One of the more rewarding aspects of doing outreach with CUER is the opportunity to return to our old schools and give a talk about the project. Many of our members have done outreach work with their old schools, and two more – Keno and Peter – will be returning to their schools with the team during our Isle of Wight visit this month. It can have a big impact on children and young people to see what can be achieved by someone who was once in their position.
Having been born and educated in Hong Kong, however, it was never really an option for me to organise a quick weekend away with a solar car in tow. But this year, I was finally able to get back in touch with Kennedy School in Pokfulam and arrange to do some outreach talks for the year 5 and 6 students. It was a shame not to be able to showcase Endeavour, given the sunny, 30-degree weather, so I had to make do with a slideshow.
I was amazed at the level of interest from the staff and students – could I possibly do the talk five times to five different groups? Absolutely. But only if they join in.
So, all morning, the children were kept on their toes: could they explain what engineers do? what kind of things do you have to think about when designing a solar car? what is a wind tunnel for? does a vortex slow the car down or speed it up? would they pick steel or aluminium to make the chassis? why is it useful to design cars that run on solar power? And of course, the ubiquitous ‘if solar cars are so great, why isn’t everyone driving them around?’
I got some brilliant answers. Materials science and aerodynamics posed no real difficulties. The students were clued up about the environmental problems with conventional vehicles (then again, in Hong Kong, it’s quite difficult not to notice), and also, to my surprise, were well aware of the resistance to lifestyle changes posed by fully electric vehicles. Or, as they put it, “some people are always going to want to drive Ferraris”. My favourite answer, however, came from several true engineers-of-the-future: I asked why someone might want to design a solar car. The answer? Because it’s really cool.
Which, of course, is exactly right.
Then the tables were turned, and for the first time ever in my outreach experience, the traditional 5-10 minutes for questions turned out to be insufficient. How does a solar cell work? Where do you get your food and water supplies? Does the car have a cooling system? Could you make a car that runs on solar power and wind energy? What other things do the engineers at Cambridge invent? What subjects do I need to study to be an engineer? It was a challenge to answer them all (YOU try explaining electrons and holes to a nine-year-old) but was also great fun.
While I had an enjoyable morning getting all the children excited about engineering, the message was clear: it wasn’t enough! Everyone was keen to follow the team’s progress on the blog, we’re expecting more questions via email, and I was even asked whether the students could raise money for us if they wanted (YES YES YES).
CUER has an open invitation to return in 2013 and do a talk about the race. Since Hong Kong is one of the transfer points between London and Australia, that could well be a possibility. We now have a strong base of supporters in the staff and students at Kennedy, and I hope that in 2013 we can return with good news!