Print Helps Foster a Love for STEM Subjects in Kids
The idea started with Dr. Andrew Spiers, director of science and technology at Ardingly College in the United Kingdom. He had the idea to bring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) directly to kids in their schools, filling a gap in programming many educators face. But he couldn’t do it alone.
GEW’s founder and managing director, Malcolm Rae, heard about the idea and was inspired to get involved, bringing the resources of his company with him and embarking on a project that will help children for many years to come.
Bringing the Idea to Life
Duncan Smith, marketing manager at GEW, got pulled in early. “I got involved in the beginning to redesign the bus's exterior,” he says. “It was a ratty old ex-London transport double-decker, and it was quite tacky.”
From a distance, he notes, the bus looked great and had a good foundation, but GEW pitched in by acquiring it outright and then paying to have it repaired, including bodywork and servicing all the parts, which had seen a lot of hard use during its first life. “It had really done a lot of miles,” says Smith, “and it really looked like it had.”
After the complete exterior cleanup came the fun part: the graphics.
“We really got to use our imaginations,” says Smith. “We worked with the colleges — [in addition to Ardingly College, Ifield Community College was also heavily involved in the project].”
Ben Tyler, GEW’s electronic technology manager, notes that he didn’t get involved in the project initially but was excited to come on board as it developed. He notes the local colleges “run projects where students build a car, and then take it around the world and race it. [Malcolm Rae] has always been invested and involved in that, but it became clear the colleges in the local area didn’t have the facilities to do it — they wanted to get involved but couldn’t build extensions to their buildings. So, someone had the idea of a mobile workshop that could tour around the area. That was how it initially got started.”
That led to the GEW STEM bus as it is today. “We’re an engineering business,” says Tyler, “and we’ve seen over the years that employing engineers — people in technological and scientific subjects — is getting more difficult. There just aren’t enough of them, so we saw this as an opportunity to provide something new to kids and encourage them to get involved in STEM at an early age.”
While GEW donated the bus itself and all the graphics — which they held a contest for, getting the local school children that would directly benefit involved in creating the graphics early in the process — the bus itself is about creating a hands-on experience. Both colleges worked with local businesses and solicited donations to develop that mobile workshop experience, with the downstairs portion offering three workbenches where kids can come in and get hands-on experience doing various activities or experiments chosen in advance for each school and age group.
The modular layout allows it to be configured to best suit whatever activities are on tap for that day, allowing it to be far more flexible and versatile. The design also allows for any expensive equipment, such as the installed high-end technology, to be removed and stored elsewhere to reduce the chance of vandalism or theft. And carts allow educators to stock the materials needed for each set of experiments easily.
Upstairs, notes Tyler, is more of a classroom environment, with a big screen and a seating area, several computers running CAD software, and a 3D printer so the children can see their designs come to life.
The entire bus is also outfitted with solar panels and an Internet connection. It can be a mobile classroom and workshop to pull into any school and immediately get kids involved.
In the end, Tyler notes that the colleges had “a lot of ideas and wanted to do different things with the bus. So I spent a lot of time with them saying what’s a good idea from an engineering perspective, putting the benefit of our experience into making sure that what came out was sensible and not overly cluttered. We spent a lot of time just gathering ideas and getting the plans together.” GEW then made another hefty donation — in addition to the bus and graphics — to help the colleges kick-start acquiring all the equipment and technology that was eventually installed.
An Exciting Future Ahead
In the end, it took longer than expected to get the bus completely ready to go, and then around six weeks for the colleges to design the programs for the initial run, including doing trial runs and having students test out the ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. The original goal was to get the program started going to local schools in the UK in September 2023, but because of delays, it was pushed back, and now the entire program is planned to kick off in March of this year, says Smith.
Smith notes that the GEW team was on hand for that initial unveiling last fall when the completed bus was first shown off. “[The kids] were just so enthusiastic,” he says. “It was nice — that’s what it is all about. They all just loved it.”
“The excitement was there from the beginning,” notes Tyler. “Even when we first handed it over [and it looked fantastic on the outside], and it still had the old seats inside, the kids came over after school and helped pull them out.
Replicating the Success
While not every vendor or print shop will have access to — or the resources to purchase — a double-decker bus, much less turn it into a mobile STEM workshop, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great opportunities just waiting to be realized.
“There are always opportunities to get involved,” stresses Tyler. “You just have to keep an eye out.” That said, he cautions those looking to get more involved with helping educate the next generation that “these projects require some perseverance and a little bit of dedication and enthusiasm. If you have that, you’re already halfway there, but it takes all of that to actually get it done and not let the project drift.”
He further notes that for anyone looking to try and replicate this type of project, even on a smaller scale, having a single leader who has the passion and drive for the project is critical to getting it off the ground, keeping it moving through all the unexpected bumps along the way, and then getting it over the finish line.
“That’s a good point,” agrees Smith. “There were a lot of people involved in this project between the two schools and GEW, but it does take someone to keep pushing it forward.”
The other advice both men stress is to “just go for it,” says Tyler. “For us, getting kids into engineering is a very rewarding project, especially seeing the kids' enthusiasm. That’s motivation enough. I would encourage everyone to go for it.”
Smith also notes that targeting younger kids is ideal since getting them excited about STEM at an early age can help shape their thoughts about the future. By the time they get to college or university, they already know what they want to do, and in some ways, it’s too late. As soon as it’s safe to start giving them tools and letting them explore, that’s when you should target your programs.
In the end, GEW has proven that thinking outside the box can help get STEM in front of kids at an early age — and by being so integral to the process, print is entwined in that awareness and excitement. It is a way to help introduce kids to the power of print when they are still forming their opinions about the world and give them ideas about how it can contribute to their own futures. Whether retrofitting an old bus, hosting events in your facilities, partnering with local schools, or even working with your vendors to donate time and equipment to local programs, just let yourself be inspired and get involved.
Just go for it.