Guest blog: How RS is helping to inspire tomorrow's engineers through the LEGO League

Simon Lummis, education lead at OKdo, a technology provider and part of the RS Group support for the First Lego league involvement in the IET's First LEGO League initiative, sparks student interest in STEM.

RS’ commitment to promoting STEM to help combat a potential future engineering skills shortage is renowned and long established. Some 200 STEM ambassadors – RS employees who dedicate time to helping in the mission to drive awareness by supporting various educational events and initiatives – are testament to this.

This year, we have supported one that we have been involved with in previous years, and which always perfectly illustrates to us why we support it and why such initiatives are worthwhile. The First LEGO League, an Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) initiative, is designed to spark interest in STEM in students from four right through to 16-years-old. RS is the official UK supplier of LEGO Education products to the IET, which students use for the challenge, and we hosted a regional event for school participants in the Northamptonshire region at our headquarters in Corby.

Teams from six local schools took part in the event, and while it’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of hard work and planning involved. The event took place on a Saturday, so there’s some real dedication required too! Around 15 staff and family members helped to deliver this regional event, in addition to the set-up, as we provided judges for the gaming tables and challenge referees.

First up: the logistics of providing a suitable space for the challenges. With a large floor space area at the top of our Corby headquarters building, we felt this would offer the very best environment for the students, from the nine to 16-year-old category that we were working with, to do their very best work in the challenge. But this space didn’t have adequate access for the size of gaming table we wanted to provide, so a group of staff got the materials up there to build gaming tables themselves. On top of this, there were gaming mats and LEGO models to be built, requiring about 24 man hours just for the LEGO build, so the preparation for such an event is far from easy.

The challenge for this age group is made up of several parts: the first being a robot game where teams are required to build a robot using the LEGO Education SPIKE Prime set, which they program to complete a series of missions and on which they are scored. They must also explain the process of designing, building and programming their robot. They also must demonstrate the challenge core values, which are innovation, teamwork and inclusion.

For me, as a judge for the event and account manager for the IET, I find it incredibly rewarding as it’s really quite impressive seeing the dedication, energy and enthusiasm of students of this age, and the curiosity and passion they demonstrate when programming their robots and negotiating the missions. But it is the Innovation Project part of the challenge which really differentiates the teams.

The Innovation Project has an annual theme, and this year it was Masterpiece, a performing arts -based challenge. It required teams to imagine new ways to communicate art across the globe. Teams were given guidance and could seek and consult with outside companies to gain third party advice about their project.

One team came up with the very novel solution to the issue of 99 per cent of theatre shows being in English, and therefore not accessible to non-English speaking people. Their Innovation Project involved the use of Artificial Intelligence to provide real-time translation through headphones within the theatre environment – making the show accessible to all. It’s a perfect demonstration of the application of engineering and technology in the real world, and makes students really think about the role of STEM in a different way. It presents it as more relevant and applicable to a diverse range of scenarios.

The IET’s The First LEGO League challenge is comprised of regional events, from which the winners in each age group go on to take part in a national challenge, which this year took place in Harrogate and involved 74 competing teams.

I’ve been involved in this challenge in previous years and I hope to again as the technology, and the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm of students, evolves. It’s an exciting landscape to be involved in and rewarding to see at grassroots level how young minds can be inspired by the technology that’s all around us. It’s an important mission, as without this kind of work, that spark may never be created. And wouldn’t that be a crying shame?

Simon Lummis is education lead at OKdo, a technology provider and part of the RS Group