The Bloodhound project has always been about inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists. The recently launched Microbit Rocket Car Challenge has taken that to the next level.
Billed as the largest STEM contest ever run, some 10,000 teams from 550 secondary schools will have taken part in the “Race for the Line” BBC Microbit Model Rocket Car Competition, to give the competition its full title, by the time the finals are held on July 5 2016.
The Rocket Car Competition requires students aged between 11 and 16 to shape a blue foam block into an aerodynamic vehicle and add an axel and wheels. The Microbit, a small inexpensive computer programmed over the internet, is inserted into the rocket car to record its fastest speeds, average speeds and changes in thrust.
The cars are raced at regional hubs with timing gates supervised by trained staff from the local educational body or the Army, which this year is a major sponsor of the competition. The 30 fastest cars go through to the national final, which is being held at the Santa Pod Raceways in Northamptonshire.
There are three cash prizes of £1000, £500, £250 on offer, plus the winners will be taken to Newquay Airport later this year to see Bloodhound SSC test runs. All the finalists get their school’s name printed on the tailfin of the Bloodhound car.
Teachers can download a seven week guide to support classroom exercises and further resources are available online to support engagement in other aspects of the project.
Aulden Dunipace, education director for Bloodhound, says that the competition links to several parts of the STEM curriculum, blending physics, maths, engineering, electronics and software development
“At its base level its about aerodynamically shaping a foam block and putting an axel and some wheels on it. Its that simple,” says Dunipace. “But its really exciting and engaging for a student to design and build their own car and propel it across the playground at up to 15mph. It leads to all sorts of pathways that a teacher can engage in.”
Resources are available that help the teams link the data from the microbit’s accelerometer to a computer for tweaking the car, and an air launcher is available to perform practice runs. Another sponsor, Microsoft, has provided teaching content for coding and computer science. There are also resources available to help teachers run STEM clubs to beat world records. The current world record in the 400m category is 534mph.
The entire Rocket Car Competition, including the times, the leader boards and communities for different schools, runs off of a “cloud-based social learning environment” called Dendrite. The software platform, which was initially developed outside of Bloodhound but was rebuilt in 2014 specifically for the project’s educational outreach, aims to support STEM learning for the next 15-20 years.
Dendrite is the backbone of the Rocket Car Competition’s website, hosting the documents about how to take part in the competition and the teaching resources that link the Microbit to the curriculum.
“We wanted to reach schools anywhere on the planet, from China and South Africa to the UK with Bloodhound.” says Dunipace. “Dendrite helps us achieve that. It’s designed specifically for education. It’s a social media platform to link the business community to schools and provide high quality learning and education tools.
The first application of Dendrite has been to support the Army’s recruitment strategy as the infrastructure for the Rocket Car Competition. Dunipace has great hopes that Dendrite will form the basis of other educational outreach programmes, and believes the platform links businesses and education in a unique way.
He says: “The national exam system is not delivering the skills employers need. Dendrite aligns a key STEM employer in the region to the education system and can be the catalyst that links business with schools to create a dialogue. It brings the world of education into a single place.”
Sponsorship and funding
Each rocket car kit costs £6.50 and each secondary school has about 10 kits, making the cost of sponsoring the competition affordable for small to medium-sized local firms. This is a key part of the competition’s strategy and Dunipace hopes will attract many more firms to support the outreach programme.
“The competition is regional and affordable - each hub can have its own sponsor. Its great for SMEs and we need more sponsors at this level,” he says.
Nevertheless, Bloodhound is also seeking major sponsors for next year’s Rocket Car competition, which promises to be bigger and better, with the top prize of attending the actual Bloodhound SSC 1,000mph run in South Africa.
The goal is to attract 1,000 secondary schools and 2,500 primary schools by each secondary school inviting its feeder schools to participate. The rocket car “season” will also last much longer, starting in September 2016 and finishing in April 2017.
“Bloodhound is setting the bar for STEM engagement really, really low. The school doesn’t have to spend a penny to get involved. We want to make it as easy as possible,” says Dunipace.
Bloodhound’s aim to inspire children into STEM has always been at the core of the project – the “mission one” objective as Dunipace puts it. It’s too early to judge the effect of the Rocket Car Competition, but the project has already been running for almost ten years – is there any positive effect on science and engineering yet?
Dunipace says the only measure he is comfortable with is the engagement figure and the only data Bloodhound has so far relates to the “Bloodhound Roadshow” which toured schools in 2014, equipped with K’NEX kits of the car, air rocket cars and “desert challenges”, which simulated running the logistics of the Bloodhound South Africa camp during the world record attempt.
The students that took part in the Bloodhound Roadshow have made their GCSE choices about triple award science. The average uptake of triple award science in schools which had the Roadshow is 45%, against 25% in those that didn’t have the Roadshow, a figure that Dunipace says shows the positive effect Bloodhound can have on STEM engagement.
The counter argument is that the schools which participated in the Bloodhound Roadshow are already more likely to be engaged with STEM in their curriculums. Dunipace says: “In my opinion it doesn’t matter. If your outcome is to get more engagement in science, the way you achieve that is to get students involved in more practical hands-on programmes.
“There are lots of really fun projects out there, whether its F1 in schools or Bloodhound, it’s the end result that matters.”
Personally, Dunipace says he often sees the Bloodhound effect. Perhaps the most satisfying, he says, is seeing a group of eleven year old girls in a school beating all the groups of boys, or FE students who tell him after an event they are choosing engineering instead of hairdressing. A questionnaire conducted after a Bloodhound school event showed that 78% of the event’s participants wanted to continue with STEM. “It creates a spark of interest that a teacher can run with in the classroom,” he says.
Dunipace is also confident that this spark will outlast the lifetime of the actual Bloodhound record attempt. After the 1000mph run, the car will go on its “1000mph tour” around the country, visiting schools and events with the engineers. The team expects this to last for around five years to help create an educational legacy. By that time, Dunipace hopes the Dendrite platform, and the relationships it has fostered between business and education on a local level, will have developed enough to live on for use in other projects.
- For more information on how to sponsor next year’s Rocket Car Competition, or to become a rocketeer to help out at the race hubs, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- The target date for Bloodhound's 800mph world land speed record attempt is October 2017; 20 years after Thrust SSC set the existing record.
Bloodhound SSC will travel under its own power for the first time at Newquay Airport in June 2017, in a slow speed shakedown test at around 220mph (354km/h). This will also be an opportunity for the team to practice live-streaming data and imagery from the car. Read more.