The Robots Are Coming
Head of Science Mr Lovejoy considers how Greenfield is helping to equip the next generation with skills and knowledge to prepare them for future technological advances, through exploratory STEM lessons.
The world is changing. The robots are coming. Little by little, they are infiltrating our lives and taking our jobs… There is no stopping them.
To prepare the next generation for the ever-growing challenges and opportunities that arise from this phenomenon, education needs to keep up.
A key part of the education we provide is to prepare children for life beyond school; from the transition to senior schools, to their lives beyond education. As is often remarked, many of the jobs that await our children do not exist yet. Technology will play an increasingly important role in more and more areas of industry; and more and more jobs will be lost to automation, going far beyond manufacturing and service industries – yes folks, the robots are coming! Even the arts are not safe - artificial intelligence has already developed to the point where it is near impossible for the average person to tell if what they are reading, watching or listening to has been created by a human or a machine. Maybe this is why all pop music sounds the same to me these days (or maybe I am just getting old...!)
Admittedly, this all sounds rather depressing for today's youth. If so many jobs will be lost to automation and AI, what lies ahead? How will they earn a living? The fact is, no one really knows what future holds, but in order to prepare our children STEM is a good starting point.
While automation can do many things, there are skills that are still very much human and are increasingly in demand in the world of work. Skills such as creativity, collaboration, communication, decision-making - the list goes on. Artificial intelligence and automation are only as good as the teams of people who design and build it. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) activities in school provide a perfect opportunity for children to develop some of these skills.
In 2016, we began an initiative to provide more STEM learning for our children and thus the opportunity to expand their knowledge outside of their 40-50 minute timetabled lessons. With a mind to increase our pupils' engagement in collaborative and practical projects, the initiative not only develops key knowledge of STEM but also promotes many desirable soft skills as mentioned previously. In collaboration with our Headmistress and Deputy Head, we came up with the idea to provide all pupils from Year 1 to Year 6 the opportunity to work on engineering tasks for entire afternoons. And so, our Friday STEM afternoons at Greenfield were born.
The tasks set are wide ranging and engaging, and always include the journey from designing, creating, testing and reflecting. From designing wind powered cars, to constructing the tallest spaghetti structure possible, to building weather-proof shelters… the list goes on. While the contexts are all different, the aims are largely the same. To be successful pupils must work collaboratively, they need to be creative with the materials provided, they need to apply prior learning and they must stick to the brief. I am sure this must sound quite familiar to some readers as it will be how you work in your chosen career.
Just as importantly though, is that there is no single right answer and that everyone will experience failure. Although this may sound like a negative - no one likes to fail! - STEM allows failure to be treated as an opportunity. Yes, your bridge collapsed, but can you see why? Can you find and strengthen the weak point so that your next effort is better? The optimal solution to an open-ended task is rarely found on the first attempt, so evaluating a failure and making improvements is a vital life skill, breeding resilience and perseverance.
The results in my STEM sessions are consistently surprising. At the start of a session I may have in mind the group who I think will be most successful, but I am rarely right. A pleasant bi-product is that STEM gives the opportunity for perhaps unlikely heroes to be made. It gives those children who are yet to find their niche another opportunity to discover something new and allows those with the aptitude for STEM subjects to work on their communication, collaboration and other soft skills. Combining technical STEM knowledge with the freedom to create and build can spark interest in children of all aptitudes and characters, whether they are drawn to sports, arts, or academia – the passion that can be ignited from designing, building and testing their creations is seen in boys and girls of all ages, and of all abilities.
I was as surprised as the rest of the class when one pair built a bridge that could hold the weight of 14 dictionaries - a true example from a recent Middle School session! No one in that class, me included if I am being honest, expected this particular pairing to be able to construct a very successful bridge, but they did, and it was much to the delight of the whole class. As each dictionary was added, the grins on those two got bigger and bigger. When I got to 10, 11, 12 dictionaries, they could no longer contain their excitement and were jumping and screaming. It was noisy, but a joy to see. I hope that session taught those two children that they can achieve more than people might expect of them and what they might expect of themselves. Another important life lesson.
So the robots are coming, but at Greenfield we are doing our bit to help prepare the children. Open ended group tasks such as those in our STEM afternoons begin to develop those key skills that are becoming increasingly important in the scary world of work. Our school motto has never been more relevant “Where education is more than just knowledge”.
Head of Science and Year 5 Teacher