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Prize-winning journey to MARS

By Nikos Savvas

Nikos Savvas, principal at West Suffolk College ANL-160104-110812001
Nikos Savvas, principal at West Suffolk College ANL-160104-110812001

“And the ‘Oscar’ for Best Teaching and Learning Initiative goes to . . . West Suffolk College!”

It may not have been on television and it may not have been the Oscars, but is as close as it gets in our world! It’s a brilliant achievement when the judges at the Times Educational Supplement FE Awards unanimously agreed that our project combining Maths, Art, Religion and Science was ‘completely amazing’.

Derek Johnson, our Director of the Art and Design Department, collected the awards and we were all just as proud as if it had been an Oscar. And yes we did check that they were reading from the right envelope!

We call it the MARS project and it means all the art and design students work with the school of science on a set of challenging assignments which are evaluated by an invited panel of judges. This has engaged, stretched and challenged students across all four subjects and shows how we always try and inspire them.

There’s been a lot of science around the College recently. Firstly, we hosted the Eastern region finals of Tomorrow’s Engineers; an exciting robotic challenge for 11-14 year olds. It really was a fantastic day. We had well over 100 pupils from 11 different schools across the region: Northamptonshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and across Suffolk.

Our Gateway building was a hub of excitement and activity as the three elements of the day unfolded.

Firstly robots, which the pupils had already created in their schools using LEGO Mindstorm, were judged in timed tests. The robots had been programmed for six tasks related to the creation of a Space Colony. What these young people achieved was astonishing, so impressive were their respective robots. Three schools even achieved a perfect score, much to their well-deserved jubilation.

Secondly, pupils had to create a section of a Chain Reaction Model with equipment supplied by the Cambridge Science Museum. Various combinations of items such as toys, tubes, balls, and lots of tape were assembled, with the aim of carrying a signal around 14 tables. The experiment was a great success, resulting in a confetti cannon being fired as the finale. So lots of great scientific principles, innovative thinking, excellent teamwork, and loads of fun.

And finally the students gave separate presentations about both human survival and the use of robots in space. These were both highly thought-provoking and interesting, and were delivered brilliantly.

The judges were suitably impressed, especially by the innovation, team work and enthusiasm shown by all. The pupils proved themselves to indeed be “tomorrow’s engineers”. It was deemed to be a great day, and a perfect way to learn more about science and engineering.

The second event was a science workshop; one of several planned involving local primary schools. This initial event took place at St Edmundsbury CofE School, where a group of 50 pupils from Years 5 and 6 took part in various experiments run by six of West Suffolk College’s Applied Science students.

These involved plenty of explosions, bubbles, electricity and more, to capture the pupils’ imaginations and illustrate that science is all around us. This project will continue and evolve, and there are even plans involving the building of a giant jelly structure at the Suffolk Show.

Children are naturally inquisitive and it’s great to see their eyes and mouths pop open when they watch a science presentation with a real wow factor. Just look online for simple experiments on how to turn a penny green or get power from a potato. Kids love taking stuff apart to see how it works and science is about seeing how stuff works and where it comes from.

As British Science Week approaches I want to encourage everyone, not just our youngest learners, to get involved in science. From making a clock tick using only a potato to researching your standpoint on climate change. Perhaps you could make yourself a rocket, or head to a theme park and take some time to think about the centrifugal force keeping you in your rollercoaster seat.

Let’s feed our natural curiosity about the world around us, and make sure that it is encouraged in our young people. After all, they are our future scientists and engineers and the possibilities are endless, not to mention fascinating. And although this may not be Hollywood, if there is the chance to win some awards along the way, all the better!

-- Nikos Savvas is principal at West Suffolk College

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