Young tech pioneers encourage schools to sign up as Longitude Explorer Prize 2017 gets underway

Written on 20 February 2017

Young tech pioneers encourage schools to sign up as Longitude Explorer Prize 2017 gets underway

The Longitude Explorer Prize, being run by innovation foundation Nesta, invites 11 to 16-year-olds in secondary schools and youth groups to work on STEM based solutions for some of the current issues facing society. The competition aims to involve the widest number of creative thinkers, in the belief that good ideas can come from anywhere.

The first Longitude Explorer Prize, launched in 2014, focused on geolocation and attracted over 60 entries. The competition was won by an all-girl team from Rendcomb College in Gloucestershire who took home the first prize for their app, Displaced, designed to help charities to coordinate the logistics of supporting vulnerable people around the world. Jonathan Torbitt, Director of Computing at Rendcomb College supported his students Emily Sharman (15), Grace Balchin (17) and Eleni Dimopoulos (16) in developing their idea. Below they tell us a little bit more about their Longitude Explorer experience.

Why did you decide to enter the Longitude Explorer Prize?

Jonathan: Something I insist upon in my teaching is that all lessons have real-world context and application. The students asked me why they needed to know how things like GPS worked and how computing could be ethical. I challenged them to combine the technology in their mobile phones with the programming language they were learning to create a web app for a local charity working to reduce homelessness in the West of England. This fitted brilliantly with the aims of Longitude Explorer and so we entered a team from that very GCSE class.

What did you all gain from the experience?

Jonathan: The transformation in the girls along the way was fantastic. They went from shy and nervous teenagers to confident young adults, capable of presenting their idea in a professional manner.  The nine months of the competition gave us time to attend a variety of events, meet a range of business leaders and consult charities to produce a genuinely worthwhile product.

Emily: The thing I most enjoyed about the Longitude Explorer Prize was the teamwork and the chance to see a project through from start to finish. You get to experience teamwork in a different way. It made me understand that different people have different roles within a group and you really learn to come together and lift each other up.

Grace: I learnt a lot about how much technology can improve people’s quality of life. I also had to learn to overcome my fear of speaking in front of strangers and meeting new people. It’s an amazing opportunity. There’s not many other things in life that would compare with entering this competition.

Is the app being used now?

Jonathan: The app is now in development. The initial prototype only covered a small portion of expected final functionality. The team have taken a year out to consider how best to develop the app and register their own charitable business and intellectual property. They hope to release the alpha version once they complete their studies in the coming year.

What advice would you give to other teams thinking of signing up?

Jonathan: I’d recommend that you make a plan that gives guaranteed time to spend on the project every week. It is a long term commitment and students must be encouraged to use their time management skills to stay on top of everything. The teacher has to motivate the group to see the whole project through.

Eleni: Every idea is a good idea. Even if you think it’s silly at first, try developing it and testing it. You might be surprised how many clever ideas come out of that process. The project does take time, but it’s worth it. We now have so many more opportunities as a result. Our school has new classrooms and more girls than ever are taking STEM subjects and thinking more realistically about STEM careers. You can make that change in your school too.

What has been the legacy of winning the Longitude Explorer Prize?

Jonathan: The prize fund has been transformative to the school, enabling us to put on events and workshops, as well as to significantly improve our STEM facilities.

We’ve increased equality of opportunity amongst our students by buying electronic devices for young people from lower income families. We have also built a ‘makerspace’ classroom for all our students to enjoy. This has a programming area and a practical space in the centre of the room where students can engage in activities, such as building their own computer. The new motto is ‘keep what you build’ and the students get to keep anything they finish building for free. Recent examples are PCs, 3D printed toys and even a prosthetic hand!

The winning team consisted of three girls and this has done a lot to encourage female students to consider STEM careers as a real possibility. This year we saw our first female A Level  Computer Scientist, leading the way for her peers, with more expected next year.

This year’s Longitude Explorer Prize is supported by technology company  IBM  and challenges 11 to 16 year olds to develop innovative, creative and practical solutions that use web-enabled technology – the ‘Internet of Things’ – to improve the health and wellbeing of people in the UK.  Winners will be announced before the end of school summer term 2017, with a first place prize of £10,000 and two runner-up prizes of £1,000.

School teams can enter the prize at www.longitudeexplorer.challenges.org, until 3 March 2017 (3pm GMT).

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