Posted: 6 March 2015

The robot renaissance

Vex, robotics, students, sponsorship, education, innovation, STEM, development.

Students from East Barnet School at last year’s Vex Robotics UK National Championship, held at The Big Bang Fair.

National Grid’s sponsorship of the VEX Robotics competition is helping youngsters across the country discover the magic of engineering. With the finals taking place this week, Jonathan Richardson, Education and Skills Specialist, explains how it works and why it’s important.

Robotics has moved on from its futuristic sci-fi roots, but it still has the ability to capture the imagination of people of all ages. From driverless cars to drones and the ground-breaking robots we’re building at National Grid, the industry is making huge strides.

Jonathan Richardson, Education and Skills Specialist.

Jonathan Richardson, Education and Skills Specialist.

It’s an aspect of engineering that is packed with possibilities and innovation, and set to become one of the economy’s biggest growth areas in the next 20 years. For the UK to continue to compete on a global level, we need to make sure our youngsters are inspired by engineering and robotics and want to be a part of this exciting future.

For many young people, however, science and engineering still has an image problem. Some youngsters see science as dry, geeky or academic, while some see engineering as low-skilled and old-fashioned. Certain traditional methods of teaching probably encourage this stereotype.

Wow moment

For youngsters to really feel inspired, they need to get involved in the practical side of things and experience that life-changing ‘wow’ moment. Building robots is a great way of doing that.

It’s for all these reasons that we’re sponsoring, for the second year, the VEX Robotics competition, where young people aged 13 to 17 design and build robots that compete in regional, national and, if they’re outstanding, global competitions. It’s Robot Wars without the violence; Meccano with attitude.”

Our sponsorship is just one part of a co-ordinated plan to work with the UK’s young people and nurture the technical and engineering skills we need to address future energy challenges.

Some challenging statistics that we need to address include:

  • A current shortfall of 81,500 engineers a year in the industry
  • Just 4 per cent of the UK’s registered engineers are women
  • A-level physics is the second most popular subject for boys, but it’s only the 18th for girls.

VEX can help us meet these challenges by promoting STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – the cornerstone of everything we do as engineers – and help inspire boys and girls to become the engineers of the future.

Arduous challenge

In this year’s competition, the organisers set the arduous challenge of building a robot that occupied a space no bigger than a 45cm cube. It had to be able to pick up two objects of different shapes and sizes and stack them to reach up to 1.5 metres in height. Not easy.

Click below to watch a video of the 2014-2015 VEX Robotics Competition game, VEX Skyrise.

While each team has to use the same standard components, there’s no fixed solution. So it’s all about innovating, rather than just following instructions.

The beauty of VEX, and why I see so much value in it, is that it takes STEM subjects out of the classroom and puts them to the test in real-life situations. Teenagers who take part build lifelong skills in teamwork, leadership and communicating.

National Grid is the UK’s only sponsor of the competition. We’re in illustrious company, with space-exploration pioneers NASA supporting the competition globally.

Inspiring young people

Our sponsorship is about much more than just tagging on our logo and walking away. We primarily work with schools that are impacted by National Grid, in locations where we’re working. We donate robotics equipment and send volunteers into school to help inspire young people and give them a helping hand with their robots.

VEX encompasses the full scope of engineering, from structural to programming, to power systems, electronics, sensors and beyond. And it does it in a unique, problem-solving way.

Click below to watch a video from the VEX Robotics Competition’s UK National Championship 2014.

It represents engineering as something that all youngsters should aspire towards. It shows it’s a more creative and innovative industry than they might think.

VEX also has a positive personal impact on the youngsters. In our first year, we saw plenty of tears and tantrums as they struggled to work as a team or just rushed ahead with an idea, only to find it didn’t work as they’d expected.

Amazing changes

Within a year, we’ve seen amazing changes in them. They’re better behaved and presented, working and thinking as a team, feeling proud to represent their schools and carrying themselves with a lot more confidence.

We’ve really seen VEX capture pupils’ imaginations. One school in Hinckley, Leicestershire, started with one small team and one robot. Now they’ve got 60 teenagers involved and 10 robots. Young people rarely have the opportunity to even fix a bike these days, so they really appreciate being asked to do something practical.

The participants tell us that the work they do with VEX helps them realise why STEM subjects are important. But they don’t think of them as STEM anymore. They just think of it as good stuff.

Our sponsorship of VEX is a great way of supporting the development of new engineers. By supporting schools and giving them awe-inspiring ways to promote STEM, we can continue to change the perception of engineering and meet the challenges of the future.

The VEX Robotics national finals take place at the Big Bang fair, Birmingham NEC, from 11-14 March.

Read more:

Click here to find out more about the VEX competition.

Gas innovation in full flow
“The beauty of VEX, and why I see so much value in it, is that it takes STEM subjects out of the classroom and puts them to the test in real-life situations.”

Jonathan Richardson, Education and Skills Specialist.