Learning by doing (for both of us)

The Australian two-years graduate program includes medium-term rotations in different parts of the Australian business as well as a series of “Grad School” sessions to develop professional skills in a range of areas from software engineering to negotiation to the Maritime domain. In the second year, we also act as mentors to high school students competing in a STEM competition and this is what I want to talk about today.

If you’ve read our blog or bios, you might know that I have been with Saab the longest of all of the graduates for this year. I joined Saab Australia in January 2017 after graduating from university at the end of 2016 (the Australian academic year runs January-December) and moved straight into a two-year program that Saab Australia runs each year for the cohort of new employees that recently graduated university. If you’re in Australia, about to graduate, and interested you should have a look here.

Saab works with a competition called Subs in Schools and a number of high schools around Adelaide. Subs in Schools consists of three divisions, the first is to design an interior space for a submarine, the second is to design, build, and pilot an ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle), and the third is to design, build, and pilot a model submarine. So every second week I was off to St. Peter’s Girls School with a couple of my colleagues to help our class of two interior design teams and two ROV teams.

This photo landed me in the 2018 Saab Annual Report but, personally, I like it because at first glance it looks like we are the instructors but everyone in this photo is learning in this moment 

The competition includes more than just the engineering and design. The teams had to document their approach to project management, develop branding and marketing, fundraise, and, of course, write up and present everything they did. Overall they learn a huge amount: practical electronics, a little requirements engineering (from studying the rules and regulations), project management, CAD, communication skills, and a whole bunch about what it takes to practically pull together a project (with limited time and budget).

What’s really exciting about our involvement is that it’ not just the students who learn a lot from the experience. Part of the reason Saab Australia supports the program is the fantastic opportunity for their university hires to practice leadership and mentoring, guiding the students, working with them to solve problems and being a sounding board for ideas. The final product is the result of the students’ own hard work but the mentors can also have a huge impact on both the students’ learning experience and their performance in the competition. 

This brought up the first conundrum of how much to guide the students and how much to let them struggle and puzzle through on their own. What would produce a better outcome? What was better for their learning experience? What was most important from this experience? This was just one of the challenging problems we faced that pushed us to think about what it means to be a guide and mentor and particularly what it meant to us personally. We learnt a lot as a group about all the ways, big and little, you can have an impact on who you’re working with. 
Personally, it was also an incredibly rewarding experience and not just because our teams did very well, all four being invited to the national finals. It was exciting to see them pull it together; part way through the year I was being reminded that high school students are often… cavalier, shall we say, about project management and deadlines and so I wasn’t convinced they would get something in the water. Seeing them use everything they had learnt to pull something together at almost the last minute, and something that was so successful, definitely made me a little proud. 

What I found most rewarding about a competition or programme like this is that it provides exposure to and understanding of possible STEM careers, allowing the students to make an informed decision about what they want to keep pursuing. It wasn’t about trying to trick students into pursuing engineering through flashy advertising and career promises, it was about letting a team get hands on with all aspects of a project and get a better feeling of what it might feel like to actually work in that environment.

Building and piloting mini-ROVs was a great way to get the students familiar with the concepts of the competition and encourage them to learn an important tenet of engineering, "always test early"

This leads to some wonderful moments. I remember being asked by one of the interior design teams about how big they needed to make the berths in the sleeping quarters they were designing. In some ways the answer could have been a boring “2 meters should do” but instead we got to have a conversation about the field of anthropometry and how, when you don’t have clearer information, NASA has fantastic public anthropometry reports that form your baseline. But it didn’t stop there, we also got to talk about combining that data with use-case modelling, which of course led to lying down on the classroom floor swinging our arms around and pretending to hold books in front of our faces.

The most touching memory I have is talking with a very successful student who was trying to reconcile her success and enjoyment of STEM subjects with a love and talent for art, design, and music. I didn’t have the answers for her but I could talk about what I knew of the field of Creative Coding (a term used to describe design/art work that is largely implemented through programming), tools like libcinder, and point her to a neat talk I had watched that gave an overview of Creative Coding generally and Cinder in particular. I have no idea what path she is currently pursuing and don’t know whether she ended up looking at anything we had talked about (high school students get busy) but I do know that she’ll get to make a decision with a little more information about the options available.

These programs are wonderful win-win situations providing the students a great learning opportunity and providing the mentors a space to practice their craft. Something about being visitors only on-site infrequently encourages you to be mindful and aware of your interactions in a way that you can forget to be with colleagues you see day-to-day. I’ve found it’s important to try and take this back to your normal role and get as much out of the experience as the students did.

If you are involved in or know of an interesting STEM outreach program, or have something you believe Saab should be involved with, get in touch with me here, I always love to hear about interesting programs!