Posted by Vicky Spengler, Jasmine Cox, Brendan Crowther on , last updated

There is a lot of interest in the UK at the moment about how young people are using technology. We now have a generation of people who have grown up with the internet - young people who have never known a world where they aren’t connected.

However, there is still a big gap between using technology and understanding it. The vast majority of us have little comprehension of how the tools we use on an everyday basis actually work. A laptop or smartphone or even a games console is a fearsomely complex piece of technology and when our devices stop working we often feel powerless to remedy the situation.

Over the last few years BBC Business Development has been building relationships with a number of companies who make toys and kits that aim to educate young people about electronics and hardware engineering. In the summer of 2013 they asked BBC Research and Development to start thinking about how we could harness these relationships to help get young people excited by and engaged with electronics.

BBC R&D is obviously very interested in the levels of engineering and scientific competence shown by young people. The BBC as a whole is committed to help educate and inspire people when it comes to using technology. There are lots of initiatives that aim to educate people about technology. As a broadcaster though the BBC has a few extra strings to its bow that other organisations don’t: we make TV, radio, and websites and that’s a very powerful collection of mediums to get the message across.

In late 2013 we produced a series of short videos showing how much fun building things out of electronics kits can be. These films were designed so that they could be shown to TV commissioners and get them excited about these products and start them thinking about how this could tie into future TV programming.

Filming with some of the young people as they play with their creations

We wanted to keep the builds as accessible as possible so we stuck to commercially available electronics products. We then expanded the nature of the builds to include the kind of things you might find lying around the house - yoghurt pots, post-it notes, sticky tape etc. What we ended up with was collection of short films that walk a line between old school Blue Peter style arts and crafts projects and electronics based physical hacks - things kids can build out of household objects and art store supplies that can then ‘do something fun' due to the electronics component of the build.

Before we started work on the films we held a series of workshops to understand how the various electronics kits available might be used. With staff present from across the organisation we spent a few days assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the products available and started to build a picture of what the films could focus on. With a bit of play and a good mix of craft supplies, we created a menagerie of sensing, controlling, moving, flashing and bleeping 'makes' that started to give us an idea of what to theme the films around.

BBC staff members get to grips with some of the educational electronics toys currently available

Following on from this we scripted and storyboarded three short films. We decided that the best approach to take was to actually film some young people using the kits to make something and then include their creations in the finished films. We developed three different ‘maker’ projects and broke them down into logical steps. We found a space where we could rig some cameras around a workspace and then invited three sets of children to come along and build something fun. 

What we ended up with was three different films, united by the same visual treatment. Each film is themed around a different build environment – space exploration, spooky Halloween goings on and underwater animal and plant life – and is intended to not only to teach kids about simple circuit logic but also show how you can have fun building stories with them.

Filming at a CBBC event to capture the build projects

Sparky the Jellyfish looks at the beautiful luminescence of a jellyfish and how we might play with qualities of light through different materials to recreate it. Using build projects to learn about real world concepts like this and create onward learning journeys through more of the BBC’s output and beyond is very important to the organisation with its learning output.

The second film we made focuses on making art projects fun by introducing an interactive element to them, in this case some Spooky Halloween style portraits whose eyes move courtesy of motion sensors. In addition to allowing them to scare their friends this also introduced the children to the dynamics of a mechanical system – cam operations, linkages and the like.

Making Building Fun: Spooky Painting

In the final film we wanted to further examine the notion of how these builds could contribute to direct learning of skills and concepts – essentially ‘skilling up’ the next generation of engineers and scientists. Using the theme of space exploration we looked at translating sound into light and movement and what components are needed to transmit information across empty space, examining how to send messages from one circuit to another and translate inputs into different outputs.

Making Building Fun: Satellite and Moonbase

The filming itself was an incredibly rewarding experience. Working with the kids was a lot of fun and the builds themselves went very well. The BBC’s core duties are to inform, educate and entertain and it feels like we’ve done that with these films. Collaborating with different areas of the BBC made it feel like we were all pulling in the same direction and making something meaningful for our audiences and as an inspiration piece for the rest of the organisation it feels like we’ve hit the mark. Below are a few words from some of the partners on the project about their reasons for getting involved and how they found the experience.

Jessica Roberts, Business Development

Part of what the Business Development team does is to look at opportunities to partner with third party companies to explore low cost projects that will inspire us to think differently about new digital technologies and how these can be used creatively.   

We met with a number of companies who are using electronics as a way to help get people interested in technology and were really excited about what these, sometimes very small, companies are doing.  They are so passionate about getting people engaged in making technology, not just consuming it, and we felt that this could be a really easy way for kids to start to learn and understand how technology works.  

I was really excited to be involved in this project, I’m often researching new trends in technology but don’t always have the opportunity to get so hands on. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with colleagues that I wouldn’t usually.  It was a very collaborative approach and I think the end result shows that a great deal of passion and creativity went into it. 

Jasmine Cox, BBC Research & Development

I explored themes of culture, environment and technology to plan ‘makes’ that would allow kids to be expressive and creative with a relatively limited spectrum of components and materials. Imaginative play is the key to transforming simple binary operations into elaborate tales; for example turning a light on and off becomes the trigger for illuminating a spooky portrait, awakening a beast from a cave, or encoding a secret message.

As a designer I’m fascinated by how people experience the objects and machines they encounter, and the way human hands interact with textures and materials. With the films we ask children to think beyond plugging electronics together, to imagine how people will touch, manipulate, and control their creation. What behaviour will it have? How does it work? Where will it live?

A ‘bug’ created in the one of the workshops that lights up and vibrates when people get close

Not every kid is as lucky as I was to have early exposure to the inner workings of mixing desks, cassette recorders, & interesting machines found in skips. I even had a go on an incredibly dexterous computer graphics system (for its time, anyway), allowing me to splash colour and shapes around pretending I was creating graphics for broadcast television.

I want to inspire the next generation of independent thinkers, giving them this permission to dabble with technology, and play with complex systems, teaching humans creative problem solving and self-sufficiency in technology. It’s about building enough confidence to get under the covers with electronics and software to understand what’s going on inside the tools & devices we use. It’s about inspiring more young creative minds to imagine and make.