Technology entrepreneur Vaughan Fergusson and his partner Zoe Timbrell want New Zealand children to have opportunities to grow up to be future technology innovators.
After five years of developing programmes to give children access to state-of-the-art technology, they bought a former outdoor education camp in 40 hectares of regenerated bush in Raglan and set about working out what to do with it.
“How could we create a school camp where the kids could get immersed into a different world?
“We wanted to develop a school camp that is less about playing in the outdoors and more about learning in the outdoor environment. It became really apparent to us that it would be a perfect place to show the relevance of technology and we could demonstrate how kids could use it to solve real-world problems.
“What better problems to solve than the issues the world faces today around having clean energy, water, food and the changes happening with the environment? We thought it would be a great way to teach kids technology, but with a purpose – that they are actually protecting our environment,” says Vaughan.
In February, more than 100 educators, technologists, scientists, policy makers, locals and entrepreneurs, including representatives from Rocket Lab, Xero, Waikato District Council, Ministry of Education, local iwi and Raglan locals spent a day at the camp and came up with hundreds of ideas for how the camp could be used.
“For starters, they all wished this was the sort of camp they could have gone to when they were kids. They were excited that we didn’t have any preconceptions as to what the camp should be – we really wanted to design a camp that was new and bold, something quite different.
“When we invited all those great brains to come along and help us come up with ideas, they literally came up with hundreds and hundreds of ideas of what we could do at the camp from astronomy and cooking to science and working with mana whenua.”
‘Top-secret research base’ theme
The Institute of Awesome is the result. The camp is themed as a top-secret research base, with students tasked to find solutions with a resident educator, scientist, technologist and artist to guide them. A large laboratory, maker space, and gear such as electronics, woodwork, laser cutters, 3D printers, sewing machines will provide the tools for cross-collaborative teams.
“The school can choose the problems they want the kids to focus on – it might be biodiversity, or growing food, or clean water.
“So, for example, we might say: ‘We’ve got this emergency; we’ve noticed pollution getting into the stream and we don’t know where it’s coming from, but we need your help to try and figure out this mystery’.
“And that sets the theme for the rest of the camp, where the kids get put into groups and try to solve this problem. How will they figure out where the pollution is coming from? How would they know if the water is safe to drink?
“They might decide they want to come up with a water sensor to detect if there’s pollution or not in the water. The scientists can figure out what’s the science involved in doing that, tinkerers can build it, creatives can design what it will look like and the story around it – how to share the outputs with the community – and the rangers would find the best places to go and test the water,” explains Vaughan.
Camp programmes will encourage children to become curious about topics such as taking care of waterways, biodiversity, trapping and eradicating pests, growing food and producing clean energy using technology.
“Students will have the opportunity to be part of existing programmes as well, like the Cacophony Project [cacophony.org.nz], where they are using old cellphones to detect birds in the bush. That’s an open source technology project where you can upgrade an old Android cellphone into a bird sensor and it will share it with everybody else doing the project. It will literally count the number of tui based on birdsong at dawn chorus.
“We are working with people already doing engaging stuff because we also want the kids to take the projects back to their schools, so the learning keeps going,” says Vaughan.
Vaughan has come up with a model to make the camp accessible to more children, which they think will be win-win for students and industries.
“The school camps will be sponsored by industry. We will also make the camp available for corporates and industry to use for retreats so every booking sponsors a school on camp.
“So far we have been getting a good response from industry – they love the idea of doing that – we think that’s going to be a real winner. It’s also a way for them to give back to the community. They are sponsoring kids on camp who will grow up and become future innovators.”
Vaughan Fergusson’s late mother Pam set him on the pathway to creating Vend, a cloud-based point-of-sale retail management software company, which now has 400 employees and customers in 100 countries.
“I credit that back to my mum when I was a kid because she brought us home a personal computer back in the 1980s, when computers weren’t that personal, or very common. But what was more remarkable was that she was a solo mum, unemployed – had to take a second mortgage on the house to buy the computer – and she was paraplegic, trying to raise three boys by herself.
“But she had this hunch that computers could be something big in the future, so she wanted us to have access to that sort of stuff,” he says.
Vaughan and partner Zoe Timbrell’s ambition is that any child in New Zealand can grow up to be a future innovator in technology. The Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust was set up five years ago to inspire Kiwi kids nationwide to follow pathways into technology.
Weekend workshops nationwide
Workshops for students and educators – OMG Tech! – were launched five years ago. Since then thousands of children have turned up to the weekend events in towns all over New Zealand to find out what technology can do.
OMG Tech! is volunteer driven, with scientists, engineers and people from the technical industry working alongside participants. Every ticket sold pays for a ticket for a child who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.
“We allocate tickets so there are always 50/50 boys and girls – an amazing mix of kids from every single background you could imagine – playing with robots and doing science experiments and they are such awesome fun.
“We bring all of the technology: computers, robots, drones, 3D printers, and over the day there might be five or six different workshops that the kids can do.
“For example, ‘unmaking’, which is where they take apart computers and electronics to see what’s on the inside. Simple things, like being given permission to take apart a cellphone or a computer to see how they work on the inside, completely blow them away,” says Vaughan.
Children might develop their own software or mobile games, do their own science experiments, design things in 3D and print them, learn how to programme a drone, or a robot to navigate a maze or carry something from one side of the room to the other.
Problem solving with technology
“Technology is just a tool. We teach kids how to write code and do electronics and all those practical things, but we are really trying to teach kids to be innovative and think about solving problems using technology.
“It’s less and less about being on a computer and more and more about inventing things. It could be using robotics, sensors or solar panels to generate electricity, or 3D printing or design, and those skills which are super important if you want to invent/make things,” Vaughan explains.
Soft skills like working in teams and feeling safe to experiment and fail are also important for young innovators.
“This is where the real magic happens where kids feel it’s safe for them to try an idea and see where it takes them. It’s about showing them what the possibilities are. We are really trying to encourage them to think about what they would do with the technology.”
After several years of taking OMG Tech! around the country, Vaughan and his team have developed new programmes to specifically target the problem of creating pathways for young people who wouldn’t normally have access to industry mentors: girls, Māori, Pasifika or rural children.
“We’ve been doing some youth mentorship programmes targeted at older kids – 16–17-year-olds – who are thinking about how to formally get into a career, but they’re not really sure.
“We launched Mana Tangata three years ago where we pair a young student with an expert from industry – for a year they get their own personal mentor. That’s been a huge success with about 100 predominantly Māori kids through that programme.”
Accredited PD provider
OMG Tech! is one of nine providers selected by the Ministry of Education to deliver the new digital technology curriculum. OMG Tech! Trailblazers is a professional development programme to help teachers learn how to teach technology in an engaging way.
“We repackaged all of the fun workshops developed doing OMG Tech! in a way that teachers can learn how to do those workshops in their own classrooms. So, with the roll-out of the digital curricula, we are arming them with engaging things that they can do with their classes that teach them the fundamentals of technology.”
Shared Kiwi vision
Vaughan and Zoe say the future is, and will be, technology-driven and they want Kiwi kids to be inventing culturally responsive solutions for New Zealand.
“We don’t like the idea that our future could be invented by people from San Francisco or Israel. We don’t want to import other people’s cultures and be told this is the way the technology works. We know technology is a great enabler, but we also have centuries of wisdom from mana whenua we can learn from and apply with new tools.
“New Zealanders are world-renowned for our ingenuity, creativity and ability to think outside the square, but we just really want to give that opportunity to every kid.
“My measure of success is to have a young Māori or Pasifika woman come to me at an event in 15 years’ time, and learn that she went to one of our events or camp and it created a new pathway for her into a career that she thought she could never have access to. That’s why I do it, because that essentially is what my mum did for me,” Vaughan says.
Teacher retreat in January 2020
With the Institute of Awesome officially opening in early 2020, a teacher retreat is planned for late January.
“They can come and help develop some of the content and workshops, hang out with other teachers in beautiful surroundings at Raglan, and help develop new materials which they can take back to their schools,” says Vaughan.
For more information on the 2020 summer programme, teacher retreats and school camps, visit www.inawe.nz.