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.

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