The Mars robot summer camp 2021 in Neuss

Career Orientation on Mars: Finding a career in the STEM field is proving to be a challenge for many students. In order to counteract these difficulties, zdi has been successfully offering a wide variety of courses and events for years to make MINT more interesting and attractive. In this feature, we will tell you exactly what such a course looks like and what is done there.

A thin plume of smoke rises from one of the workplaces. "Done," Paula says more to herself than to her teammates as she carefully puts down the soldering iron.

While Kai waits a few meters away for the 3D printer to spit out the first components, he keeps brushing his long hair away from his face. All that can be heard from Kilian, who is programming motion sequences in the next room, is a typing noise.

It's a warm Thursday at the Käthe-Kollwitz comprehensive school in Grevenbroich. It's the summer holidays, so the playgrounds are quiet and the school buildings are empty. At least almost empty. In the rooms of the upper school, 15 pupils from classes 7 to 12 work on their creations at the Mars robot summer camp of the zdi center Rhein-Kreis Neuss. The goal: to build a Mars robot that will win the final day of the competition at the end of September against the robots from the comprehensive school in Erft.

The Mars robot is ready for the first test run.

Career orientation with zdi-BSO-MINT

Like Paula, Kai and Kilian, more than 24.000 young people can experience mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology up close every year in zdi-BSO-MINT courses. Here you can try things that are not possible in normal school life or that are neglected. This is not only fun, it also helps them to answer the question to which around 30% of students shortly before graduating still have no answer: "What do I want to be when I grow up?" In which direction do I want to go?”

At the same time, traditional career guidance services are little used. Only every fourth student seeks advice and even fewer find the offers really helpful. It is all the more important to give young people space to discover and further develop their interests. It is just as important that the students find out for themselves which professional fields are interesting for them and in which they cannot imagine working at all.

This is exactly what they can do in offers that are intensified by the support program Bprofessional and SstudyOorientation, short: zdi-BSO-MINT, to be made possible. Through cooperation with universities, research institutes and companies, students in grades 7 to 13 get detailed insights into MINT training and study programs and can test out job profiles for themselves. In 2020, despite the current Corona situation, more than 1.800 BSO courses took place. The sponsors of the funding program are the NRW regional directorate of the Federal Employment Agency and the NRW Ministry of Culture and Science.

"zdi offers young people spaces to experiment and experience," explains Klaus Kaiser, the parliamentary state secretary responsible for zdi in the NRW Ministry of Science. “The zdi networks arouse curiosity about MINT areas in a special way. The close cooperation with partners from universities, companies and municipalities helps to realize so many different courses. This is unique in Germany and serves as a role model.”

Pupils work on the electronics of the Mars robot.

There is a shortage of skilled workers – especially in the STEM field

"The yellow lamp shines more weakly than the others, we might have to re-solder it again," Paula considers. "Something's not right with the wheels either," Kai replies. While the three of them rack their brains for possible solutions, Ferdinand Albert takes a critical look at the code that Kilian programmed to master the course. Together with his father Stefan Albert, the students' physics teacher, and the technology teacher Peter Conens, he oversees the summer camp. He himself is studying computer science, mathematics and music to become a teacher. Ulrich Thomas, managing director of suThom GmbH and organizer of the summer camp, is a retired technology teacher, entrepreneur and direct contact person for the participants. He has repeatedly accompanied zdi courses since 2012.

Like him, partners from business, science and schools support the zdi networks and zdi student laboratories throughout NRW. A win-win situation for everyone involved. Some can experience what MINT means in practice and get to know new professional fields. The others have the opportunity to present themselves and their training or study offers and come into direct contact with potential MINT young people. This is exactly what is being desperately sought in all sectors of the economy.

STEM companies in particular complain about a shortage of skilled workers. According to a forecast by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, there will be a shortage of around 2031 MINT specialists in Germany by 288.000. More than 65% of all German companies had problems filling IT positions in 2020. In North Rhine-Westphalia there is a lack of skilled workers and specialists, especially in the fields of energy and electrical engineering.

"The MINT disciplines are becoming increasingly important in all areas of life," explains Torsten Withake, head of the NRW regional office of the Federal Employment Agency. "It is therefore important to us to give young people the opportunity to try out these subjects early on, perhaps to discover their own STEM talents and to get to know possible perspectives for a professional future. This is also an important contribution to securing skilled workers in NRW.” 

Do something with MINT!

The young people at the Mars robot summer camp have no idea of ​​the high expectations that are placed on them as young STEM students. For them, the main focus is on having fun building, tinkering and experimenting. For many of the girls, one area of ​​the course is particularly exciting: “Many of us are more design-savvy. When we heard about the possibility of combining design with the construction of a robot, we signed up straight away,” recalls Laura.

Design, art and culture, psychology, linguistics and music - all disciplines that at first glance do not appear to be associated with STEM. And yet it takes designers to make smartphones user-friendly, psychologists to improve human-machine interaction, and artists to bring video game characters to life. Above all, this interdisciplinary combination creates one thing: to get young people interested in MINT who previously could not imagine starting a course in the MINT field. It is not for nothing that zdi-BSO-MINT courses, in which practice and not theory is the focus, have had a proportion of 45% girls for years.

Since the beginning of 2021, zdi has been specifically promoting the connection between MINT and other, not apparently related subject areas with an expansion of the zdi-BSO-MINT modules. Under the motto "MINTplus" there is additional funding for pilot projects in five interdisciplinary areas. Courses in hospitals, orthopedic and prosthesis workshops or nursing schools are intended to give participants an insight into medicine and nursing professions. Through offers in which the participants design and implement STEM courses for younger students, the next generation of STEM teachers is to be encouraged and at the same time a general interest in STEM is to be aroused.

The students design 3D print templates.

Projects that enable STEM education for students with learning difficulties or with language barriers are also supported. A special focus of MINTplus is the area of ​​art and culture. Creativity should be linked here with digitization and production technology or with craftsmanship. For example, in a cosplay course, where star warrior costumes are sewn and lightsabers are built.

Robot competition: This is how the final works

Final day: Summer temperatures prevail. A light breeze is blowing at the comprehensive school on the Erft. Paula, Kai and Killian look a little nervous. Will all the work they put into the robot pay off?

There are still a few hours until the official start of the competition. The three use the time and go through the course in detail with their robot. What works without problems and which parts are particularly difficult to navigate? Where does the robot have to drive slowly and precisely and where can you get a few seconds? In total, the teams have to master two such courses. The larger of the two was set up in a hall. There the robot has to overcome various obstacles such as seesaws and sloping floors. The second course is outside the hall. Here the teams have to drive past cones and other obstacles together with their robot.

Teamwork is called for, because the obstacles in the course are not the only thing that makes it difficult for the students to win. The pilots who control the robot only see the image from the built-in camera in the robot. Only the co-pilot may be on the course to assist the pilot in mastering the obstacles.

Three runs per course, three chances to get the best time - Paula, Kai and Kilian don't have more attempts before the winners are announced. The participants are visibly excited under the scrutiny of the jury, which penalizes every missed or touched obstacle. It's exciting, the two schools are going head-to-head until the end.

In the end, all the preparation was unfortunately not enough. The comprehensive school at the Erft took first place. The Käthe Kollwitz comprehensive school around Paula, Killian and Kai were only a few seconds slower. Still, they are not disappointed. "The robot ran well and smoothly, there were no problems and nothing broke either," reports Kai with a smile. And the enthusiasm is so great that the trio want to stay involved with the MINT topic in the future.

The outdoor course presents the teams with new challenges.

Further information

All information about the funding program can be found here here.

You can find upcoming zdi-BSO-MINT courses on the STEM community.

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