Rising to the challenge – how Cool Aeronautics went virtual

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How the Royal Aeronautical Society, with volunteers from Leonardo UK, supercharged its virtual Cool Aeronautics initiative to bring STEM fun, education & learning virtually into schools – reaching almost 500 children.

Picture the scene: a winter snowstorm engulfs you as you pace forward in a group huddled together. In the distance, a deep gully emerges, your only obstacle to attending a top-secret sustainability conference. With basic resources to hand, only engineering skills will save you.

This was the dramatic scenario laid before participants at the UK’s first virtual Cool Aeronautics event in association with the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), created by a team of graduate and apprentice STEM Ambassadors based at Leonardo’s Yeovil site. Like the adventurers described in their unique STEM experience, Leonardo’s STEM Ambassadors were determined to find a way through the challenge posed by the pandemic.

Due to the pandemic, Leonardo hosted the event for Years 5 & 6 school students of 8-10 years of age virtually instead of at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, RNAS Yeovilton where it is typically held. The team guided students through each step of their intrepid journey to link engineering to the children’s imagination during the most challenging circumstances. Leonardo’s graduate and apprentice STEM Ambassadors who organised the event were: Olivia Gribler, Bethany Elwell, Sebastian Watts, Benjamin Hunter, Bianca Erwee and Joshua Hughes. On the day, each school had their own volunteer STEM Ambassador: Aaron Baker, Charlea Boucher, Amy Jarrett, Alwin Karmacharya, Evelyn King, Felix Loy, Oliver Mackenzie, Nelson Nunez-Mulder, Eilidh Seville, James Varney, Bryony Venn, and Harry Whitehead.

Pulling together a captivating challenge to engage students’ imagination

Amidst all the distractions of the pandemic, the team recognised it was important to create a compelling activity that could immerse the 477 school students who registered for the event. Participants were invited to become brave adventurers who needed to use engineering and communication skills to cross a deep gully in the midst of a snowstorm so they could arrive at a sustainability conference and develop a new energy source!

Creating a workable concept to deliver STEM during a pandemic safely

Leonardo’s STEM team decided to use the online video meeting software WebEx to deliver the event remotely. It was important that the children had a clear set of instructions, to guide them through the construction of their own battery powered car and a bridge. Months before the event, the STEM Ambassadors gathered together, armed with tape, string, Blu Tack, straws, a car kit and batteries, and got to work carrying out a practice run of a car and bridge construction to make sure the engineering concepts they were going to share were achievable.

Olivia Gribler said: “Logistically speaking, there was a large challenge in bringing this event onto a digital platform. In previous years, there have been barriers to inclusion, such as funds for transportation and the required number of teaching staff to cover the school requirements. By holding this event online, we have been able to remove almost all of those barriers, which accounts for the increase in participation for this year’s event.”

The team packed up STEM boxes for each school ‘bubble’ with all the materials they would need, along with a prize for the top performers in each bubble. Each school bubble class room was provided with access to a breakout room where a Leonardo STEM Ambassador would be waiting for them, ready to respond to their queries.

STEM Activities Manager Sebastian Watts said: “All of the materials had to be delivered two weeks before the event on the 18 November, as the schools needed to have enough time to check they had everything and quarantine the boxes. A lot of pressure came with the role of Activities Manager, as I had to ensure we produced activities of a consistent quality which were also fun. This encouraged me to plan and add material little by little with the team, until we had a really well presented activities pack that was engaging for the students and helpful for the teachers.”

The adventure challenge day also featured a quiz with Leonardo’s senior leadership team which included Nick Whitney, Managing Director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, Sarah Cook, Head of Operations Leonardo Helicopters UK, Paul O’Grady, Head of AW101 Leonardo Helicopters UK, and Alisdair Wood, Chair of RAeS Yeovil Branch. Questions posed by the students included “What’s your one piece of advice to pass on to the up and coming generation?” to which the answer was “Find something you are passionate about, and turn it into a career.”

The virtual STEM event was carried out online. (Leonardo UK)

Leaving young people with a sense of their potential as future engineers

Comments from the school students confirmed that the event had reached its goal of inspiring an interest in STEM subjects. Feedback included:

“I am very glad I took part in this STEM day and I have put my certificate on my fridge. I wear my badge every day. Thanks again for a wonderful event.”

“You really inspired me and made me realise that without engineers we wouldn’t have the things we have today and life would be much much harder.”

“I certainly will never forget the day. You have inspired me to be an engineer in the future.”

Bethany Elwell School Liaison Manager said: “I am very proud to have taken part in this virtual event so the students didn’t miss out like they have for so many other things this year! The event has inspired me to believe that not all ideas are unachievable and if an idea does ‘sound out of the box’ you may be on to something!”

Ben Hunter added: “For me, this year’s Cool Aeronautics event provided a great example of how positives can always be created from negative situations. With a global pandemic spoiling the usual fun, we were able to create the largest Cool Aeronautics ever seen, virtually of course!”

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It's here: our #inclusive engineering Challenge begins! Calling schools. colleges and youth groups! #Falcon2 #STEM encourages young people aged 6-19 to design and build an accessible flight simulator for @Aerobility.

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