How do you connect cables to provide the most cost-effective way to supply electricity to a city’s infrastructure? How do you design a strong and dexterous bionic hand? Or, build a water wheel? Or a catapult that can fire accurately over a long distance?
And how do you do it when you are only 10 or 11 years old?
Amazingly, these are just some of the complex challenges being tackled each year by industrious groups of Year Five and Six students from around the Hunter who come together to participate in the award-winning Newcastle Science and Engineering Challenge Discovery Days.
Run by the University of Newcastle, the Discovery Days program is part of an inspiring national outreach experience designed to capture the imaginations of young students and spark a life-long interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) -based learning.
Each year in the Hunter, more than 1000 eager students from around 40 local schools participate in the program, which sees groups of kids working through the logistics of a challenge using science and engineering skills not normally harnessed in their school environments.
Established in the year 2000, the Science and Engineering Challenge – the secondary school version of the Newcastle Discovery Days program – was nationally commended at the 2018 Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT) awards when it won the Outstanding Collaboration in Community Engagement Award.
Director, Terry Burns, says the award not only recognises the SEC team and the University of Newcastle’s innovative approach to STEM outreach, but also the dedicated pool of partner organisations like Port Waratah that play a huge role in ensuring the Discovery Days happened.
‘We’ve been working with Port Waratah for eight years,’ he says. ‘Along with our other partners, we’ve been able to enrich communities and achieve educational and vocational goals that none of us could accomplish by ourselves.
‘The Challenge has been a quiet achiever. We’ve become one of the longest-running and most successful STEM engagement programs in the country, reaching almost 50,000 people each year.’
As a spin-off of the high school Challenge Days, the Discovery Days provide meaningful, hands-on STEM experiences for primary students, exposing them to the excitement of Science and Engineering, with the aim of highlighting that careers in these areas are rewarding and achievable.
Dr Burns says there is clear research-based evidence that children decide their general career direction at an early age.
‘Discovery Days provide hands-on experiential learning that kids love. When they go home full of excitement and tell their parents they’ve had a fun day, that’s the first box checked for us,’ he says.
‘And if they’ve managed to solve the problems we’ve presented them with, that’s the second box checked. Increasing young students’ knowledge of STEM-based activities goes a long way to building a STEM-skilled future workforce that will ensure Australia’s future international competitiveness and prosperity.’
The Science and Engineering Challenge (SEC) is an innovative, capacity-building national outreach program that directly addresses skill shortages by giving school students a unique and fun experience in science and engineering. The Discovery Day program is a specially-adapted version of the Challenge Day competition.