Ben Laws returns to Bede’s for the Galactic Challenge
On an early morning in January, Bede's Senior School welcomed over 80 eager Year 6, 7 and 8 pupils from schools across the South East for our annual Galactic Challenge.
After being placed into four teams (Solaris Flight Systems, Columbus Aviation, Astrodyne Delta and Infinity Aerospace), the pupils were given their brief: the year was 2087, and their task was to design an initial settlement for 400 inhabitants in lava tubes below the planet of Mars. Each team presented their proposal to a judging panel from the Space Science and Engineering Foundation that afternoon, and after a close deliberation, Infinity Aerospace was awarded the overall winner.
We caught up with Bede’s alumnus, Ben Laws (Camberlot House, 2014-2016), at the event to discuss his involvement in the project, what makes the Galactic Challenge so special, and his time at Bede’s.
What are you up to now?
I’m in my second year at Imperial College London, studying Chemical Engineering, and am also Operating Chairman for the Galactic Challenge. It’s a lot of work, but I’m very happy – Imperial is the right place for me to be.
What makes Chemical Engineering such an interesting subject to study?
Chemical engineering is everywhere you look – it has a huge range of applications and impact on people’s lives. The job prospects are equally wide ranging, from finance and business, to raw chemical engineering and project management.
At Bede’s, I studied Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and Chemistry at A Level, and have always been naturally drawn to these subjects. I enjoy working through problems; the logical process of developing a solution suits how my brain works.
How did the idea for the Galactic Challenge arise?
Being involved in the UK Space Design Competition at Bede’s when I was 16 years old was very empowering. It was the first time I had worked on an open-ended project on this scale, and from there I was hooked. After this, I approached Bill Richards [Bede’s Maths Teacher and current Galactic Challenge Vice Chairman] about putting together an event for younger children, and we launched the first Galactic Challenge at Bede’s in January 2016.
Ben (far left) with Bill Richards and his teammates at the UK Space Design Competition Final in 2015
The event has grown quite significantly over the past few years…
It really has! We had 50 pupils attend the first event, which has risen to more than 80 children from nine schools this year. We have also seen five other organisations host their own Galactic Challenges, including Swansea University, Imperial College and Westminster Academy, and are currently working with several more schools who would like to get involved.
Our aim is to keep growing and refining our flagship event at Bede’s, and use this core structure to build a national framework for other schools to host their own Galactic Challenge events. We are currently creating a resource pack (including templates, advice and materials) that schools will be able to use and adapt for their own events, and hope to encourage as many organisations as possible to get involved in the project.
Why is the Galactic Challenge such an important event for children to take part in?
It opens their eyes to what STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] really is. Although valuable, what pupils learn in the classroom is only a tiny part of what is out there. As well as exploring the academic side, the children work on a range of skills such as team building, project management and presenting. It’s not about winning or losing, or studying what is on the syllabus for an exam – it’s much bigger than that. What the challenge does is push children out of their comfort zones, and allow them to explore their creativity without limits.
Participants at the 2018 Galactic Challenge
How are the teams organised?
We deliberately place children from different schools in the same team, so that they have to work with pupils they haven’t met before. Each team comprises children of different ages, backgrounds and interests, with some wanting to go onto study Maths and Science, and others more interested in pursuing English, Drama or Art.
We have found that this approach really works. When the children are working together on their proposals, you can’t tell which pupil is from which school – they all collaborate remarkably well, and every child holds their own. As well as developing communication skills, this example of teamwork and equal opportunity sets a good example for the future.
We also have volunteers from the host school or university working with the teams on the day. They don’t give any answers to specific science questions or influence the proposal ideas – they are there in a pastoral capacity to make sure that all of the children are involved and working well in groups. This also gives the volunteers an opportunity to gain experience in leadership and develop their own skills.
Participants at the 2018 Galactic Challenge
How does it feel being back at Bede’s for the day?
It’s lovely! I’ve bumped into a few people I know, and I’m going to try and find time to visit my old boarding house later on.
What was it like to be a full boarder?
It was fantastic living in Cambo – there was always someone to talk to, even when campus was quiet on a Sunday. Boarding is nowhere near as scary as some people may think; it had a warm, friendly and encouraging atmosphere. It was a nice place to be – I always felt very comfortable there.
Ben and his fellow boarders in Camberlot House
Are you still in touch with any old school friends?
I’m in touch with a few people, and am quite close with some of the classmates from Upper Sixth Physics – we meet up every Christmas.
Do you have any fond memories of your teachers?
Nick Abrams arrived at Bede’s at the same time as me [both came to Bede’s from a school in Houston, USA] and, although he didn’t teach me here, he was brilliant at mentoring me beyond lessons, talking through ideas and giving encouragement. Martin Costley was also always there if I was feeling wobbly to lend a hand and give reassurance.
Bill Richards was my Tutor and Maths Teacher, and my experience at school would have been very different without his support. He has a fantastic ‘why not?’ attitude, and the Galactic Challenge wouldn’t have been possible without him.
All of the teachers had the same outlook – their focus was always on the pupils, and how they could help you do well.
How do you think your experience at Bede’s has shaped you today?
At Bede’s, the experience goes beyond teaching – the school’s ethos of developing pupils holistically has a huge impact. I was involved in the Drama department helping behind-the-scenes at productions, which isn’t something I would have done if I didn’t go to school here. There are so many opportunities at your fingertips to try something new, and that really rubbed off on me. Being in such a positive environment has given me the gumption to do things like the Galactic Challenge.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m looking forward to working more on the Galactic Challenge, and hope to build a career in either engineering or business after my degree.
If you would like any further information about the Galactic Challenge, please contact Ben on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top image, left to right: Bill Richards, Ben Laws and Peter Goodyer (Senior School Headmaster)