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Tim Peake describing wearing a spacesuit at our STEM event

Our live webinar for schoolkids with world-famous astronaut Tim Peake

Our Project Development Manager Neil Brown was determined not to disappoint the hundreds of school children who had been looking forward to their audience with the astronaut Major Tim Peake as part of DataFest20, so he organised a virtual event with the inspiring astronaut instead.

Despite everyone’s disappointment around the understandable cancellation of DataFest20, due to the national COVID-19 restrictions, it was still something that everyone could move on from; refunds for tickets could be given, planning for 2021 could start etc. However, one part of that cancellation of DataFest20 was particularly sad for everyone, both at The Data Lab and within our wider community: our two STEM events for school kids in Aberdeen & Edinburgh. There was such an amazing buzz of excitement about the fact that we’d been able to secure the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake, to do two talks at those STEM events for around 600 school children, so the subsequent huge disappointment of the cancellation was particularly difficult to deal with.

As part of those two events we ran a competition for schools – P5 & P6 pupils for the Edinburgh/Central area event and S1 & S2 pupils for the Aberdeen/North event – and we asked them to invent a potential solution to a climate change or environmental issue facing the world, present some facts & figures and tell us how the use of data & AI could help. They were asked to present their findings in teams of up to 5 pupils in a 3 minute video and we told them to think big! Well, we were totally blown away by the response we received, both in terms of the number of entries (90 videos!) and the quality of the ideas that were presented.

We were amazed to receive 90 video entries to our competition, presenting really high quality ideas

We had solutions presented using data, AI, machine learning, virtual reality, IoT, mobile apps, 3D printing and more. Solutions ranged from drones flying around our cities picking up litter, ocean-borne vessels designed to gather discarded plastics for recycling, mobile apps for lift shares amongst school pupils……the ideas truly were outstanding. Above all though, it was clear that schools & teachers really got their pupils thinking about how data & AI can be used, raising awareness on the fact that we will all continue to maximise the value from data and will be living very much in a data-powered future.

Our judging panel (eventually!) managed to narrow down the winners: two teams for the Aberdeen/North event (Space Club at Kemnay Academy and S1 pupils at Mintlaw Academy) and two teams for the Edinburgh/Central event (the DataKirk Club in Edinburgh and P6 pupils at Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools). Their prize? To carry out a live Q&A with Major Tim Peake on stage at their respective events. I think it’s fair to say that some of the parents & teachers were as excited about it as the pupils!

We were delighted when Tim Peake agreed to attend a virtual event so the winners could ask their questions

And then COVID-19 came along and smashed all the kids’ excitement to space dust. We were all absolutely gutted for the kids, particularly the competition winners who had already began preparing their questions for a real-life astronaut who had spent 6 months in space aboard the International Space Station. Once the dust had settled on all the work that went into now undoing all the DataFest arrangements, we began looking at ways that we could still give the winners a prize of some sort. Some Data Lab goody bags were just never going to cut it as an alternative to speaking to an astronaut! Thankfully our team at The Data Lab continued to work behind the scenes to secure Tim Peake some other way and we’re extremely grateful that he agreed to attend a virtual event with our winners, plus all the other school pupils that entered the competition, and more.

Tim answered questions carefully with a lot of thought and detail

It was surprising how much planning was needed to arrange a virtual event of that nature and to have the winning teams invited onto a ‘virtual panel’ via a Zoom-based platform, then a limited capacity for other school pupils to log on and watch the live stream. Arrangements needs to be made via school teachers, permissions sought from parents, tests on broadband connections, microphones & video cameras and then briefings on the format of the event etc. But thankfully it all passed off very smoothly indeed and the children were absolutely over the moon(!) with the level of detail that Tim Peake went into when answering their extremely good questions about his time in space, his view on extra-terrestrial life, getting into a space suit, what he studied at school etc.

Online events bring lots of challenges – we’re all learning that in these times

Some extremely valuable lessons were learned in the planning of such event, particularly for an audience of that nature, and we’re hopeful that those lessons can be put to good use in the coming months. Let’s face it, virtual events like this are likely to be around for the foreseeable future under the current circumstances facing us all.

A massive thank you is due to Major Tim Peake for agreeing to do the alternative event for the school pupils, and for engaging so well with them all. A further thank you is also required for all the schools, teachers, staff & parents too, as without their support events & competitions like that just simply can’t be a success.

Tim provided some really useful information on how pupils could access valuable STEM resources at while children are currently in a home schooling environment, which also sit well alongside The Data Lab’s own school resources on data & AI.



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