Creating the Next Generation of Innovators
18 May 2016 at 9:46 am
Julian Lee wants to help foster the next generation of scientists by making technology exciting for children, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
An HSC-level maths and science tutor, Julian Lee, founded social enterprise BrainCrank, which centres on the Little Makers Club, a technology program for primary school children.
He was inspired by his children, and their friends and cousins, who were playing with littleBits – colour coded electronic pieces created in the United States that provide a hands-on experience in a fun and safe environment.
“I saw all these different age groups all working together and really engaged around electronics,” Lee said.
“I thought, wow… I could take the things that I’ve learnt for high school and take it back to primary school to try to address some of the challenges that happen as children grow up and lose interest in science and technology.”
The need to increase engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in Australia has been well publicised, and Lee said, from his personal experience, he could see a great need to target younger children.
“By the time children reach high school a lot of students have lost interest in science and technology,” he said.
“I think all subject areas are fascinating, but to have people think science and technology are boring is a big shame for Australia. In terms of staying innovative on the global stage, we need our best and brightest being interested in science and technology.”
He also wants to see greater female representation in STEM-related industries by providing them with a meaningful experience at a young age.
“Boys become more interested in science and technology-related subjects than girls do, which of course relates to profession choices as men and women,” he said.
“Everything we use now has some digital component. Having two daughters myself, I think it’s really important that girls have a really strong and interesting start in science and technology from an early age so they don’t opt out of it later for what I’ve sort of seen as unfair reasons – they decide they don’t like it.
“We all probably think back to our schooling days and remember one or two teachers that we really liked, or subjects that we really liked, and that probably made a big difference to the choices we made in life.
“Little Makers is about making sure that there’s a really positive and fun learning experience around science and technology.”
Lee launched Little Makers in Sydney this year. But to get it off the ground he needed significant startup capital to purchase a set of littleBits – a crucial component that would make it possible for primary school children to use electronics safely.
He applied for and received an ING Direct Dreamstarter grant to cover the initial cost.
“Two things then happened at once, ING supported the purchase of a classroom-sized kit – their support was critical – and at the same time I managed to get a school [Newton Public School] on board to deliver the program to every student in the school over the course of this year. That then made ING’s investment more than a stab in the dark,” he said.
Lee is currently delivering a 10-week course to students in years one through six. Already 400 students have completed or are currently completing the program, and he will work with a further 400 over the course of the year.
“Over the 10 weeks we introduce them to the different types of electronic pieces – inputs, outputs, power, wires,” he said.
“Using the littleBits, because they’re magnetic, there’s no soldering required, you can’t put them together in the wrong way, or in a dangerous way, and so they can experiment as much as they like to create their project. There’s a lot of chance to take advantage of children’s natural creativity and experimentation.”
In the early stages of the program, the students begin with smaller projects, building sound-activated torches, music synthesisers or “mars rovers”.
“Then in the third part of the program they have a chance to work on a single project for two or three weeks where they can really develop it into something more than can be done in a 50-minute period,” Lee said.
“All those stages build different skills that are essential for later in life. Although it is about electronics, it’s also about teamwork, it’s about experimentation, prediction, project work.
“It’s also got a lot of arts and craft design components in it because we’ve got electronics all around us, but those electronics are inside housing, inside design.
“It’s the cardboard and all the materials they make to put their electronics inside that really determines what makes each of their projects different from each other. And one of the comments I’ve had from the children is, wow, electronics aren’t that complicated. It’s the design, the housing they put around it, that makes it interesting and different.”
Along with the popular 10-week program, Lee is looking to deliver a range of other Little Makers courses in school, after school and during holidays.
“I’m trying to make it as flexible as possible. Some kids who love electronics might like to have an electronics workshop at their party, or on school holidays I’ll run a half day or one day course at the neighbourhood centre,” he said.
The business model is a straightforward sales model – participating schools pay for the course, which covers 100 per cent of the operating costs.
“This is a pretty straightforward business model, so what makes it a social enterprise is the particular focus on children, girls in particular, and also a 25 per cent discount to public schools,” Lee said.
“And what I’m in the middle of doing is applying for a grant to be able to take this out to regional and rural Australia where I feel they often miss out on the exciting opportunities for learning that people in the city get.”
Lee said the biggest challenge he faces is scaling the Little Makers program.
“I was very fortunate in getting both ING and Newtown Public School on board early. That has provided me with a year’s worth of friendly development and startup, because it allows me to prove myself and say, well I’ve delivered to years one to six,” he said.
“But what will be really challenging is then taking that to the next stage. Can I get other schools on board? Can I get after-school programs? The market is pretty tight and competitive, so that will be the biggest challenge.”
He said his main goal is to deliver the program to children who are most at risk of becoming disengaged with science due to a lack of teaching resources.
“The focus for me is really on getting public schools on board because a lot of these things can be prohibitive to public schools, and I’ve seen inside public and private schools, and the resources that are available to private schools is just incredible. And regional and rural Australia for similar reasons,” he said.
“And also for girls – having girls stay excited and have a positive experience around science and technology.”
Long-term, Lee would like to have BrainCrank include a tutoring school. But instead of teaching content – which is the standard method – he wants to provide students with a foundation of study techniques.
“Having been a high school tutor for the last 20 years, I’ve really noticed that learning and studying techniques aren’t really picked up by the students – they’re either not taught, or they’re taught and then forgotten about,” he said.
“What I find is by years 11 and 12 they’re missing sophisticated learning and studying techniques, and that’s meaning that they’re having to work very hard to get grades.
“I know there’s some very simple ways of studying and learning so much more effectively, and so I’m wanting to connect primary school learning and high school learning so by the time they’re in high school they’re excellent at learning and excellent at studying and preparing.
“If you can teach a student to learn effectively then they don’t need tutors.”
He said working with this mindset isn’t necessarily in the interests of a commercial tutoring agency, but, as a for-purpose business, he has an opportunity to change that.
“Again that’s where a social enterprise might be different, in that the interest here is in having students go out and be excited and passionate about what they do,” he said.
“One of my beliefs is if you’re excited and passionate about what you do, you’re able to follow your passion, then there’s going to be a whole lot more people out there coming up with brilliant and exciting ideas and coming up with enterprises and working in jobs that are really adding to the world because the person doing it is inspired about what they do.”