By Rachel Boswell, Communications Manager (Education) at the British Science Association


There’s no machine quite like the imagination of a child – a unique, ever-running engine that could generate ideas that go on to change society. And, just as we would service a car or update a mobile phone, it’s important that we keep these young imaginations well-oiled and in tune with the developments of our day.

Of the many advancements we’ve seen in recent years, some of the most impactful have been brought about by other powerful machines: computers. Scientists and technologists have found ways to allow computers to use and learn from data to perform tasks that can revolutionise our day-to-day activities – a capability known as machine learning. The driving force behind music playlist suggestions, image recognition systems, various agricultural processes and even some medical diagnoses, machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence with seemingly limitless scope. Machine learning is, in short, all around us, and set to play an increasingly bigger role in our lives.

That’s where our young people, with their machine-like imaginations, can play their part. As the future users and creators of machine learning systems, it’s key that children are given the chance to understand the possibilities, problems and omnipresence of this type of technology, and perhaps feel inspired to go on to work in this fascinating field.

Developed in partnership with the Royal Society, the CREST Awards’ Machines of the Future Discovery Day has helped school children across the UK to learn about real-world machine learning through interactive, hands-on project work with their peers.

Exploring the future with bots

Year 6 students at Monnow Primary School in Wales had plenty of fun designing their very own machines as part of their Machines of the Future Discovery Day. In fact, the class enjoyed the project so much that the Discovery Day turned into an entire half term topic!

Primary teacher Rachel Mackay, who ran the project with the Year 6 class, reflected on the CREST project as a “fabulous and accessible way to develop the children’s understanding of machine learning”, as well as a chance for them to strengthen fundamental research, communication and problem-solving skills.

When designing their innovative machines and planning their projects, Rachel said that the children “were really challenged to think about the task that they needed their machine to do – whether it was Bandage Bot who dresses wounds, Anti-Bot-Teria who cleans surfaces or Shop Bot who collects your sweets from the newsagent. The children used Google Forms to collect data that would be relevant for their bot, and the Appy Pie Chatbot Builder to create the communication interface between the user and their machine. They then went on to use Scratch, changing the machine’s face from neutral to happy or sad depending on the feedback given. Movement prototypes for their machines were created using LEGO WeDo and the children made physical models of their machines using recycled materials. 

“The children learnt so much about how machines learn and how they are built. It has been a fantastic project and we can’t wait to run our next CREST Award!”

Anti-Bot-Teria – the machine designed to clean your surfaces depending on size and type

And it’s not just Monnow Primary that can run a Discovery Day (or in this case, a Discovery half term!) in Wales. Thanks to funding from the Welsh Government, all primary and secondary school students in Wales can now complete CREST Awards of any level, from Star to Gold, at no cost. This brilliant provision, detailed here, is a huge support for schools that would otherwise lack the resources or finances to run the Awards, and a valuable chance for young people of all ages and backgrounds to explore topics across science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – whether that’s artificial intelligence, animals or astronomy. 

Appy days in the classroom 

St Laurence’s Catholic School in northwest England also had great success running the Machines of the Future Discovery Day with its Year 5 and Year 6 classes. Peter Biggs, a science teacher at St Laurence’s, praised the CREST project for illuminating the importance of machine learning systems and for encouraging children to use digital programmes to enhance their independent learning, all with the trusted support of a STEM Ambassador from All About STEM. “The [Discovery Day] resources were fantastic and linked to real world examples such as Netflix, Alexa and Siri to put the children’s learning into context”, he said. “In addition to this, the children loved testing out the apps Google Quick Draw and Giorgio Cam to see how they can teach themselves.

“It was great to see the children then apply this knowledge and have fun working in groups to create their own machines of the future and present them back to the class. The whole process was brilliant and the support from Michelle at All About STEM was fantastic, from CPD before running the event to coming into school to support our sessions. We’ll definitely look to do more CREST activities in the future.”

Looking ahead (to the new school year)

With a more familiar school year of in-person education on the horizon, now is a great time for teachers to start planning their own classroom Discovery Days. Best run with teams of students aged 10-14, Discovery projects can also be used on school transition days to introduce primary leavers to secondary-level STEM in an interactive, inclusive and truly memorable way. Submit students’ projects for a well-deserved CREST Discovery Award and you’ve then put the icing on the cake.

If you’re a teacher who would like to find out more about CREST Discovery Days or the Awards scheme as a whole, and how a STEM Ambassador could help you to run CREST projects with your class, drop us a line at [email protected] or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.