On the 2nd of December 2019 at the Mercure Hotel in Exeter, the Tech South West awards took place and proved to be a successful night for many businesses across the South West. Many awards were given including the Tech company of the year (going to TDK-Lambda) and the People’s choice awards (going to Falmouth Launchpad) among many others. Of particular excitement to us through, was the ‘Best in Education’ awarded to Software Cornwall by the co-sponsors from Heart of the South West and Cornwall and Isles of Scily, Digital Skills Partnerships, for their fantastic new education initiative “Mission to Mars” which aims to encourage people to start coding in the Cornwall area. The program aims to get people aged 14-24 involved in coding by introducing them to some model Mars Rovers which they help to code to complete challenges accordingly. Let’s take a look at this new program and how it’s been influencing others around the South West.
Software Cornwall set up the project in 2013 due to Cornwall being ranked as one of the lowest areas in the UK for students taking up computer science in higher education. The missions were started by Steve Amor and Mike Trebillcock back in 2013 but since then have come a long way with Robert Wiltshire joining the team in 2017. The success of the programme prompted Software Cornwall to apply for more funding which they received, which allowed Robert to work full time for the organisation and expand the programme to engage with schools around Cornwall daily delivering workshops, assemblies and setting up career fairs for students to visit aiming to inspire them and for them to see the infinite possibilities of coding. Robert has interacted with 13,000 students, delivered 72 career assemblies and 45 career fairs which allows us to see just how much hard work he has been putting into this project and why him and the business were fully worthy of winning the award. Since Robert has been interacting around the schools and the Missions to Mars project was set up, Cornwall was ranked in the top three clusters of tech growth in 2017 which illustrates how far the project has come. This strongly supports the reasons for them winning this Tech South west award.
So what exactly is the Mission to Mars project? Well, the project runs in two different formats – a one-week work experience placement taking place in the Easter holidays as well Autumn half term and in a work experience week schools provide which allows students to have time off school to participate in the project. The program is also run in a condensed form across two days for those that just wish to get a taste of what they can expect if they were to participate in the week-long initiative. During the course, students use Raspberry Pi and Arduino systems which allows them to code one of two model Mars Rovers.
They have to use their skills and learning to code the Rovers accordingly to overcome certain challenges including navigating their way across the tricky Mars terrain and find extra-terrestrial life in a series of challenges Robert and his team set up. The session is run with the template of a model start-up company. Students start with a budget and as they progress and complete tasks they gain more money which in theory, should allow them to complete the next task to a better ability. Therefore the better their coding skills are and the more engaged they are with the task, the more effective the task completion will be.
Not only is the program going down well with Cornwall’s national statistics, but also with the students that are taking part. All that have taken part in the Mission to Mars scheme have agreed they would do it again. Fun, exciting and a great challenge are just some of the comment’s students have made having come from the programme. Many of them also state that it’s a great way of making friends especially in the holidays when students may struggle to occupy their time elsewhere. The benefits of such programs can be seen to directly affect students for the better. Tyler, one of the many people who has been through the Mission to Mars program over the year’s it’s been operating has recently been offered a work placement due to his enthusiasm and attainment in undertaking the tasks the scheme through at him. He states that it is a “great place to start” and that in this day and age, “everyone cares about programming.” Who knows where the work placement will take him but with the knowledge he has gained by both undertaking the program and now in his work placement, you wouldn’t bet against him making it big in the coding world one day.
One thing is for sure the project has been a great success in improving Cornwall’s digital skills and as long as it keeps going, it’s almost certain Britain can count on Cornwall developing some top coders across the coming years.
Author: Leo Hebdige (Industry Placement Student)