Bryn Llewellyn returns to the North East for a second industrial revolution - STEAM
It's always great to return to your roots: to know where you are going, you have to know where you have come from.
Mention the North-East and you think about industries past -–mining and shipbuilding, the people and strong sense of community. Heading to Sunderland for the Inventors! STEAM Co Day last week allowed me to think back to my own childhood and how the area has changed.
The event highlighted the work of Dominic Wilcox’s three-month "Inventors!" project, run in conjunction with Cultural Spring Arts where he’d run invention workshops in schools in challenged wards in the city and had many of their creations made up for an exhibition by local craftsmen. Hosted by Monkwearmouth Academy, Inventors! STEAM Co Day aimed to provide a legacy for Dominic’s project by launching STEAM Co in the North-East to whet schools' appetites for STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).
Primary kids armed with 'Passports to the Future'
Monkwearmouth Academy hall provided the base for the punchy six-minute Pecha Kucha presentations (the format that was the inspiration for TeachMeets), talks and films, while the Performing Arts Centre was transformed into hives of activity for 120 children from three local primary schools, armed with their STEAM Co "Passports to the Future" participating in an eclectic mix of 20 hands-on creative thinking and doing workshops.
It was clear that the children from Redby Primary School were fascinated by working with a range of plastics: “I don't know what it is but it's really cool,” said one. Meanwhile, children from Whitburn Village and Dame Dorothy Primary Schools were enjoying their time with "Walking the Line" and the Digital Eagles’ "Microbits and Bytes" workshops, which involved some deep thinking: “You think you know the answer but then you don't…”
Indeed, this was the first time that so many primary children have been given the chance to code the BBC Micro:bit, which has been initially targeted at Year 7 students. It is due for release around Easter.
Nick Corston, co-founder of STEAM Co, launched the children’s event an hour before welcoming the adult visitors in the main hall. Introducing himself as “just a dad who loves selling a good story", he talked about powering communities to inspire their children with creativity. Earlier in the morning, he had asked the children, “Who or what do you want to be in the future?’ Not surprisingly, there were many wannabe footballers, which backed up Nick’s statement that “four out of ten children just want to be rich”.
In his opening remarks, Nick acknowledged Professor Robert Winston, who had recently inspired him by saying that “money has been pumped into secondary schools for STEM but you've got to get them in primary”. Judging by my time in the workshop area, the primary children were indeed ‘getting it’.
This was recognised by Rebecca Ball, director of Cultural Spring, who described the day as a “roller coaster ride to get people on board with arts", while recognising that “it’s all about unlocking those imaginative doors”.
'Children realise that their ideas are valued'
The artist Dominic Wilcox charmed the audience with his audacious creations and inventions. Recognising that he was "an average academic but not exactly enthused”, he talked about his journey that allowed him to “put all of my imaginations into inventions... and making them”.
His "Variations on Normal" ideas amused the audience, who no doubt now recognise that “there are hundreds of ideas for each object”. Dominic talked about the many successes of the Inventors Project, but felt that the most crucial outcome was that “children realise that their ideas are valued”.
Dominic shared many of the magical inventions created by local children, from the "Self High Five Machine" to the "Tatty Hair Warning System" and more. He was particularly pleased to welcome on stage a pupil from Hillview Junior School who had his airgun powered chip-maker made real through "Meeting the Maker" and using a 3D printer.
Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central and shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, talked eloquently about her life growing up in the North East and her engineering background: “What inspired me? I had fantastic teachers. Stories help... Stories such as the life and works of George Stephenson and his son Robert.”
She also made the link between the North-East’s past, present and future: “Building on STEAM power, we need to take it into the future. STEAM will fuel the economy.” She spoke of the "opportunities out there”, and this was picked up by Ian Green, from Nissan, whose film revealed that 5,000 primary children get to experience engineering with the company every year, and the surprise expressed by many that “engineering isn't dirty”.
Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England, entertained the audience with family tales and the fact that people need to believe in themselves: “I have an idea... I can do this.” Nick Corston was pleased that the arts were being taken more seriously by the traditional STEM exponents. “By adding the A to STEM we bring together the left and right sides of the brain,” he said.
The importance of the A in STEAM was highlighted further by Paul Callaghan of the Music Art Culture (MAC) Trust whose slides effortlessly wove in the work of the many creatives who hailed from Sunderland. He also revealed that it was William Reid Clanny and not Humphry Davy who invented the miner’s safety lamp.
Likewise, it was another Sunderland resident, Sir Joseph Swan, who invented the lightbulb and not Sir Thomas Eddison. He also praised the work of George Clarke, who states, "You can invent the future." To end his talk, Paul asked “What does the future look like? It’s this... a blank piece of paper.”
The importance of art was again recognised in another presentation, this time by Professor Paul Younger: “Arts are essential in capturing the attention and imagination... making the unseen visible.”
Art was also demonstrated by Melanie Horan from Broadwood Primary School, who shared a case study using Professor Sugata Mitra’s ideas and a Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) approach. In the project, she asked her children, "Why do dogs chase cats?" This led to the creation of various pieces of art generated from group work sharing an iPad.
Using the SOLE approach there was initial chaos, but then that moment arrived, with the children discovering, “Now we can ask new questions... and develop our ideas.” In Melanie’s words, “...the learning is there”.
The various presentations brought so many organisations to the attention of the audience. One such film was created by the STEMettes, looking at redressing the gender balance within STEM. That said, the STEAM Inventors day was very well balanced.
Another artist brought to the attention of the Inventors! STEAM Co audience was light artist Mick Stephenson, whose work with plastic waste was stunning. From Enchanted Parks to Lumiere in Durham, and recently London, Mick’s work was wonderful to behold. Not only were the installations beautiful, but many had real relevance and practical value, such as his work with the Liter of Light project used for street lighting in developing countries and indoor lighting development in shanty towns.
'Would Bowie think it's cool?'
The Inventors! STEAM Co event ended with Martyn Ware talking passionately about his experiences with Heaven 17, BEF and Illustrious, saying that he used to continually question himself with the line, “Would Bowie think it's cool?” This cultural reference was felt more by the adults than the children in the hall, but even so they all joined in with the communal singing: “We could be heroes... just for one day.”
(STEAM Co has since announced that Martyn Ware has agreed to be its next 'inspirator', taking the baton from Dominic Wilcox to run workshops, talks and develop activity packs that can be used across in primary schools across the UK.)
At the end of the day, Nick took time to tell me that STEAM Co does not necessarily 'run' the days, but provides the inspiration and resources for communities to run their own. The event in Sunderland, and its predecessor in Liverpool, both created content. And the speeches, presentations and short films are all put on the STEAM Co website for local communities to use to run their own events, whether they be small scale - in an evening, perhaps in a community hall - or larger, similar to the event at Monkwearmouth, or the one in LIverpool last year with Sir Ken Robinson.
STEAM Co wants to see STEAM Co events run in schools and other venues across the North East. Talking with some of the many parents and carers, teachers, creatives and representatives from local businesses attending it was apparent that they left feeling inspired by Nick’s rallying call, “We want people to go away and ask themselves, 'Why don't we do this in our schools/communities?'”
“It’s one thing to stage and film an inspiring day of talks and activities like this”, he added. “The web’s full of them. Our job now is to provide the inspiration and resources to help people – be they parents, creatives, businesses or teachers – to walk the talk by running STEAM Co. Days in primary schools in their community”.
Talking with the children who participated in the workshops, there was no doubt. They certainly want the adults to run further STEAM Co days or help make them happen.
Rather like a conspirator, STEAM Co wants to create activity packs in conjunction with artists, museums, galleries and businesses, similar to the approach demonstrated in the film presented by Ann Coxon, Curator at the Tate Modern. The film showcased activities run by a local artist, inspired by the current Alexander Calder exhibition. In true STEAM spirit, the artist Calder invented mobiles by bringing sculpture to life, building on his training as an engineer.
In her presentation, Chi Onwurah revealed, “The world changes and so do you. There have been many great people who inspired me to want to change the world.” With STEAM Co Inventors, the process of inspiration in the North-East has got off to a great start.
"The Reinvention of Normal" (below), video by Dominic Wilcox