were not disappointed!

We were soon contacted by the National Literacy Trust who are responsible for bringing books and stories to life for children aged 5-11; they give disadvantaged children the literacy skills to succeed in life. We collaborated with them to create a resource pack based on the challenges we had set. This was a great way to take the challenges a step further and reach out to a wider audience of children who did not have any existing links to engineering.

A winning response
The response to the challenges was fantastic. We had participation from colleagues in the UK, Canada and India, as well as regular response from a year 9 class at a school in Cumbria! The creativity was unbelievable, and we have been blown away by the engagement. It brings such joy to see how people have been able to participate in STEM challenges from their own home, creating such a great virtual network and bringing positive energy to the daunting situation of lockdown.

Volunteering has always been such a wonderful way to achieve a sense of wellbeing in my career, and this series of challenges has reiterated for me how vibrancy can stem from a tough situation such as a pandemic. It was wonderful to be virtually connected to such a diverse range of people at a time that many of us were feeling isolated. Each photo that dropped into my inbox brought a smile to my face, and I am truly inspired by the work of these future engineers!

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