Pupils from the four secondary schools across the Outer Hebrides will be gathering at Sir E Scott in Harris tomorrow (Wednesday, January 30) to take part in an international competition about building and programming Lego robots.

A fifth school, from the Isle of Arran, will also be taking part remotely.

The Outer Hebrides STEM competition day is part of this year’s ‘First Lego League’ tournament and the islands’ participation has been made possible by a grant of £2,000 from community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust.

Without the funding from Point and Sandwick Trust, it would have been too expensive to bring all the school teams together in one place, due to the costs of travel and accommodation. The teams will be from Sgoil Lionacleit in Benbecula, Castlebay in Barra, the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway and Sir E Scott School in Tarbert itself.

Roddy Ferguson, head of technology at Lews Castle College UHI, is one of the main organisers of the Outer Hebrides tournament, which is part of a “worldwide competition to try to encourage more young people to engage in STEM activities”.

The STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The First Lego League tournament is held every year, with a different theme each year. The theme for 2019 is space – the ‘Into Orbit’ challenge – and the four schools have been working on the project for some time, with the competition day being the culmination of that work.

Roddy said: “This is basically a team exercise where they have to build and program a Mindstorm Lego Robot to carry out certain tasks. The competition is the culmination of all the work they’ve done in building their robot and getting it to perform all these tasks.”

As well as being tested on their robots, the teams will also have to deliver a couple of presentations about their teamwork and the core values of the First Lego League – discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

The robot challenge itself will involve placing the robot on a table, among an array of artefacts, and programming it to complete a series of tasks in relation to these artefacts.

Local Into Orbit challenges will be taking place all over the country and the winners from the island heat will then go through to the next stage.

Roddy said: “It’s been going for a few years but this is the first time it’s been done seriously in Scotland and the first time it’s been done in the Western Isles. Ours is particularly unique because of our geography. We have to get teams across bits of water, staying in accommodation and so forth.”

The logistics make it more ‘tricky” to host an inter-schools competition in the islands than on the mainland, which was why the financial support from Point and Sandwick Trust was critical.

Donald John MacSween, Point and Sandwick Trust general manager, said: “Point and Sandwick Trust are especially pleased to sponsor this competition involving schools teams from across the Western Isles, and we hope that the teams of pupils participating, and all their classmates, will be inspired to become the next generation of home-grown scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians and entrepreneurs, located in the islands, developing our abundant renewable energy and other resources for the benefit of their community.

“PST now have strong links with Lews Castle College UHI, and we will continue to develop these links in the future. It is also particularly pleasing to have this connection with the Lego brand – an ethical company with strong social values whose products have entertained and inspired generations of youngsters.

“I am really looking forward to the competition and congratulations to Roddy Ferguson at the college for overcoming all the logistical challenges and giving the Western Isles a chance to compete”

The competition will begin at 10.30am and finish around 2pm. It will not be open to the public.

It will also be taking place virtually as well as physically, with both competitors and judges dialling in from elsewhere.

As well as the team coming in remotely from the Isle of Arran, half the judging panel will also be taking part remotely – which has been possible by networking cameras and technical support from Lews Castle College.

Two of the judges will be from Point and Sandwick Trust – board member Andrew Mackenzie, himself a lecturer at Lews Castle College, and general manager Donald John MacSween.

The remote judges will be from the Energy Skills Partnership, which also supplied some of the equipment. The Institution of Engineering and Technology is another partner, having also provided money towards equipment.

Any children aged between nine and 16 are eligible to take part in the competition and teams can have two to 10 members, with six being the average number in the islands teams.

Roddy said: “In terms of STEM activities, they are doing the coding and programming. They’re having to physically build the robot and there’s the teamwork element of it, which is an important activity. There are no restrictions on how they design the robot – it’s wherever their imagination can take them.”

He said the money from The Institution of Engineering and Technology had “more or less allowed us to buy the equipment but we wouldn’t have been able to host it if we hadn’t had the funding from Point and Sandwick Trust because getting them together for the competition day is costly.

“The grant from Point and Sandwick Trust enabled us to host the competition by providing transport and accommodation costs and other costs related to the equipment needed.”

And now that the schools have the equipment, he said, they will hopefully be able to run the competition as an annual event.

“At the end of the day, it’s about getting kids involved in STEM activities but it’s about having fun too. Having fun is important as well as getting them involved in this type of activities.”


Photograph: A First Lego League robot display, set up in Lews Castle College UHI, ahead of the competition in Sir E Scott. Picture by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos