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Spotlight On: A mission to Mars

Posted on: 11 Sep 2020

The latest instalment of the 'Spotlight On' series explores a STEM outreach programme led by St Mary's Junior School, Cambridge, where pupils joined their peers from Fulbourn Primary School for a mission to Mars.

As part of our wider programme of partnerships with other schools, St Mary’s is seeking to share its teaching expertise and resources with young people from the wider Cambridge area, in order to nurture children on their journey to becoming tomorrow's innovators. St Mary’s ignites a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics which stays with pupils way beyond their school days.


St Mary's has held a variety of STEM activity days with local schools over the last year. By developing innovative partnerships and working to support a variety of charities they aim to improve the lives of others and to equip students with the skills they need to become active, engaged citizens. By working collaboratively with others, all the pupils involved improve their communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills, all whilst honing their STEM talents and encouraging them to consider STEM-related careers in the future.


From age four and up, St Mary’s offers a ground-breaking approach to STEM, which engages girls in the exciting possibilities that science, technology, engineering and mathematics open up for their future. This includes computer science lessons, which enable girls to engage in a wide range of coding challenges and skills, alongside more traditional ICT learning. Curriculum highlights include:


  • Reception: sequences of instructions using BeeBots to navigate specific routes.
  • Years 1 and 2: creating animations and on-screen events using Scratch Junior.
  • Years 3 and 4: designing simple computer games using Scratch, plus Crumble programming using our Crumble 'Playground' equipment, including LEDs, switches, buzzers, light and touch sensors and motors.
  • Years 5 and 6: exploring flowchart programming and text-based coding using LOGO, HTML and Python, using real-world application.


Earlier this year, St Mary’s girls worked collaboratively with their peers at Fulbourn Primary School on two exciting workshop projects. The sessions were led by St Mary’s Year 5 class teachers, Mr Tom Ashford and Miss Eleanor Lowe, and our computer science co-ordinator, Mr Andrew Severy.


Workshop 1: Computer Science


The first workshop saw the girls working in inter-school teams, where they were tasked with programming CrumbleBot robots to explore the surface of Mars as part of an unmanned space exploration. They were given a three-part mission, which involved developing the computer code required to allow their CrumbleBot to follow the route marked out by a previous mission, in order to find a cave system. They then had to explore the cave system, find their way out, and return to the spacecraft using a searchlight beam.


Their code needed to work completely automatically, as they couldn't communicate with the CrumbleBot once it had left the spacecraft! In order to achieve this they had to understand and use monochrome, ultrasonic and light sensors; analogue and digital signals; variables; conditional statements; and nested loops.


Workshop 2 - STEM


In the STEM workshop, the girls focused on the return journey from Mars to Earth. They had to construct a catapult mechanism to launch the unmanned space capsule back into space on the correct trajectory, and a parachute to allow a controlled landing back on Earth.


Once completed, these had to be thoroughly tested and improved to try to land the capsule consistently on target. As well as developing their practical construction skills, this required an understanding of forces including gravity and air resistance, as well as the relationship between kinetic and potential energy.


Andrew Severy, computer science co-ordinator at St Mary's Junior School, said: "The girls from both schools worked incredibly hard and demonstrated high levels of perseverance, teamwork and enthusiasm. We hope that they have been inspired by exploring some of the real world applications of STEM subjects and can see their own potential for a possible future career in a STEM-related industry."


Matthew O’Reilly, Head of Juniors at St Mary’s added: “It is vital that we embed skills, such as coding, problem-solving and working as a team, into our curriculum, so we can prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future.”


Looking to the future, we hope to see more initiatives like the STEM outreach day, where budding scientists from St Mary’s and local state schools can come together to explore the sciences and their many different career opportunities.


Find out more about technology at St Mary’s Junior School.

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About St Mary's School, Cambridge

St Mary's School, Cambridge, is an independent day and boarding school for girls aged 4-11.