April 2014

Watermelons, kids, a fair and TCS graduates

Earlier in March, TCS participated for the first time at the Big Bang Fair, the largest celebration of science and technology for young people in the UK

How many ten-year-olds does it take to blow up a watermelon? This was just one of the calculations for the team of TCS graduates and colleague volunteers who welcomed around 1,200 young visitors to the popular interactive stand at the The Big Bang Fair in Birmingham’s NEC from March 13-16.

More than a dozen first and second year graduates took time out of their day jobs as software engineers, analysts, IT support specialists or designers on the British Airways account to brainstorm for ideas and create a fun technical challenge, aimed chiefly at ten-year-olds and over.

The result was a visually exciting combination of robotics, electro-magnetics, simple programming, several crates of watermelons and a small mountain of rubber bands that had literally, explosive results. Over the four days of the annual young scientists and engineers fair, children as young as six up to older teens clearly saw the attraction in a mix of creative computing, a surprisingly sophisticated Lego robot and exploding fruit. They were helped to use basic Java to pre-programme a route around a chequerboard track for the robot.

Volunteers helping a young participant to blow up a watermelon
The reward for landing on a target square was the chance to step up and smash a ‘detonator’ button, releasing electronic levers that snapped additional rubber bands around the already pressurised melon. Sooner or later — on average, every 15th or 16th attempt — the bulging fruit burst in a spectacular fashion inside its large perspex display case.

All good, clean illuminating fun, of the appealingly anarchic kind, that would be difficult to replicate every day in an ICT or science lesson. And that was the point of ours and almost 200 other lively installations at the sixth Big Bang Fair.

Led by Engineering UK and backed by dozens of corporate sponsors, including TCS, the biggest event of its kind in the calendar sets out to capture the imaginations of young people with hands-on experience of science and technology, as well as interaction with industry professionals. This year’s Big Bang was the most successful ever, far exceeding its target of 75,000 visitors over two days’ each of school and family visits. Exhibitors ranged from BAE Systems and the Kennedy Space Centre to GCHQ and Jaguar Land Rover. The aim is to create excitement around the range of careers open to students with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) qualifications.

And that meant that the Big Bang fit very well into the ‘IT Futures’ programme of youth engagement and outreach, whose target is to involve 10,000 young people a year and inspire them into technology. IT Futures comprises a range of imaginative schemes to challenge and inspire school and university students with the creative possibilities of technology that might be supporting teenagers to develop problem-solving apps or real world IT business solutions.

The first TCS Tech Challenge competition for undergraduates and post-grads just delivered some stunning results to benefit four partner charities; staff also volunteer as ‘ambassadors’ for STEM subjects and careers in schools.

Volunteers helping a young participant to programme a robot!
For volunteers at the NEC, the emphasis was on challenge and fun, with a competitive edge. “My friend is usually better than me at programming in school, but I’ve done better than her here today,” said one satisfied visitor, 11-year-old Sherelle from Nuneaton.

There was also competition to be in the optimum place in the queue as pressure mounted on the melon. Having narrowly missed out on an explosion first time round, nine-year-old Rhys, from Derby, was back on the stand for his second attempt — happy to swap programming tips with competitors as he keyed up his robot’s path. The experience of being on the graduate project team and volunteering at The Big Bang brought its own rewards. Second-year TCS graduate associate Dan Gregory, who works in business intelligence software support and who originated the idea for the TCS game, was impressed by the enthusiasm of young participants.

“It reminds me of visits I made to science museums as a boy. You always remember the hands-on stuff — the day you blew up a melon!” Mr Gregory  has volunteered before, travelling to India to help out at a school TCS supports through the company-wide Maitree Initiative.

For first-year TCS graduate associate Alice Ferrier, a data analyst, The Big Bang was her first voluntary role with TCS, but unlikely to be her last, she said. And for technical design lead Zukky Baig, whose presentational talents helped make sure the melon-smashing experiment did a brisk trade, the secret was to “keep it visual, keep it messy”.

That combination encouragingly attracted at least as many girls as boys, keen to try their hand, Mr Baig noted: “Although the boys ate more of the leftovers.”

Melon-smashing experiment at the The Big Bang Fair in Birmingham
This was TCS’s first involvement with the fair. “And our presence certainly went with a bang,” said Yogesh Chauhan, TCS director of corporate sustainability. “It was great to see so much interest in our stand — a real testament to the hard work our graduates put into designing the challenge. Using our core business skills and passion for IT to inspire young people into technology is what IT Futures is all about.”

The Big Bang is likely to be a fixture in the IT Futures calendar from now on, he said.

Find out more about the TCS IT Futures programme here

For information about The Big Bang Fair and associated UK-wide events visit http://www.thebigbangfair.co.uk

Source: TCS UK & Ireland