‘No Subject is an island’ The Power of STEM

In this blog, I am going to share the work of a group of students aged 12 to 14 years who have used STEM work to challenge perceptions about sustainability.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and is a curriculum or way of educating through these four disciplines. In 2018, Art was added which changes the acronym to STEAM, easily confused with a locomotive. Art is a worthy companion for the already established term so, for the purpose of this article, let’s call it that. I have been teaching for 16 years and have taught seven subjects across a range of disciplines. I have never come across a trend or concept that motivates students quite like STEM, it is transformational and deserves a place at the heart of education everywhere. STEM resolves conflicts the traditional between subjects and focuses the learning on solving real world problems, not hypothetical ones. I tasked the STEM students I teach with the big problems we face when it comes to human impact on our planet, what they did blew me away!

Upcycling WETSUITS to repurpose into pencil cases

When it comes to our planet, we have some difficult decisions to make. In the opening paragraph of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, David Wallace warns ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’. Plastics grab the headlines and for good reason, but, plastics are just the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that is melting almost as fast as Amazon Prime delivery. If you scratch the surface, you’ll discover evidence of an increase temperatures, wildfires, erratic weather systems amidst a decline in world food stocks, pollinating insects and the very existence we have come to create for ourselves. If this seems shocking, it is, but there is hope and more importantly solutions. I have been fortunate to gain an insight into how we might tackle some of the problems identified through the eyes and minds of the students I teach, harnessing the full power of STEM.

The project had three main aims;

  1. To raise awareness of the amount of landfill pollutants there are and how long these products take to biodegrade
  1. To design and create new products out of waste products
  1. To research alternatives to neoprene on the market and promote these products.

It started with an idea

Inspired by Lynn from @the_upcycle_movement a team of four students have come up with an idea to reuse old wetsuits which are made of tough, durable neoprene and turn them into pencil cases, laptop bags, bottle holders and mouse mats.

Science – Neoprene once disposed of,  sits in landfill for 200 years and is resilient to biodegrading. The team examined how wetsuits are made and decided to repurpose them into products they can sell. The tough, durable nature of neoprene made it a challenge to work with. On the flipside, the longevity of neoprene justifies it’s existence beyond its original purpose and gives it a new life.

A post went out via social media asking for local surfers to donate their old used wetsuits, @sortedsurfshop helped promote the idea and the response was really positive. In total, 22 wetsuits were collected ready to be repurposed. Students had to create a prototype pencil case to learn about the properties and workability of the neoprene.

A date was set for production, dubbed ‘generation 1’ design.

Technology – The majority of the research was conducted online, looking at alternatives to neoprene which is created using oil making it reliant on fossil fuels in the production stage. Patagonia offer an ethical alternative product made from Yulex, a plant-based rubber. Ecoprine, whilst in early development is another promising concept. @sortedsurfshop helped by offering a local drop off point for old wetsuits. In total, 23 wetsuits were donated. A target of 20 pencil cases was set.

Engineering / Art: – A prototype pencil case was designed, dubbed ‘generation 1’. The resale value was set at £5 per pencil case with production scheduled for March 2019. Due to popular demand, all 20 ‘generation 1’ pencil cases were sold to pre-orders sparking more interest in the project. The team faced many challenges during the production stage which fell into three main categories:

  1. Due to the varying cuts and thickness of the wetsuits, students found it difficult to use all parts of the wetsuit. They found 3mm to be the most agreeable and adult sizes the most generous for templates and reuses.
  2. The sewing machine needles don’t always penetrate through the neoprene, particularly on thicker 5mm wetsuits.
  3. The odours from old wetsuits can be quite off-putting to the customer so wetsuit cleaners were applied to make them smell nicer. It helped that we stashed them next to Lush cosmetics products which made them smell better!

Mathematics: Profits generated from ‘generation 1’ will be used to fund ‘generation 2’ which will be improved and tweaked to include tags and some new experimental products. Please follow our journey @educational.hipsters or via our Facebook page which will be the platform for progress updates, pre-sales and news. Budgeting, forecasting, profit loss and gains were a central part of the planning and the learning.  

Images from generation 1 production ‘Handmade in Dorset’

The group will present the project at the South West Big Bang STEM competition on June 25th and are currently working on ‘generation 2’ product design, which include; mouse mats, bottle holders and fine-tuning the pencil case designs. The project themes in with three other STEM concepts which will be discussed in future blogs. The group are working towards their CREST Silver Award.

Thanks again to all local surfers who donated their wetsuits, Sorted Surf Shop, SurfSteps, Lynn from the Upcycle Movement and the Art / Textiles teachers from Shaftesbury School.

For more info on sustainable alternatives to neoprene check out Patagonia’s Yulex technology


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