Virtual reality in the classroom

School tech, popcorn robots, homeless drones and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Government calls on industry to bring cutting-edge tech into teaching

There are several different angles to this. There are currently many companies who support STEM activities with the view of encouraging children into engineering and technology. These tend to be project based, albeit on a rolling basis in the best examples, and done well can provide our sector with a well-deserved image boost in the eyes of the next generation. It’s an important function for industry to play if the UK is going to address its shortage of engineers.

What I understand from this proposal is going one step further than that, with industry actually getting involved in the core education process rather than the shiny bits on the surface. To a limited extent this is already happening. I believe if a school or university asks the right CAD company, for example, it will be entitled to free use of software. Training on a specific platform obviously helps such a company in the future when those fledgling engineers turn into practising engineers with a chequebook to wave about.

However, there are problems with this. Granting free software licences is a lot less expensive to technology companies than subsidising hardware. And even if this were not a problem, putting the education system into the hands of a single technology provider sends a bit of a chill down my spine. Anyone who has been seduced into the world of Apple, which last week became the first trillion-dollar company, knows that Apple isn’t satisfied with the user using a single device; so integrated is its environment, it almost requires you to make it your sole technology provider. Microsoft would like the same. Is that something we want in our schools? Tying our education system into a single company?

And yet it surely has to happen that children are educated for the world that they are going to live and work in, rather than the world that previous generations grew up in. The rate of change has left the education system behind – are we still teaching the skills and knowledge that are important? Knowledge used to be vital, but now everyone has it just a few thumb movements away on their smartphone. Knowledge has become less important, but how you use it has become the differentiator in a student’s aptitude. Equally with skills. The ability to understand advanced mathematics or write fluently is just not relevant to the majority of students – as long as the opportunity is still there for those who do have an interest in such things to pursue them and flourish.

So I think there’s a massive opportunity to change the way in which children are taught that aligns it more closely with the real world of today. A world where good communication is vital and bad communication is everywhere – and technology is at the heart of it. But I would like to see this as a government-led initiative with technology providers contributing, rather than technology providers being in charge.

Being a teacher has been tough over recent decades. Constant changing of boundaries and objectives, curriculums all over the place and increased interference from all sorts of external bodies have made it difficult for teachers to concentrate doing their best for each of their individual charges. Bringing in new rafts of technology, which teachers will need to be trained in, could be the latest step in that process of testing limits of what teachers can take so, if it were to happen, I think schools would need to have a proper budget for IT support to ensure that technical problems are not the domain of teachers. This sort of technical support is not at the glamorous end when it comes to getting the technology giants investing in schools; IT budgets would need public money behind them.

Most importantly, teachers are so bogged down in covering their backs administratively that productive teaching time is lost. Surely technology could be introduced into the classroom that tied together testing, reports, identifying problems etc, to take some of these tasks away from the teacher.

In short, getting technology giants involved makes a good soundbite, but realistically I think it needs to be driven from the public sector and that could open up the door for technology companies to bring their inspiration and financial backing to the process. Another way that technology companies could contribute to the education system, of course, is to pay the taxes that they should, creating a bigger pot for the treasury to dish out.

Finally, I did smile at the line in the concluding paragraph of this article that “when people recall their own school days they remember teachers, not computers or smartboards”. Now for all that would regard me as an old duffer, it is really astonishing how the classroom environment has changed in a relatively short amount of time. In my school days there were no computers or smartboards. We were even allowed to call a blackboard a blackboard, rather than a chalkboard – and it was only as smart as the teacher standing in front of it.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Engineers power simple robots with popcorn

So researchers at Cornell University have powered simple robots using the energy from popcorn kernels. People from Cornell, experimenting with kernels. Cornell. Kernel. Ha! Anyway, the popcorn kernel gets hot and popped, gets supersized, and powers the robot. The image slightly resembles the evil sky thingy from ‘Stranger Things’, only a lot less terrifying. And more tasty looking.

One of the professors says they want to make minimalist robots that can accomplish awesome things when deployed. Imagine an army of delicious popcorn robots picking up rubbish from the cinema. How appropriate. What energy-producing food stuff will they think of next? Pop Tarts?

Mark Ballard, associate editor

Drones used to locate rough sleepers in remote, rural areas

In what looks at first like a case of a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut, homeless charity workers in Lincoln have started using a drone to hunt homeless people in wilderness parts of Lincolnshire. Many rough sleepers seek quiet corners of respite from painful lives in faraway places. The last thing they want to learn when they get there, from the drone of rotor blades seeping over their makeshift refuge in the sand dunes, is that you can run but you can’t hide.

This is a dilemma that has concerned social engineers in recent years: how do you help reintegrate people in society when often they are trying to get as far away from it as they can? But the case of the hobo-hunting drone is just an example of the way innovation works; people using their initiative and the tools they have to hand to solve immediate problems.

Mark Simms, chief executive of homeless charity P3, bought a £600 drone with his own cash to stop outreach workers spending so much time scouring the countryside for people who were known to have disappeared into it. You cant stop a good do-gooder with a good way to do good.

Nor would you necessarily want to. Yet attempts at engineering large-scale solutions to this long-standing problem appear to be failing. The do-gooding aim is ultimately to reintegrate lost people into society. The process starts when an outreach worker plucks someone off the streets or out of the woods.

That work, according to a 2015 study by the homeless charity Crisis, is often undermined by weak and inconsistent systems to support people well enough so they do actually become reconciled with society once they are picked up.

A casual reading of the report suggests that homeless charities would often bung people in bedsits and leave them to it. Their reintegration would fail. Because theirs was not a housing problem. Rough sleeping was a symptom.

A survey at the time found half of rough sleepers had a mental illness. Almost half again suffered from the specific illness of alcoholism. A third had ‘drug problems. Many slept rough because they had been so desperate to escape abuse and violence that they fled town even though they would have no means of supporting themselves when they got elsewhere. Helping people out of homelessness by bunging them in a bedsit can be like putting people with cardiovascular disease in a hospital bed and telling them to heal themselves. Local authorities dont have the means, the resources, nor, perhaps, the nous to heal them.

Some places become popular destinations for rough sleepers. Local authorities governing those places dont want to pick up everyone elses pieces. They try to get the authorities where they came from to take them back. Those authorities dont want them, or havent designed systems adequate to help them. Authorities, nevertheless, reached a consensus that people should be refused official help in all places but from where they came.

Outreach workers must, meanwhile, try to persuade people who dont want to be reintegrated, to concede to be reintegrated. They often find themselves in a Mexican stand-off with rough sleepers, Crisis reported, trying to persuade them to go back where they came from. Yet when outreach becomes coercive, it doubles the resolve of some homeless people that they must ‘fight the system.

Homelessness has meanwhile rocketed. Local authorities recorded a 42 per cent rise in rough sleepers between 2014 and 2016, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank.

It has become not uncommon to see homeless people living in tents in corners and pockets of green spaces in small towns; more evidence of modest innovation. IPPR says homeless people in rural communities pitch tents too, and bed down in barns, outhouses and cars.

It can be hard to help them, reckons the IPPR, because they are dispersed in isolated places over large distances in places with limited transport. Outreach workers are not usually the best resourced. All those dealing with the issue are under-resourced. That is why the recovery programmes are so partial. The easy work is largely covered. Now more so.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Book review: ‘Skyscraper’ by Dan Cruickshank

I have the temerity to pick my own review, only due to interesting feedback I received from a frequent correspondent, IET member Peter Brooks of Palm Bay, Florida, USA. In an email, he referred to the structural problems that the iconic Chicago ‘skyscraper’ (16 stories were sufficient to earn this description when it was built in 1895) known as the Reliance Building – which is Cruickshank’s main focus - has allegedly been experiencing for decades. Mr Brooks also mentioned a recent TV programme from the CBS news channel on the Millennium Tower in San Francisco “which is sinking and leaning, due to not being attached to bedrock”.

He then wondered whether the Shard in London, which also appears not to be built on bedrock and whose foundation “goes through clay to compacted sands, is also sinking or if anyone is even looking”. He expressed his concerns over the increasing use in high-rise buildings of “external cladding (200 buildings and counting) that is not fireproof, which contributed to the Grenfell Tower Fire”.

If anyone would like to respond to Mr Brooks to allay (or to confirm) his concerns, please send your emails to and I will forward them to him promptly.

Rail firms’ data-sharing proposals to enable better UK travel apps

This is all very good, of course, and passengers should certainly be enjoying “access to enhanced information such as service updates, seat availability, toilet facilities and catering,” but I can’t help thinking that the government’s much-publicised strategic vision for rail, which according to the Department for Transport is “to offer world-class services supported by outstanding customer care and value for money”, lacks one essential component – trains!

Yes, all those multiple British trains – up to 500, according to some sources – that get cancelled every single day and the truly countless numbers that are hopelessly and near-permanently delayed. If that does not change and the priorities are not sorted, then in the near future British Rail may end up successfully running the network with wonderful ‘travel apps’, amazing ‘toilet facilities’ and no-less-impressive ‘catering’, yet with no trains – the situation which, if anything, will hugely facilitate ‘service updates’!

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

BBC to stage First World War-inspired Proms performance in VR

The BBC announced this week that it would be taking another stab at modernising the Proms, this time by offering a virtual-reality film during the festivities. This film is inspired by postcards exchanged between the trenches and the soldiers’ family homes during the war, and is set to a (probably) heart-rending original score. I think reconstructing history (also demonstrated this week with Japanese high-school students creating a VR film about the destruction of Hiroshima) is one of the most worthy uses of VR – long may these efforts continue.

What really caught my attention about this story was the detail that it will be hosted in Metric, the Imperial College Union nightclub. Metric is the most dim, grim, grimy, slimy, sticky-floored, sticky-walled, probably sticky-ceilinged space you can imagine. It’s that nightmarish place that students who smugly talk about how they hate clubbing imagine with a shudder as they curl into a blanket with a cup of cocoa at 11pm on a Friday night. It’s where student events are held when the organisers can’t find any other habitable, licensed space to host them. It’s a place of such abject horror and despair that any self-respecting cockroach would decline to nest in its walls. Once I did drop splits in Metric and had to throw away the tights I was wearing, concerned that they may contaminate the rest of the clothing with which I laundered them. It is, in the wise words of a friend, a “perfectly good venue, provided that you do not use the standard definitions of ‘perfect’ or ‘good’”.

I think this choice of venue is a good thing. First, because the smell and over-powering sense of misery present in Metric will provide an appropriate background for a VR film about trench warfare. Secondly, because it sets a precedent for using VR to pretend to be somewhere else when you’re in a nightclub. If Metric could keep a few pairs of VR headsets handy, loaded with films of picnics in the Lake District or visits to petting zoos – rather than films depicting real human tragedy – that could be its redemption.

With all sincerity: there are plenty of places we have to go and things we have to do that make us feel we’d rather be anywhere else. Hospital visits for MRI scans, dental appointments, long flights (for those with fear of flying). An entirely worthy use of VR would be to transport people elsewhere when they are forced to stay in spaces that they find unsettling, frightening or disgusting. Like Metric.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Broadband internet access linked to sleep deprivation, study finds

Who’d have thought it? Lots of people who have good quality internet access at home are losing out on sleep, scientists in Germany reckon, because they can’t compensate for the additional time they spend online last thing at night by staying in bed in the morning.

I’d have ventured the same theory based solely on my personal experience of trying to rouse various family members who I know were hammering the broadband long after I retired the previous evening. You might ask why it’s a problem, but anyone in the teaching profession will have stories about students unashamed to admit they’re finding it hard to stay awake because they were immersed in online games deep into the small hours. At work, being up late on Facebook has become an excuse for the sort of failure to concentrate that might in pre-internet times have been attributed to a hangover.

It’s all very well identifying this effect, but what’s the solution? One suggestion I’d make to ISPs and router manufacturers won’t be popular, but it’s that they make it easier for the responsible adult who controls a home’s internet access to discretely throttle access speeds at different times of day. I’ve looked at this closely enough to be aware that I can deny specific devices access at particular hours, but as far as I can see there’s no way of gradually slowing things down as the evening progresses until midnight comes and everyone’s discovering what dial-up internet was like in the 1990s, gives up and goes to bed. There would still be grumbling unless I could convincingly blame it on ‘network issues’, but less chance of me being assailed by a gang of millennials armed with blazing torches and pitchforks.

Try telling them that when you were their age entertainment was limited to three TV channels that all closed down at midnight, and you had to get up and walk over to the set to switch between them or turn off. They just won’t believe you.

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