The STEM of the Christmas Tree

Features editor
A seasonal look at how to spark an interest in engineering during the Festive Season

I don’t generally think of myself as the sort of person who you’d choose to ask for advice, so when a friend of mine asked how he might best get his daughter interested in science and engineering, I was rather flattered. My friend – we’ll call him Paul, because that’s his name – is a weight training enthusiast who likes to boast of his descent from Vikings and Dark Ages Essex rabble-rousers, so I was quite surprised he didn’t want his offspring to grow up raiding monasteries and farmsteads. But anyway, I told him a few of the things that IET president Naomi Climer had told me when I interviewed her a few weeks back: connect STEM to people, not things; discuss science and engineering subjects as though it’s something connected to life and not the preserve of weird stuff and so on. At which point Paul, summoning up depths of scorn that the word on a page can only approximate, informed me that his daughter ‘liked the red Lego pieces’.

In my enthusiasm to advise, I had somehow forgotten that the girl in question was barely a toddler. Still, full marks to Paul for thinking ahead, and he’s assured me that he’ll keep my advice in mind for when his little girl can in fact talk in whole sentences.

Dreaming of a drone Christmas?

I tell this story because, as readers must have noticed by now, Christmas is on its way (other gift-giving religious and secular occasions are also available), and some readers may, like Paul, be wondering how they can use the season as an opportunity to spark an interest in STEM in young relatives. They have in fact got a head start as readers of the Engineer, as research indicates that having a close family member (even better, a parent) working in the sector or even just interested in it is a strong indicator that it’s likely a child will take an interest.

One thing that’s often cited as sparking an interest is construction toys like Lego and Meccano. I did think that Meccano was no longer a thing, but the large branch of Maplin’s I walk past on my way to Engineer Towers has a large display of it in its window, and it’s certainly still around, albeit somewhat more hi-tech than I remember it (two of the sets were designed to build radio-controlled buggies, while another – with, horror or horrors, plastic rather than metal parts – assembled as a programmable robot).

Plastic Meccano seems like a mistake to me: one of the main attractions of the product was that it was made of metal, like real things that people built. The idea of these toys as a kit to make a predetermined thing (a concept that Lego has also adopted enthusiastically) is also an unwelcome development in my book, and one that I don’t remember from my childhood: surely you just got a box of parts and built whatever you could dream up, or is my memory playing tricks?

A Christmas event at the Institution of Civil Engineers seems to have got the idea a bit better. The ICE is inviting families to bring children to its Westminster headquarters (an imposing place to visit in its own right) to use Lego, Meccano and K’nex to build an imaginary city. The event has a particular focus on bridge-building, and on coming up with ideas to help Father Christmas deliver presents. This seems much more in the spirit of engineering, which isn’t so much about just building stuff, but about building stuff to do things, or more specifically to solve problems (how do I cross this gap? How do I violate the laws of causality to visit every house on Earth in 24 hours while wearing a red, hooded and fur-trimmed outfit? Answers in the Comments box, please). The ICE Christmas exhibition takes place from 4-18 December and all are welcome, though some times are reserved for ICE members: visit for details.

If gadgets are your thing, 2015 is being hyped as ‘the Christmas of the drone’ (just like the last five Christmases, surely); although my research loiter outside Maplins reveals unless your present budget is a lot bigger than mine, it isn’t really. A reasonable sum might buy you a remote-controlled multicopter with a cheap digital camera slung under it, but if you want any actual autonomous flight - and photography-assisting abilities (which is the defining characteristic a ‘drone’ in my book) you’re looking at paying upwards of £400.

Going back to Paul’s question, some readers may also be wondering how they can get girls interested? The simple answer is that any of the construction toys are just as good for either gender, although Lego has made a rather controversial stance with ‘girls’ Lego’, which comes with pastel pink and purple blocks and is sold in kits to make things like hairdressers’ shops. So far, so stereotypical; but another product is taking a slightly different tack. A US company called Goldiblox, which started up last year, is claiming to be a more gender-specific construction set designed to appeal to girls. At first sight it looks similar to the ‘girls’ Lego’ – there are those pastel colours again – but founder Debbie Stirling explains that the kits are structured around ‘narrative-based building’ with each set centred around a  character (embodied by a play figure) who has to use the components of the set to solve problems by building machines. The sets are currently fairly basic, but the company promises to be working on sets that include motors and logic components to teach basic coding. Whether they’ve got any red blocks for Paul’s daughter (possibly in a ‘Goldie goes Maurauding’ set) is yet to be seen.