New Zealand schools are doing Elton John proud, bringing rocket technology into our classrooms at the speed of a 3D printer.

Part of the push to enable schools to extend their students in this area comes from New Zealand’s own rocket man Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab, a small but world-leading satellite launch service headquartered in Los Angeles, with operations and a launch site in Gisborne, has partnered with Skills Bright Sparks (formerly known as the Bright Sparks competition), to identify the next wave of science, tech, and engineering experts.

Beck says the partnership is a great way for Rocket Lab to help encourage the next generation of New Zealanders to consider careers in space exploration and innovation.

“I’ve been fascinated with space ever since I was a kid, but when I was at school, I was told to be ‘realistic’ and bring my ideas back down to Earth,” he says.

“I’m grateful I had the encouragement to ignore that advice and follow my dreams instead, and I want to support our next generation to do the same by opening up access to space for everyone – including passionate and innovative kids across the country.”

As well as providing members of the Rocket Lab team as judges for Skills Bright Sparks, Beck will also give the winning students a personal tour of Rocket Lab’s rocket factory and Mission Control – as well as the chance to watch a ‘hotfire’ test of its Rutherford rocket engines.

Developing STEM solutions

Rocket technology and science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] is not always about what we perceive as modern technology, like virtual reality and 3D printing, says Nick Pattison, head of tech at Ormiston Junior College in Flatbush.

“STEM learning is about harnessing technology to create solutions that make the world a better place,” says Pattison.

“This involves 21st-century skills, which should focus on teaching students to empathise and show humanity towards others and understand the implications and effects of their actions and the systems we develop.

“It’s about being curious and about asking questions; looking for answers and for solutions.”

Pattison’s students have created some incredible projects, he says.

“They’ve recently developed an AI [artificial intelligence] project and, using a camera and machine learning, trained a server to differentiate between fish. We worked with a Hawaiian school so now, with the app we’ve developed, you can take a picture of a fish and it can identify it.”

The school has partnered with Engineering New Zealand to co-design a rocket league to teach students about rocketry and STEM concepts. The school has also worked with Fonterra.

“We’ve partnered with NZ Product Accelerator and Fonterra to develop a solution to plastic waste by turning Fonterra’s waste streams into 3D printing filament,” says Pattison.

“And at the end of the year, a group of our students are going to Tonga to develop low-cost, robust heart rate monitors by redesigning the chip so the clip is all in one piece and they can be 3D printed out of recycled plastic. And it will have a smaller optical/light sensor. We’re working on this with the Auckland University of Physics and NZ Product Accelerator as part of an accelerator programme,” he says.

“And we are currently partnering on developing a stem project platform for community issues and how to apply design thinking through a matauranga Māori perspective to empower Kiwi students.”

21st-century skills

Pattison says there are two tenets to teaching tech.

“Number one, we need to expose them to technologies they will face and use in employment; and two, what we call STEM is more about collaboration and problem solving. We call these soft skills, and they learn these soft skills by working on projects.

“I’m just back from a conference with my students and they have been talking about how while they were there building a bridge or a newspaper tower, more than the practical elements, they were learning how to problem solve and how to make joint decisions. They’re learning 21st-century skills.”

Pattison says working with the students on STEM is “super inspiring”.

“The focus of my teaching is on building relationships, and that’s what learning future skills is all about.”

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