Positively Engaging Space Engineers of the Future

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Joel Freedman, Senior Design Thinker in the User Centred Design Department at the Satellite Applications Catapult, explains how the organisation is giving its employees the opportunities as STEM Ambassadors to engage with young people.

Life at the Satellite Applications Catapult means we always have one eye on the future; the next technology, the next data trend, the next space-enabled service that might change the world.

As we consider our part in supporting and growing the UK space industry over the next 10-20 years, it is not just new ideas that we focus on, but people too. Through our knowledge exchange programmes and STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) activities, we engage with students across the UK ranging from primary school age up to PhD level. We aim to inspire the next generation to consider the countless ways that space technology can be harnessed, and the amazing opportunities available for anyone who wants to try.

Developing career opportunities in the space sector

When I was growing up, I knew for a fact that space was cool (and I’m not just talking thermodynamically). But if someone had talked to me about a career in space, I would have found it hard to think about anything beyond being an astronaut. Fast forward to today (space is still cool) and space technology is everywhere, embedded in society and supporting the products and services that we use every single day. The space industry is an enabler, and a career in space is a gateway to any industry you can imagine.

(In case you missed it, I’m trying to say it’s a good time to work in space.)

Communicating that message is one of the main reasons I became a STEM ambassador. Another is that I love working with imaginative people, and we all know kids have the best imaginations of all.

My own role at the Catapult is as a Design Thinker, which means applying creative problem-solving techniques to a range of different challenges, and designing solutions around people rather than technology. It is this skillset that I try and impart to the kids I work with through STEM activities.

Mentoring pioneers of the future

I was recently lucky enough to become a mentor for a team of three who wanted to enter the Odysseus Contest – Europe’s leading space science contest for young people. The competition offers “a unique learning platform that offers travel opportunities, high-value prizes and career-shaping internships.” The contest is split into different age groups, and teams that enter can choose any challenge to address in areas ranging from the fundamental mechanics of space flight to the societal challenges of building colonies on Mars. They are judged on the quality and rigor of their research and problem-solving, as well as the imagination involved, impact of the idea, and overall communication. The competition is a really exciting opportunity to get involved in space, and is organised in three rounds: national, regional and pan-European.

The team is from Winchcombe School in Cheltenham – Lucy, Millie and Thierry, supported by their physics teacher Barnaby Wakeford. When I first spoke to them they had already chosen their challenge – the voyage of humanity across the stars into deep space. No shortage of ambition or imagination!

The project is rooted in the idea of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, the technological lessons from which could be adopted here on Earth to improve our own sustainable development practices. Their project can be found online in the Pioneers category under UK entries.

My role as mentor was to help them organise their amazing research into the various problems they were solving, supporting them to create a narrative to tell the story of their project, talking through challenges, and pointing them to articles and studies. They had picked an incredibly complex project, but were charging through it with incredible zeal, creating 3D models, specifying materials, and researching propulsion, radiation shielding, gravity, waste systems, air supply and food production. Furthermore, they were designing entirely new education systems and social structures, and debating the morality of on-board law enforcement (my stance is still firmly anti air-lock punishment, in case you were wondering).

All their hard work has been rewarded by being named UK National Winners of the contest, and they are now through to the regional semi-finals in Denmark.

Furthering the Catapult’s STEM reach

I am a firm believer in the importance of industry engaging in this way and am lucky to have the support of the Catapult to get involved. This mentorship has been, and is continuing to be, a fantastic opportunity for me work with the next generation of designers (even if they don’t call themselves that yet), especially when they are as bright as these three. Lucy, Millie and Thierry are consistently unfazed by any challenge they face, and approach each one with energy, enthusiasm, and imagination – an inspiring example of the best way to approach work, and exactly the sort of people we need to carry innovating and disrupting the space industry.

From my point of view, it has been an absolute pleasure working with the team so far, and I look forward to helping them go even further in the competition (and beyond if I can).

At the Catapult, we have a huge group of STEM ambassadors – all passionate, awesome and eager to engage with any schools, colleges or universities that are considering getting involved in space-related activities. So why wait to get in touch? Space has never been more within reach!

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