The Rotary Club of Adelaide is an instrumental partner in operating the Science and Engineering Challenge in South Australia.
The Science & Engineering Challenge (the Challenge) is an outreach program which encourages years 9 &10 students to study science, engineering, technology and maths subjects through years 11 & 12 to enable them to undertake tertiary level courses in science and engineering.
The Challenge was initiated in 2001 by the University of Newcastle (UoN) in recognising the desirability/need to encourage more young students to undertake tertiary level studies in the ever important fields of science and engineering, so essential to the Nation in maintaining its position as a world leader in the many pursuits which depend on them.
In 2001 the NSW National Science Week Coordination Committee approached the UoN to hold an activity for National Science Week on the NSW Central Coast. The event aimed to gain student interest through a game with an element of competition. It proved very popular.
The Rotary Club of Dubbo suggested that Rotary could provide valuable volunteer support with the aim of expanding the program across northern NSW. The suggestion was accepted and the combination was an outstanding success, to the point that the UoN decided to work with Rotary to expand beyond northern NSW by establishing joint regional organising committees, starting at Canberra. The first National competition, the “Grand Challenge”, was held in Newcastle in 2005.
By 2011 the Challenge had expanded into every state and territory in Australia, increasing from 5 regions in 2001 to 56 in 2012. With support from the Federal Government, a number of key sponsors, universities, Rotary and the community generally the Challenge is now acknowledged as an exemplar of the use of community engagement to achieve an important community goal.
South Australia was among the first states to join the program when it went National the following year. The SA Challenge has grown steadily since, until nowadays around 2,500 students, from 5 regions, take part every year.
The Rotary Club of Adelaide has been intimately involved from the beginning and has managed the SA Challenge via a Committee which includes Rotarians as well as representatives of all three SA universities.
“The Science and Engineering Challenge (The Challenge) is an outreach program aimed at changing students’ perceptions of science and engineering. Through the Challenge, students experience aspects of these disciplines which they would not usually see in their local school environment. The Challenge aims to inspire students in year 10 (and below) to consider a future career in science and engineering by choosing to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry (the enabling sciences) in years 11 and 12.”
On Challenge days, 8 schools attend and around 240 students are divided into groups of preferably 3 or 4, each group undertaking an “activity”. Some activities are designed to take the whole day while others take half a day. So some groups get to work on 2 activities and others on a single activity. There is a “library” of around 20 activities to choose from and one or two new ones are developed each year. The plan is to continue to introduce activities that keep pace with technological advances.
In 2017 the chosen activities were:
- Mission to Mars whole day
- Flat Pack Challenge “
- Build a Bridge “
- Electra City half day
- Helter Skelter Shelter “
- Stringways “
- Confounding Communications “
- Grasping at Straws “
Others in the "library' include things like the Catapult, Who gets the Water, Future Power, Hover Frenzy, HeliRescue and Eco-Habitech.
For the various activities students are supplied with a range of “stuff” from balsa, elastic bands, plastic, drawing pins, mechano-set pieces, cardboard, paper, wheels, string, a plastic glove, weights, measurers, mini fans, control boxes…to name a few components, and a selection of small tools. Speed, capacity and resilience determine the scores which depend on craftsmanship, logical thinking, nous, hand skills, and clearly understanding the objectives and instructions.
Building and testing a bridge is always the finale. This score depends on the weight of the bridge and the weight of the carriage, with weights added, which travels across the bridge before it collapses. The tests are conducted in front of all attendees and raise much merriment as each bridge is tested to the point of collapse. The results range from “wanting” to spectacular, and the final day score is often decided by the success or otherwise of this activity. Raucous to put it mildly!
Helter Skelter Shelter is spectacular; scores depend on height of the tower and the increasing load atop, the final test being on a mechanically shaken foundation!
Electra City and Stringways are sit-down, deep thinking projects. Electra City seeks to distribute power economically and reliably from a number of power stations to a variety of consumers, including a hospital, an airport, an offshore structure and a mix of domestic, commercial and industrial users. Stringways is about connecting scores of nominated locations together, a la a road network, of optimal overall length.
Hover Friendly requires students to build a hovercraft from a plastic food tray, bin-liner plastic sheet, two fans and a balsawood superstructure. The remotely controlled crafts are appraised according to their speed, manoeuvrability and hill climbing performance. “Driving” the hovercraft is a challenge in itself!
Catapult is self explanatory: Grasping at Straws involves designing and building a hand using a thin plastic glove, a lot of string and even more ingenuity. Scores depend on the ability to manipulate the hand to pick up objects large and small and light and heavy.
Mission to Mars is about building a carriage which enables stacks of light weights to be carried along a path with an increasingly bumpy surface. Again, speed, along with the smooth carriage of the stacked light weight cargo components determine the number of points awarded.
Lunch catering is provided as required (often by local Rotary Clubs), so that overall there are typically around 270/300 attendees on each day. There are 8 days of qualifying and the State final, so the Challenge attracts up to 3,000 attendees pa.
Volunteers are provided from within Rotary Clubs and through the universities which encourage undergraduates and post graduate students to volunteer. Thus volunteers offer a combination of practical experience and current learning experience.
A major objective is to reach out to “the community” and the Challenge meets this objective quite outstandingly! Since its inception Rotary has been the stand-out community contributor especially in the regional areas where several clubs join in securing funding, engaging volunteers, catering and more. The Rotary Club of Adelaide accepts responsibility for managing the Challenge State wide, financially and administratively, as well as arranging the city events and liaising with the UoN staff.
Teachers, students, uni staff and their students share the days with teachers, volunteers, local sponsors, local media and more. It’s a special event in regional cities and focuses attention on science and engineering widely. Groups such as Lions Clubs assist in helping schools from regional areas especially where Rotary is not represented, be they few.
The “Financial Challenge”
In years gone by the Challenge, at the national level, was reasonably well funded by the Commonwealth Government, major corporations and business associations, but that level of support has waned over the years which has necessitated two major changes.
First, the UoN has had to introduce a fee for each school to participate, currently $440 per school, or $3,520 per day. This can be quite a burden especially for regional schools, some of which face hefty transport costs and in some cases accommodation costs. The SA Management Committee has a policy of sharing this cost.
Secondly, given the home base development and maintenance costs of the UoN team and the costs incurred in travelling and accommodation Australia wide, the UoN finds it necessary to charge around $7,000 per day to each hosting region, or around $70,000 per annum.
On top of this there are rental charges for some venues, and charges for the hire, daily delivery and return of furniture, a range of other, sundry costs and the remuneration for a very skilled part-time Event Co-ordinator.
To ensure continuity of the Challenge in SA, the Management Committee seeks to raise of the order of $100,000 annually, and is indebted to the many groups which support the Challenge. The SA Govt has contributed $15,000 pa over the past 3 years and the two energy distribution companies, Australian Gas Networks and SA Power Networks have contributed similar amounts. The ASC has been a strong supporter as have industry associations such as the Australian Institute of Energy (AIE) and the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE). The latter group also funds annually the “Science Teacher of the Year” Award.
All three universities are major contributors in cash and in kind and their inputs via their respective representation on the Management Committee is invaluable.
Local Governments, Rural banks and SMEs and even metropolitan retirement villages have seen fit to contribute to what they regard as a deserving cause!
Does it Work?
YES! Data gathered by the UoN over the 17 years of the Challenge confirms that many years 9/10 students who had never contemplated careers as scientists or engineers, reported later in life to have first gained an inkling of the doors that may open to them were they to follow that route.
Among the undergraduates and post graduates who volunteer on Challenge days, many are former years 9/10 students who attended a Challenge day and acknowledge personally that that attendance set them on the road to science and engineering careers.
The Challenge is available to all secondary schools. There has been an almost dramatic rise in the number of young girls entering the many fields of science (in particular) and engineering over the past decade. The data suggests the Challenge has helped in this development.
The major objective is to expand the SA Challenge from the current 10 days plus the final to perhaps 12 in the coming 2 or 3 years. Scheduling is sometimes difficult as it requires working around university semesters and secondary school terms. Promisingly there was a short waiting list that missed out in 2017 so hopefully 2018 will see at least one additional day.