Durham Arts Council have commissioned a group of award winning architects to design a £4m public monument in celebration of local astronauts Holly and Lola who christened the ninth planet in our Solar System ‘Zeus’ after the Greek god of sky and thunder when they visited the planet recently. Both astronauts are former pupils of St. Bede’s School, Lanchester in Durham.
The stuff of dreams? Well yes, that’s exactly what it is but allow me to explain…
On Thursday 28th January, 500 girls from schools across the North East took part in Accenture’s #GirlsinSTEM day at the Sage in Gateshead, Tyneside. An action packed day had been planned with a range of activities for girls attending including panel discussions with women working in STEM roles, to a hackathon with STEMettes and workshops in cryptography, virtual reality and problem solving.
Discussing women in STEM and history
Representing Exa Foundation, I had been asked to design and deliver workshops based around the Raspberry Pi computer with up to 60 participants in each workshop ranging from age 11 to 18 to raise the profile of girls in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). In the rest of this post, I’ll describe the activity I planned and share some conclusions I reached as well as the resources I used.
At the beginning of each 2 hour workshop, I described how I had visited the Sage, Gateshead in November 2015 to better understand the building space and consider what might be possible. While visiting Gateshead I had observed many incredible buildings, sculptures and monuments including the Sage, the Angel Of The North, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Tyne Bridge and St James Park – but in the main these were designed by men and constructed by men in honour of men.
When I asked if there were any locations I could visit celebrating the contribution of Tyneside women to history – they could only tell me that in 1649 a witch was buried under St Mary’s Church, Gateshead. I posited that this ‘witch’ could have broken new boundaries in medical science, engineering or maths but this made her a heretic in a period of time that did not embrace women’s contributions in these fields.
In the workshop, I shared some anecdotes of women in STEM, for example the fact that early in her career, Dame Stephanie Shirley changed her name to ‘Steve’ so that she might be taken more seriously as a software developer in a male dominated industry.
I then asked the girls in pairs or threes to imagine together some amazing achievement that they might make years later in their future, eg. a breakthrough in science, a fantastic invention or discovery and then consider how people might choose to celebrate this achievement. If a building or monument was erected in honour of their achievement, what form might the construction take?
Self-guided Raspberry Pi learning
After this I asked the groups to construct their building design in Minecraft with the Raspberry Pi computer. Although I provided the Raspberry Pi computer and associated accessories they would need, they had to figure out for themselves how to connect it together to switch it on. Since many of them had not been exposed to a Raspberry Pi before, this was a challenge for some groups.
I noticed that the adult volunteers in the room were quick to run to their aid – so I interrupted and requested that adult volunteers not provide answers but to help the girls solve the challenges themselves by answering questions with a question. If for example, a girl asked “What does this wire connect to?” the adult was asked to respond “What have you tried connecting it to?”.
One male volunteer was particularly keen to jump in and show the girls how to get the Raspberry Pi working – but I asked him to ignore his first instinct to help by doing and instead see if there were other ways he could support them that might encourage their independence.
Emily, Cleo and Anastasia (also from St Bede’s, Lanchester) chose to design and construct a bus-shaped museum in honour of Rosa Parks. The museum was many times larger than the original bus, and featured areas of the museum that commemorated Rosa’s stand for civil rights and diversity.
Results from the #GirlsinSTEM Hack Jam
Part way through the workshop I demonstrated how combining Python (text-based programming language) and the Minecraft API made it possible to control the viewer’s experience of the Minecraft World. I had installed a code pack on each Raspberry Pi with example programmes inspired by Craig Richardson’s Minecraft Programming book. Co-incidentally, Craig is from Newcastle, just across the Tyne from Gateshead. Some groups chose to modify the examples provided to send messages to the visitor as they explored the building, while others used it to create a ‘fly-through’ tour by teleporting the visitor to different vantage points of the structure allowing the visitor to experience the full glory of the construction.
For the final part of the workshop, girls took it in turn to tour around our room to discover what other girls had constructed and share their own constructions. Teachers that had accompanied their pupils and adult volunteers all commented on how high the levels of engagement and enjoyment were throughout the workshop. Some praised the problem solving activity at the beginning of the workshop and how activities like this developed necessary life skills. Many told me how profoundly they had been touched by the achievements that the girls had chosen to celebrate as well as the considerations and details that the girls had chosen to feature in their monuments.
So while Holly and Lola did not actually visit Planet Nine, for a short time they imagined a world where such an endeavour may be possible and I hope that it may have raised their prospect of pursuing a STEM related career a little more.
- Teaching notes:
- Photo Album:
- Source Files:
- Learn To Program With Minecraft:
- Girls, Coding & Raspberry Pi:
Exa Foundation exists to inspire and engage digital makers, support the teaching of Computing and promote safe, secure and appropriate use of technology. Exa Foundation is part of Exa Education.