Mission Mars!

One of the great challenges in supporting communities to run tech clubs for their young people is keeping a steady flow of really high quality projects for those young people to undertake. They need to be challenging and fun, educational and fun, embody good engineering principles and fun; did I mention they need to be fun?

At the start of the last academic year (Sept 2017) I put a proposal to the University of Bristol for their Physics Industrial Project module. I’d been in discussion with the School of Physics for about 6 months before this, understanding their needs and how to present a challenge that their students would appreciate, and that would give me some original new projects to share with our DigiLocal clubs.

The project brief I put in was selected by a crack team of four (Lily, Fiona, Lorna, and Ben) who would liaise with me as the ‘client’. My deliverable was (deceptively) simple, a new project guide that would enable DigiLocal® young people to build a Mission Mars game with at least 4 levels of difficulty. Their task was to incorporate ‘proper’ physics and produce a guide that had been tested with real young people from our network of DigiLocal clubs. This was not a lab exercise!

Fortunately the team took to it with huge gusto and immediately came up with a plan to incorporate the whole Key Stage 3 & 4 Physics Curriculum in a single game! At our first project catch-up meeting we discussed realistic deliverables and the time involved in producing high quality documentation as well as good physics code. This didn’t dampen their enthusiasm and they set off with renewed focus and unabated vigour.

Over the next few months they produced a range of games, from simple animation examples through to advanced computational models (Hohmann transfer orbits anyone?). All their ideas were rigorously tested with young people, the team worked directly with 4 clubs over the period and I hosted their draft guides with the main DigiLocal resources so all 16 clubs had access and quite a few tried them out unsupported.

One of the key objectives for the academic award was to use good educational theories in developing the project guides. The team researched and adopted the model of conceptual gain to evaluate the learning experienced over individual and multiple sessions (some of the guides went through more than 6 iterations). As well as an online questionnaire, they observed activity during the sessions (including the wonderfully titled ‘fiddle factor’ representing the confidence of the young people to experiment with the code to see what would happen), and had a number of conversations with young people about what was going on (semi-structured interviews). They were particularly interested in used model-driven code to challenge common misconceptions around physics, especially forces & motion.

Example of findings from the final report.

Summerhill was separated out because it was a Primary School and the abstract concepts were thought to be more advanced than would be expected for that age group (typically 8-10yrs). Sample sizes weren’t sufficient to claim significance, however, there were substantial gains across the board. This is fantastic as DigiLocal isn’t a curriculum driven service, which means we can afford to be more challenging than might be found in general teaching. In fact my un-official briefing to the team was not to be afraid to ‘blow their minds’ a little!

I was also relatively unconcerned that the guides produced were much longer than ‘normal’ project guides from CodeClub and others. Generally a club session is 1 hour and you can’t always guarantee that young people have Scratch accounts or usb-memory sticks to save their work between sessions. So most guides have to be achievable in 1-hour.

All our DigiLocal laptops are on a secure Dropbox account so the young people have their own save folders, which means they can happily carry work across multiple sessions. This give much greater flexibility to tackle large, more complex projects and concepts.

Ultimately the team produced 4 ‘major’ project guides (Take Off!, Getting to Mars, Moving around in Space & on Earth, and Touchdown Mars), along with 3 smaller projects and a pack of additional resources!

So what did the young people think?

Well between 60% & 80% of responses on the anonymous questionnaire felt they could do the projects ‘with a bit of help’, suggesting the challenge was there but not insurmountable.

Some of our testers for Mission Mars! (taken a few weeks earlier when they’d just received their Yellow LINKS awards).

And what about the fun?

Between 72% & 80% said the sessions were excellent (rising to 100% if you include good, it was a 4 point Likert scale). So yes, I think the team nailed it!

This was a fantastic experience for DigiLocal and the University of Bristol students. I’m currently drafting the brief for next year’s Industrial Project teams!



* DigiLocal is a Registered Trademark of High Tech Bristol and Bath CIC

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