STEM alive at RAF Cosford

RAF Cosford

Yesterday, Rachel Woollam, John Randall, his son Benji and I, were lucky enough to be invited to RAF Cosford to have a look at their innovative STEM bus. And, what an amazing experience it was. We were greeted initially by Corporal Mathew McNee who took us to obtain our passes for the day. It made us all feel very important. To prove our identities we had to provide some documentation – Benji’s was deemed to be the most trustworthy, as he had a special Blue Peter badge winner’s card.

RAF Cosford passAfter yet another terrible photograph, we made our way across the base to meet Flight Lieutenant John Sloley, who together with Mat, runs the STEM bus.

This is a double decker bus dedicated to bringing STEM activities to the local community, particularly school children. We were very excited to have a closer look, as this is a resource that we are planning, with the help of our PA, to establish at Rode Heath. Although ours will remain static, this RAF bus is able to travel within a 30 mile radius and offers a wide variety of engaging learning activities such as Aeronautical Engineering, Virtual Reality and Robotics, as well as having a play area available for toddler crafts.


We were certainly very impressed by the technology we found in the interior. There were a number of large screens with access to the Internet, which meant that we were able to show off our Think Like an Engineer website and bring up an aerial view of the school to see where we might house a similar vehicle. At over 18 metres long and around 2.5 metres wide, it is quite a large undertaking – definitely requiring some thought!


The bus was very well equipped, the screens being particularly useful for giving presentations and directing children’s learning – we would certainly need to budget for at least one of these in our bus to deliver workshops and CPD. As we walked through the different areas we could see more and more potential for the work space: staff meetings, Code Club; birthday parties; PPA etc.


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Having investigated the bus and made extensive notes, we were then treated to a peek inside the geodesic dome, which houses a massive radar scanner. This powerful piece of equipment uses microwaves to determine the range, angle, or velocity of planes detected within a 250 mile radius. This is one of a number mobile RAF scanners located across the UK, helping to defend us.


Watching it operate was very impressive.


Benji was even given the opportunity to switch the radar on and try out the software – he was a natural. There certainly seemed to be a considerable number of planes in the sky at that moment.


It was a fantastic end to the morning. Having said our goodbyes to John and Mat, whilst Rachel and I headed to the Museum restaurant for a bite to eat, John took Benji to look at the planes and other wonderful attractions.

Thank you John and Mat for making us so welcome and sharing your STEM visions with us. You have given us a lot of food for thought and armed us with huge enthusiasm for the future. We now need to retreat and form our plan of attack.

And, of course, find a suitable bus . . . . and maybe some sponsors, as we have quite ambitious ideas.

Big Tinker & mini Picademy

The past few days have seen some key events in our Think Like an Engineer project. Last week we held our first Big Tinker – the opportunity for each class in school to spend a session focussing on an engineering activity. This can be linked to another area of the curriculum, such as Literacy, or as a stand-alone tinker. We will be holding these on a regular half-termly basis, alongside our termly Engineering Days to keep the momentum going.

Teachers are given a free reign, with the stipulation that children need to have time to discuss and plan their ideas before launching in to the making. For KS2, it was suggested that they try out one of the activities demonstrated on the recent BBC2 programme: Astronauts: Do you have what it takes? This involved building the highest tower possible with A4 paper and paperclips, which had to stand for 30 seconds. The astronauts had a time limit of 20 minutes, of which the first five minutes were spent discussing their ideas, standing back to back. For the remaining 15 minutes, whilst building the tower, they were only allowed to communicate through facial expressions and gesticulations.
Year 5 & 6 took part in the challenge in the school hall and could communicate fully. The Year 4 children were asked to work in silence, which they found very difficult. As a result, their attempts were much less successful. Despite this, a considerable amount of learning went on, and it became clear how important it is to hold these regular events as a reinforcement of engineering habits of mind.

The winning tower measured 112 cm high – not at all bad, considering the potential astronauts managed just over 200 cm.

The infants had their own ideas and their Big Tinkers ranged from bottle top catapults, inspired by a Beavers’ activity to making flotation devices in Year 2. The most important aspect for me though, was that everyone had fun and engineering continues to be alive in school.

The Year 5s did some more paper engineering earlier in the week, when they investigated hoop gliders.


Today we were lucky enough to have yet another visit from the dynamic duo: Pete Lomas and Tim Wilson. This time they brought with them a wealth of goodies: namely a large collection of Raspberry Pis complete with Sense HATS – a board which was taken up to the ISS during Tim Peake’s Principia mission. As the children had never encountered Pis before, there was considerable excitement in the room whilst the equipment was being sorted out.


The children organised themselves into groups of 3 and set up their Raspberry Pis using a pi-CEED as their display device. It was impressed by how the children were able to confidently plug everything together. Having installed Raspbian, they were then ready to experiment with Python.


There were three programming activities for the SenseHAT, which worked well as it meant that everyone in the group had the opportunity to enter some code.


The children soon learned that it was critical to copy each line down correctly, just a it appeared on the worksheet – any incorrect syntax or missing spaces meant that the program just wouldn’t run. There was a lot of problem finding going on. Both Pete and Tim were impressed by the children’s resilience. And, once they had run the program successfully and became more familiar with Python, then they started to modify the code.

The next step will be to complete Astro Pi: Mission Zero using an online Sense HAT emulator to create the program. No hardware is needed, as everything is done in a web browser. The completed program is then actually run in space on the International Space Station (ISS)! How cool is that!

Thank you Tim & Pete and the Raspberry Pi Foundation for giving us these wonderful opportunities.