Tinkering with basic domestic appliances or motor engines was once the training ground for generations of the UK’s engineers.
But today’s teenagers are much less likely to spend hours taking apart and repairing broken household appliances – which nowadays are usually sealed units containing microchips and complex circuitry – than mechanically minded youths of the past.
Hoping to revive this once-great tradition of hands-on exploration and experimentation, London Metropolitan University, in association with the Royal Institution, is running maths and engineering masterclasses that equip schoolchildren with the skills to build their own basic electrical devices. In doing so, it also aims to encourage young people to consider going on to higher education.
London Met invites gifted and talented children from local schools aged 12 to 16 to take part in a series of practical engineering sessions, which are held twice a year over seven consecutive Saturdays at the university’s £30 million science centre.
One of the morning sessions run by Saeed Reza Taghizadeh, principal lecturer in the School of Computing, shows youngsters how to make a basic radio.
“People have been making their own radios ever since [radio was pioneered by Italian inventor] Marconi, but it’s still a fantastic thing to do,” Taghizadeh says.
“Everything that children learn in their maths lesson can be applied practically to create a brand-new product,” he adds.
The success of the British-made Raspberry Pi microcomputer, which recently sold its 5 millionth unit, is another example of how relatively low-tech electronics can spark youngsters’ interest in DIY electrics.
But Taghizadeh believes that his radio workshop is a better introduction to basic engineering than a coding session using the microcomputer.
“You need some expertise to get started on a Raspberry Pi, and you can’t create much [with it] in two and a half hours.” That time, however, is enough to teach the rules you need to build a radio, he says. “We are hearing about children going home and making radios in their kitchen in front of their parents.”
It is not yet known what the majority of the 300 students who have participated in the masterclasses over the past three years will study at university, but Taghizadeh believes that they leave the sessions thinking of themselves as engineers.
“We’re giving them the belief that they can build something and be an engineer,” he says.
In addition, London Met staff and students running the sessions – which cover other areas of robotics, computer networks and more theoretical classes on statistics – “feel greatly honoured to be involved in providing an opportunity for a group of young students to experience life in university”, he adds.
“We hope the experience will help them to make the right decision for their future education career.”
The project is one of several London Met schemes designed to encourage local schoolchildren to aspire to university. Other schemes include summer schools for Year 12 students and regular Saturday morning clubs for children interested in art and design. There is also its Upward Bound programme to improve GCSE attainment in Islington, and other outreach activities are peer mentoring in local schools and colleges by more than 50 students, university experience days for 11- to 14-year-olds and subject taster days for those aged 14 to 17.
These community connections have helped to underscore London Met’s reputation as one of the UK’s most socially inclusive universities: of its home undergraduate intake, about 75 per cent come from low-income households where total income is less than £25,000 a year, and 50 per cent of all students have an ethnic minority background.
For those taking part in the masterclass programme, interacting with London Met students is a key part of the experience.
“The support and enthusiasm from the undergraduate ambassadors make such an amazing addition to the experience gained by the students attending the sessions,” says Diane Crann, masterclass programme manager at the Royal Institution.
“We’re sure that many of the 300 young people who will have gone through the doors of the university over the past three years will be inspired to go on to study these sciences to a high level,” she adds.
300 – the number of schoolchildren who have attended a London Met masterclass
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