Summer schools: Inspiring the next generation into engineering

 Summer school students Antoine and Alexandre Fromentel with their bridge (centre) constructed from minimal basic materials, in order to support the weight of an apple
Summer school students Antoine and Alexandre Fromentel with their bridge (centre) constructed from minimal basic materials, in order to support the weight of an apple

Each year the School of Engineering runs a summer school to inspire young people about engineering and encourage them to consider studying the subject at university level.

Working with educational charities the Sutton Trust and the Engineering Development Trust, a team of staff and students designs and delivers activities to help participants understand more about what the subject involves, give them an insight into university life, and provide opportunities to tackle some fun engineering challenges.

The initiative is particularly focused on young people who might not otherwise consider applying to university.

With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to cause restrictions to face-to-face activities, this year our summer school took place virtually – enabling around 100 young people aged around 15-17 year from across the UK to participate.

Experimenting with remote labs

Professor Tim Drysdale and PhD student David Reid introduced students to the world of remote labs, which allow participants to control and perform their own live experiments from a distance.

The use of remote labs in the School of Engineering has been pioneered by Professor Drysdale over the past year, enabling our undergraduate engineering students to continue accessing practical experiments from a distance during the pandemic.

After being introduced to remote labs, participants had an opportunity to try a remote experiment for themselves: investigating the properties of a free-swinging pendulum. The students had control of the amplitude of swing, and also how quickly the swings died away with a control called braking. The students could see what was happening to the pendulum through a displayed graph.

Designing a wind turbine

Three undergraduate engineering students, Hiro, Laura and Craig – who are all interns working on the School’s FASTBLADE testing facility for tidal turbine blades – helped the students construct a wind turbine using a kit of components.

Participants were given the core of their turbine: a generator connected to a hub. They were then invited to experiment with their turbine design by varying the number of blades used and the angle of their twist, to find a combination which could produce maximum power. The ‘wind’ was created by a USB fan.

Students then produced posters to showcase their project and presented these at the end of the day.

The bridge challenge

The final project, developed by Dr Tom Reynolds, challenged students to build a bridge to support the weight of an apple using only six sheets of A4 paper, a glue stick and a small amount of sticky tape.

After watching a short video on bridge design, the students were given a few days to build their bridges. They then tested their construction by placing an apple in the middle of their bridge and took a photo of the result.

The judges, Dr Reynolds, Dr Andy Firth, Professor John Thompson and Dr Yavuz Yardim, took many factors into account: the elegance of the design, the quality of the construction, and of course: did it fulfil the design brief?

One team – consisting of twin brothers Antoine and Alexandre Fromentel – created a time-lapse video to showcase the design and build of their bridge.

Watch the video on YouTube

Engaging with engineering

Commenting on this year’s summer school, Professor John Thompson said: “The last 18 months have been a uniquely challenging time for everyone, but these activities have still allowed young people to get engaged with engineering design. We have been very impressed with the quality of the work that they have carried out remotely!”

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