Inspiring a new generation of computer scientists
10 Jul 2020
- Evelyn Greeves



"When you have a group of kids and there are one or two who are just blown away by what they've seen, it's an amazing feeling."


Sometimes it's nice to step away from the computer and give back a little, and SCD staff clearly know this well. Our staff show consistently high participation in public engagement activities, especially activities related to programming and computer science.

Some of our graduates take this a step further. Staff on the graduate scheme spend three months in another STFC department, completing a short project and finding out about working in a new environment. Over the past few years, several SCD graduates have chosen to spend this placement with the RAL public engagement team.

Two such staff members are Greg Corbett, who did his placement in 2014, and Tom Dack, who did his in 2017. Greg and Tom each spent three months developing new activities for school visit days, designed to engage pupils with the real-world applications of computing and STFC science.

They both felt an urge to challenge themselves by doing something completely new, and thought it would be a good way to find out about science from several STFC departments, as opposed to just one. “I've always enjoyed doing outreach and communicating the stuff I enjoy, and I enjoy the work and the science STFC does. I got started with public engagement as soon as I started at STFC and having the opportunity to go and spend three months doing more seemed ideal," says Tom.

Public engagement - Arduino.jpg
In Greg's activity, the pupils are the crew of the Ada Lovelace, the first manned ship to Mars. When their spaceship is damaged by a solar flare close to the planet, the pupils are tasked with building and programming basic circuits to restore their ship to normal.

The activity uses Arduino microcontrollers, which can be linked up to components such as buttons, LEDs and temperature sensors. Greg had never used an Arduino before, so he faced a steep learning curve before his activity was ready to be tested by visiting children.

“There was a period of getting up to speed with the hardware, and a lot of trial and error around that," he says. “Once I'd designed the full thing, the public engagement team tested it and then I was pretty much thrown into the deep end with a group of schoolkids!"

Public engagement - mindstorms.jpg

Tom's activity uses LEGO® Mindstorms, a robotics kit that comes with its own programming language, to introduce the concept of robotics and programming while also linking both to STFC science. Pupils program pre-built colour-sensing robots to complete a series of tasks, such as following a curved path and counting the number of lines the robot crosses.

Since finishing his placement, Tom hasn't given up the LEGO. He got involved with the Remote3 (Remote Cubed) outreach project, which is funded by a joint SPARK award between STFC Public Engagement and the University of Edinburgh, through volunteering with STFC's summer coding workshops in 2019.

remote 3 logo.jpgThe project gives remote schools in Scotland the opportunity to program remote-controlled LEGO® Mindstorms robots, which are then put through their paces at a remote location – in this case a kilometre below ground at Boulby Underground Laboratory. Each school is assigned a mentor to work with their pupils; two of the ten mentors are other SCD graduate scheme employees, with Tom acting as overall supervisor. His technical expertise with the Mindstorms kits makes him invaluable to the project.

Both Greg and Tom sit on the SCD public engagement committee and are regular helpers at RAL Saturday Coding. They even compete to see who can run the most events!

“I found out about the graduate scheme at the open day in 2016, so I know I only found out about this job I really enjoy because of the outreach and public engagement STFC does," says Tom. “It's quite rewarding knowing that I may help someone on the same path. It's really satisfying being able to give back in that way."

Greg agrees. “When you have a group of kids and there are one or two who are just blown away by what they've seen, it's an amazing feeling. You can't beat it."

Contact: Greeves, Evelyn (STFC,RAL,SC)