Offaly County Council Win Digital Information Award - Public Sector Magazine


Offaly County Council is shaping the county’s smart future with primary school children through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) using VEX IQ Robotics.

Earlier this year, Offaly County Council in partnership with the Department of Rural and Community Development and Cork Institute of Technology delivered an exciting new digital programme to 16 primary schools in the county. VEX Robotics is an exciting programme where primary school children from 5-12 years learn about STEM in an engaging way. They design, build, code and compete with their robot and it gives children as young as five years old their first opportunity to learn about engineering and robotics while having fun.

The VEX IQ Challenge game is played on a 4’x8’ rectangular field. Two robots compete in the Teamwork Challenge as an alliance in 60-second-long teamwork matches, working collaboratively to score points. Teams also compete in the Robot Skills Challenge where one robot takes the field to score as many points as possible. These matches consist of Driving Skills Matches, which will be entirely driver controlled, and Programming Skills Matches, which will be autonomous with limited human interaction.

The object of the game is to attain the highest score by scoring and stacking coloured Hubs in Building Zones, removing Bonus Hubs from the Hanging Structure and by Parking or Hanging on the Hanging Bar.

Going forward the Council will host and organise the “Offaly VEX IQ Championship” each year at Civic HQ in Áras an Chontae where students, teachers, parents, industry and elected members will be invited to attend. The overall winner each year will have the opportunity to represent Offaly in the national VEX IQ finals in Cork. Schools will also get an opportunity to visit industries and companies in the midlands where robotics are used. This year we hosted the competition in May with over 300 primary school students taking part. There were guest judges from some of Offaly’s award winning engineering companies such as Grant Engineering, Romequip and EMSS involved, all of whom use robotics in their businesses.

Primary school is the most formative time in a young student’s life and with the VEX Robotics Competition, students are tasked with designing and building a robot to play against other schools in a game-based challenge. “The best way to instil a lifelong interest in the areas of STEM is to provide a fun, engaging and hands-on opportunity for students to explore and experience for themselves,” explains Head of Information Technology & Broadband/Digital Officer, Ray Bell. “Classroom STEM concepts are put to the test as students learn lifelong skills in teamwork, leadership, communications and more. It is great to see everyone bringing their STEM skills to life by designing and building robots to play against each other,” he said.

The competition is inclusive, with most teams consisting of full primary classes, giving every student early exposure to technology. Schools involved had to ensure that girls and boys were equally represented on the school teams. “This is key to building the pipeline of talent to continue Ireland’s thriving technology industry,” stresses Bell.

Providing STEM Education of the highest quality is essential if Ireland is to deliver on its ambitions to be a hub of technological creativity and an innovation leader. ‘Innovation 2020’, Ireland’s strategy for Research and Development, Science and Technology, highlights the critical importance of excellence in STEM Education to ensure the continuous development of a pipeline of talent to support both Foreign Direct Investment and an active ecosystem for indigenous start-ups. This programme will drive Offaly’s economic ambitions, support innovation and provide the foundations for future prosperity in the county.

“Offaly County Council believes that this programme is needed to ensure today’s students are qualified for the jobs of tomorrow,” explains Bell. “The new global economy requires a robust workforce, flush with knowhow in STEM subjects. Few factors are more important to Ireland’s future competitiveness and innovation than education. This programme is an ideal introduction to students who we hope will drive Offaly’s economic ambitions, support innovation and provide the foundations for future prosperity in the county.”

Martina Needham, Senior Executive Librarian with Offaly County Council, added; “Primary school students are at the perfect age to begin their STEM education and this project gives them an early opportunity to hone their teamwork, creativity and analytical skills. This programme really demonstrated the interest amongst young people to engage with STEM at the earliest opportunity with over 300 students involved from across the county. Schools showcased their creativity and innovation and credit has to go to the students and their teachers. The creativity on display at the Offaly championship proves we have talented future engineers and developers in the county.”

The Offaly initiative enables students to design, create & engineer solutions for identified problems, in this case the VEX IQ Challenge Game. According to Head of IT, Ray Bell, STEM education is a key objective for Offaly County Council. VEX Robotics is just one of a number of exciting initiatives Offaly County Council is supporting to drive STEM education, research and jobs. He cites Birr in County Offaly as home to I-LOFAR, the new radio telescope. This Irish station is part of a €150m European project and once again puts Offaly at the forefront of science and discovery. In addition, Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre provides STEM training to school children and visitors, while SFI-funded space camps are conducted in the new I-LOFAR Education Centre and on an outreach basis to teachers and school children in the Midlands region. Meanwhile, Offaly County Council is also working on a new initiative called STREAM Creative Suite which will utilise I-LOFAR’s big data to provide unique opportunities for researchers and businesses.

The STEM VEX project in Offaly is hugely impressive and likely to be taken up by many other councils. Offaly County Council plans to extend the programme to additional primary schools at the start of the new school year and to introduce the more advanced VEX EDR Programme to secondary schools in the county.

Offaly County Council are to be commended for their innovative and proactive approach. They are future proofing the county and its students in an exciting and engaging way. This project will undoubtedly ensure that today’s students are qualified for the jobs of tomorrow.