Engineering a bright future: The Express & Star's 2020 STEM Challenge launches
Budding engineers, maths whizzes and future scientists will be putting their classroom lessons to the test in the Express & Star's 2020 STEM Challenge.
Thirteen schools from across the Black Country and Staffordshire are taking part in this year's competition and each one has been partnered with a business mentor who will be guiding them over the coming months.
The students' mission is to design and build a product, using the elements of STEM, that has a positive impact on people's emotional wellbeing and/or mental health.
Working in teams of six, the pupils' product or prototype should be innovative, demonstrate application of science, technology, engineering and maths and have clear links to improving people's mental health or wellbeing.
They will also need to demonstrate their invention as a working model at the judging and awards day at the end of April where they will also be required to give a five-minute presentation and answer questions from the judges.
This year's brief was announced during a launch event at Dudley College of Technology, which is the main sponsor for the challenge, by chief executive and principal Neil Thomas.
He said: "STEM is the heartbeat of the college, it's what makes the college tick. These are some exciting times for STEM. I was a product engineer for many years so I know what an exciting and rewarding career it can be."
There are six prizes to be won including Best Work Plan, sponsored by SCHMOLZ + BICKENBACH; Best Presentation, sponsored by Black Country Skills Factory; Best Team Work, sponsored by KUKA; and Best Operating Model sponsored by In-Comm Training and Business Services.
There will also be a People's Choice Award which will be chosen by the schools on the day and an Overall Winner, sponsored by Dudley College of Technology.
Mentors, who have all been given formal STEM training, will visit schools regularly between now and April to work with the teams to monitor progress and provide support where needed.
Schools will also receive funds of £100 for the purchase of any necessary materials required for their projects.
Among the schools taking part in this year's challenge is Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick which has been partnered with Smethwick-based engineering firm A & M EDM.
Liam Fletcher, who is the school's head of design, said the pupils were looking forward to starting work.
"It's a real-life challenge. It's exciting for the kids and it's gives them an insight into the world of industry that they wouldn't otherwise get," he added.
Mentor and precision engineer David Tomkins said: "I never did anything like this when I was at school so it's great they have the chance to do this."
Consultant engineer Chris Hughes also volunteered to be a mentor on behalf of Incotech, and has been teamed with youngsters at Ormiston NEW Academy in Wolverhampton.
He believes challenges such as this one help to pupils to develop skills they might not normally use in the classroom.
"Projects like this help to teach soft skills, resilience and stick-at-it-ability. It teaches them not to give up at the first hurdle," he said.
Kevin Selman, the school's assistant director of science, believes the challenge will have many benefits for those taking part.
"It gets them to think about industry and future careers and gives them confidence to speak to other people outside of their schools," he said.
Neil Edwards, a team manager at Western Power Distribution, based in Tipton, had volunteered to be a mentor for the third year in a row and is working with Thorns Collegiate Academy.
He believes it's a worthwhile project because it will help to ensure young people develop vital skills that businesses need.
"A lot of companies realise that they need to work with schools to encourage children to learn these skills," added Mr Edwards.
Colton Hills Community School in Wolverhampton is partnered with city-based business Fortress Interlocks.
Rob Johnson, from the firm, said: "We always find it difficult to recruit people with the right skills so rather than just complain we want to promote the careers and help the schools."
Emma Lopez, the school's careers aspirational leader, added: "We want to expose the students to as many opportunities as possible and increase their awareness of what they can do in their future careers."
Oldbury-based SCHMOLZ + BICKENBACH, which provided a mentor for the 2019 challenge, is one of this year's category sponsors.
Chief executive officer Wayne Bagnall said: "We have a big belief in looking after the next generation, especially from an engineering point of view. It's about passing on knowledge and expertise and teaching these youngsters what's really required to move on in business."
Jayne Guest from category sponsor In-Comm Training and Business Services, based in Walsall, said: "We're an engineering apprenticeship training provider and we look out for budding potential engineers as we recruit up to 100 advanced engineers every year.
"t's really useful for us to go into schools and work with STEM project because we are able to see the talents that's coming through."
Alan Oakley from Wednesbury-based robotics firm KUKA which has been involved in the challenge since it started in 2017 says the judging day is always the highlight.
"When you're at the judging day you realise engineering has a future. There are lots of bright and enthusiastic kids showcasing the best of what's to come," he added.
Colin Parker from Black Country Skills Factory, which is sponsoring the Best Presentation award, said: "The beauty of the STEM Challenge is that students see first-hand the application of what they've learned in school in the real world."
Express & Star Editor-in-chief Martin Wright said: "Last year's campaign - the first Express & Star-only campaign - proved to be a huge success.
"Yet again, we were blown away by the innovation, the enthusiasm and the standard of work produced by those talented students who took part.
"I have absolutely no doubt that our next group of inventors will produce work of a similar high standard in what promises to be another fantastic showcase of our talented youngsters from around the area."
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